Holbrook, Carolyn, Frank Bongiorno & Michelle Arrow: The Australian War Memorial must deal properly with the frontier wars

Carolyn Holbrook, Frank Bongiorno & Michelle Arrow, ‘The Australian War Memorial must deal properly with the frontier wars‘, The Conversation, 24 April 2023

The authors note the recent efforts of War Memorial Council Chair, Kim Beazley, and the resistance provoked. (For this, see the material on our home page under the heading ‘Frontier Wars retreat at the War Memorial’.)

Aside from claiming that frontier violence sits outside the memorial’s governing legislation, opponents routinely deride the issue as a “woke” preoccupation.

They might be surprised to learn it was the conservative historian Geoffrey Blainey who suggested more than 40 years ago that what he termed “irregular warfare” between Indigenous and settler Australians be depicted in the memorial.

While the Australian War Memorial dissembled, historical research consolidated the claim that there had indeed been a violent and sustained conflict on the frontier that should be understood as warfare.

There has been the work of Jeffrey Gray, Stephen Gapps, Ray Kerkhove, the University of Newcastle and, most recently, Rachel Perkins.

The authors look at the Memorial’s pusillanimous space allocations.

The war memorial is still apparently committed to the idea that the frontier wars, if they are to be acknowledged as wars at all, were some kind of distant and unrelated prehistory to Anzac.

There is a need for serious research, reflection and discussion on how to create a gallery worthy of the gravity and tragedy of the frontier wars.

The authors conclude with the strong link between Truth-telling under the Voice and properly recognising the Frontier Wars at the Memorial.

The story of frontier warfare is another powerful – and arguably alternative [to Anzac] – foundation story. It tells us Australia was built on invasion, dispossession and violence, and that the nation can only ever approach authenticity and wholeness once it gives a proper recognition to this reality.

As we prepare to head to a referendum later this year to vote on the proposal for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, it is worth remembering that the Voice is the proposed first stage in a three-step process: Voice, Treaty, Truth.

For the Australian War Memorial to include meaningful exhibits about the wars that were fought on this land would be a powerful act of truth-telling in service of the nation.

Disclosure: Carolyn Holbrook was a committee member of the Honest History Association, Frank Bongiorno was President of the association, and Michelle Arrow launched The Honest History Book in Sydney in 2017.

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