Media roundup on Australian Frontier Wars at the Australian War Memorial: RSL grumbles; united front crumbles

Update 4 November 2022: Honest History/Heritage Guardians analysis of material provided by Memorial under Freedom of Information. ‘War Memorial Council Chair, Dr Brendan Nelson, made some remarks on 29 September about the Memorial’s intentions regarding the Frontier Wars. Since then, confusion has reigned. The Memorial has now missed an opportunity to clarify matters through full disclosure under Freedom of Information.’

Update 22 October 2022: NewsCorp heavyweight journo, Cameron Stewart, analyses in depth the Frontier Wars at the Memorial issue in a long article on page 22 (pdf from our subscription). It has some authoritative quotes from Greg Melick, the grumpiest member of the War Memorial Council, some further remarks from Brendan ‘Boeing’ Nelson, calling in from North America, some sprays from Credlin and Joyce. Plus some quotes from the other side, from Peter Stanley and Henry Reynolds. And from Ministers Keogh and Burney, though those are recycled from earlier. The reader comments are all in one direction – no prizes for guessing which direction that is.

The AWM council debated this question twice this year behind closed doors [says Stewart], with the second meeting in mid-year reaching a majority – but not unanimous agreement – to expand the commemoration of frontier violence in the new Memorial galleries. Insiders say the council’s discussion was prompted by a confluence of several factors, including the expected impact of Perkins’ documentary series and a lobbying campaign from the Memorial’s staff to give greater attention to the issue.

However, Inquirer understands that the expansion of the frontier violence gallery is to be far more modest than many were led to believe after Nelson’s comments last month. There are no plans to create a major new permanent exhibition on frontier violence that would come close to rivalling the prominence given to the World Wars or to Vietnam. In fact, current plans for a new gallery include only a modestly expanded exhibition on frontier violence to sit alongside other colonial conflicts including the Boer War, Sudan, the Maori Wars and the Boxer Rebellion.

“The whole thing has been stuffed up, mainly by the press,” says Melick, who is a member of the AWM Council. “Brendan Nelson didn’t say we were having major new galleries on the frontier wars. He said we will probably do a wider and deeper treatment of it. The RSL doesn’t have a problem with that. But others have taken his comments to mean that the War Memorial will have a major new feature on frontier wars and I can tell you that a major feature on frontier wars will piss off the majority of Australia’s 600,000 veterans.”

David Stephens

Update 20 October 2022 later: Here’s some sources on Kim Beazley, announced as to be appointed to Council of Australian War Memorial from 30 November. (Whether he becomes Chair thereof depends on a vote of the members of the Council.)

A 2009 Beazley speech on Remembrance Day at the War Memorial. Pdf linked to that URL; key paras on p. 7:

Finally a word about frontier wars. Until recently Australian historiography has denied indigenous Australians the dignity of resistance. That factor has always been a part of native American pride. In the mid and late 19th century they had the best light cavalry of the American frontier. Indigenous Australians were skilled guerrilla fighters. Until the New Zealand Wars they largely fought British regiments.

Henry Reynolds’ pioneering work in this area has been picked up by John Coates in his Atlas of Australian Wars. Until the advent of breach loading rifles the military had a hard time of it in those struggles. An Aboriginal warrior could launch half a dozen spears in the time it took to load a ‘brown bess’ and they were effective over much the same distance. Also the sharp-eyed indigenous could see a flintlock engage before the arrival of ball and sound which permitted evasive action.

This memorial’s mandate is foreign wars [not true according to Professor Peter Stanley]. There needs to be, on the basis of consultation with the indigenous people, the creation of interpretation centres and memorials to give more recognition to the frontier wars. That is not part of ANZAC Day but there is room for other commemoration.

SMH story on the above speech. Beazley in 2018 on military service and looking after veterans.

Some remarks Beazley made while Governor of Western Australia 2018-22: talking with Professor Colleen Hayward about Indigenous names; unveiling a statue of Noongar woman Balbuk; on radio talking about First Nations interpretative centre idea and importance to WA of First Australians land claims.

Update 20 October 2022: And so it came to pass. Ministerial media release announces Kim Beazley will be appointed to the War Memorial Council, Brendan Nelson leaving on 30 November. The West (Katina Curtis) picks up the story and has an interesting quote from Mr Beazley:

Veterans Affairs Minister Matt Keogh has backed the decision for deeper recognition of frontier conflicts and said last week the RSL’s national council had not raised any concerns with him.

Mr Beazley declined to comment further on the matter, although indicated he was also supportive of the move.

“Most of what I’d have to say about that I would confine to the council, but I think that the current chairman made a very good presentation on that,” he said.

Update 19 October 2022: Could Kim Beazley be the Chair of the Memorial Council from 2023? James Massola of Nine Newspapers writes again:

Labor elder statesman Kim Beazley’s appointment to the council of the Australian War Memorial is being closely considered by the federal government, with a decision due after current member and outgoing chairman Brendan Nelson steps down in mid-November.

Beazley … is seen by many in the parliamentary Labor Party as the perfect person to take the council spot … [F]ederal government sources, who asked not to be named, told this masthead that Beazley was a strong contender for the top job, given his decades of public service and in-depth knowledge of military history.

Now we have: a date for Nelson’s departure to Boeing; a possible scenario for replacing him as Chair with Beazley – the sequence would be (1) Nelson steps down (2) Beazley appointed to the Council (3) Council elects Beazley as Chair (this was the sequence with Nelson in April); snookering of Greg Melick as a possible Chair.

Observers of a Machiavellian cast might now see some logic behind the reappointment of Tory Tony Abbott to the Council – something about balance, jobs for boys on both sides. If Beazley is the pea the next question will be what stance will he take on Frontier Wars commemoration.

David Stephens


Earlier material on the Australian Wars at the War Memorial: here; here.

James Massola, Nine Newspapers

James Massola of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald has been delving beneath last month’s declaration from War Memorial Council Chair, Brendan Nelson, that the Memorial ‘will have a much broader, much deeper depiction and presentation of the violence committed against Aboriginal people, initially by British, then by pastoralists, then by police and by Aboriginal militia. That will be part of the new galleries.’

Massola’s article speculates on who might become Chair of the Council after Nelson takes off to London in the New Year to try to rescue problem-plagued Boeing International. (The government will appoint a new member to replace Nelson but the Council chooses its own Chair.) Tony Abbott has ruled himself out, none of the other members are stand-outs, but the longest serving member, Army Reserve Major General Greg Melick, a definite contender, is quoted by Massola trying to set the rest of us straight about the Frontier Wars and what the Memorial has decided:

“[T]he chairman [Nelson] has not said we will have a special frontier wars gallery. What he has said is we already mention them and we will mention them in a wider and deeper way than we do now in the new gallery.

“I was not commenting on what the council decided, I was commenting upon what some aspects of the press said we should be doing. And therefore there is no question of me having broken council solidarity.”

Melick had already said any memorial to the Frontier Wars should be somewhere else than the AWM. He is quite right about what Nelson said on 29 September (‘part of the new galleries’) and those who have been expecting a rapid and total change of direction from the Memorial really should think again. Honest History has made a Freedom of Information request to the Memorial for a copy of the Council Minutes including the crucial decision and discussion thereon. As President Reagan famously said, ‘Trust, but verify’.

Massola’s piece also quotes Professor Peter Stanley and Neil James of the Australia Defence Association in support of recognising the Frontier Wars at the AWM.

Paul Daley, Guardian Australia

In other media today, there is Paul Daley of Guardian Australia: ‘The Australian War Memorial’s recent vague commitment to a “much broader, a much deeper depiction” of colonial violence against Indigenous people risks being compromised by an absence of detail and sound historical context’. Which nails the problem nicely. Daley also notes that Nelson and Minister Keogh both avoided using the term ‘Frontier Wars’ and summarises the Memorial’s long-standing attempts to diver attention from the Frontier Wars by focussing instead on Indigenous service in the King’s and Queen’s uniform. Daley sums up what is needed instead:

So, any meaningful shift in the war memorial’s policy on frontier conflict under the Labor government will need to amount to more than acquiring and hanging new artwork in a dedicated space. It must memorialise those 60,000-plus Indigenous people killed on the frontier in the same way as it does the 100,000-plus Australian personnel who died on overseas operations.

In the words of Henry Reynolds, the living Australian historian who has perhaps done more than any other to reveal the extent of Australian frontier violence: “We will certainly know that we are entering a new era when a tomb of an unknown warrior is placed next to the grave of the unknown soldier in the Memorial’s inner sanctum.”

Ethan Floyd, Honi Soit (University of Sydney)

Indigenous writer Floyd reviews Rachel Perkins documentary, The Australian Wars.

The Australian Wars is a crucial milestone in the process of truth-telling [writes Floyd]. Perkins and her team deliver a public reckoning with the means by which the British Empire, and subsequent independent colonial administrations, perpetrated cultural — and, in some cases, actual — genocide against Aboriginal people, undertaking a massive land grab in the process.

Like many other young Aboriginal people, I was born into the twilight years of the “Great Australian Silence”, a period of time in which the dominant narrative of Australian settler-colonialism was sunny tales of overcoming great odds, sustained by hard toil and indomitable will. Educators, historians, politicians, and public servants viewed the history of this continent through rose-tinted glasses; Aboriginal acts of resistance, refusal and warfare were somehow miraculously omitted.

What should happen next? Floyd notes what has come out of the Memorial recently, but concludes:

The “job” of truthfully depicting the realities of colonial violence on the frontier now falls to Blak filmmakers and historians. History — particularly, and upsettingly, recent history — tells us that non-Aboriginal people, groups, and institutions cannot be trusted to tell our stories for us. In The Australian Wars, Perkins reaffirms Aboriginal peoples as the original storytellers and competently challenges the views and perspectives of white Australia.

David Stephens

18 October 2022 updated

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