Recent media reports on the Australian War Memorial big build and related matters, especially the Australian Frontier Wars

The Honest History website has been partly out of action for a while due to a technical issue (and illness among our army of Honest History elves and their nearest and dearest), but the hiatus gave us a chance to collate some fairly recent media. Paraphrases and a few quotes below.

Honest History elf

3CR Melbourne Wednesday Breakfast

3CR Melbourne (Claudia Craig) interviewed David Stephens, 9 November (from about mark 9.30) with a particular focus on how the Memorial deals with the Australian Frontier Wars (from mark 14.00 or so). The Memorial has tended, said Stephens, to recognise Indigenous warriors only to the extent that they provide ‘context’ or role models for Indigenous soldiers fighting in the King’s or Queen’s uniform.

What is the difference, however, between Indigenous warriors defending Country versus settler-invaders and Indigenous soldiers fighting in uniform since 1901, allegedly to defend their country Australia? But winding back has begun and ‘modest’ is the new word for what is going to happen at the Memorial. ‘Modest’ is an insult, particularly when compared with the bluster of Memorial Chair Nelson on 29 September about the Memorial aiming at ‘a much broader, much deeper depiction and presentation of frontier violence’ (More on the winding back.)

Commemoration is the key – not just depiction and presentation – if the place is really a Memorial. Work on the Memorial to persuade it beyond pusillanimity* on the Frontier Wars at the Memorial should continue alongside lobbying for Voice, Treaty, Truth-telling. These issues can be pursued simultaneously. We should look at Closing the Commemorative Gap. The Frontier Wars are a foundational part of our history, and we need to confront that in the Memorial – and in the schools and everywhere else where ‘the Great Australian Silence’ has prevailed.

ABC Late Night Live

Phillip Adams on ABC LNL spoke with Rachel (The Australian Wars) Perkins on 10 November. We were particularly interested in what Perkins said about the War Memorial, given the 2021 interview with Director Anderson, which was a highlight of the final moments of the third episode of the doco. Listen from mark 31.50 for about two minutes (though the whole 38 minute interview repays close attention, just as the doco did). Perkins said she tried to respectfully engage with the Memorial during the making of the doco. She recognised the Director’s difficult position in being bound by Council policy but his willingness to co-operate with the filmmakers. ‘We’ve recently seen a change in that [Council] policy, which is so welcome’. (More on that elsewhere in this note.)

Sorting out Ngurra on The Australian

Craig Ritchie, Director of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), shot down on 14 November in The Australian a kite flown recently by Brendan (Boeing and the War Memorial) Nelson. In his capacity as soon-to-depart Chair of the Memorial Council, Nelson had said, not for the first time, that the proposed $316 million Ngurra Cultural Precinct in Canberra should not just be a keeping place for First Nations bones whose Country was unknown or still to be determined, but also a ‘sacred ossuary’ (room full of bones), and a tomb of an unknown First Nations warrior to balance the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier on the other side of Lake Burley Griffin.

Contra, Ritchie said, Ngurra was not intended as a ‘Black Arlington’. That was culturally inappropriate. ‘[I]t’s not a burial place. It’s not [going to be] … the black equivalent of the Arlington National Cemetery and it’s not a place where ancestors will be buried. No one will be interred.’ So much for Dr Nelson’s parting shot as he takes off for the big job with Boeing in London.

War Memorial publicity machine rumbles into gear on the ABC

ABC TV Canberra took up an invitation from the War Memorial for a tour of the big build in progress – and gave Heritage Guardians a quick cameo in a 1 min 40 sec TV spot on the News on 18 November and in the written report on the ABC website. The ABC mostly accepted the Memorial’s line that the big issue was whether the build was ‘value for money’.

David Stephens for Heritage Guardians tried to put the view, instead, that the caravan had moved on from arguments pro and con the development, given that the Memorial site was now surrounded by a set of dirty big holes. The need now was to focus on what exhibits went into the acres of new space, particularly on whether the Memorial was fair dinkum about the Frontier Wars. That argument of ours didn’t survive the cutting room floor.

ABC Canberra Radio Drive tries harder

ABC Drive interviewed David Stephens on 18 November and covered a slightly broader range of questions in a longer slot (from about mark 41.00), including whether the Memorial is for real about the future depiction of the Frontier Wars. We briefly repeated the same arguments against the project, even though the project has been inevitable since November 2018. We further noted the retreat on Frontier Wars from ‘broader’ and ‘deeper’ to ‘modest’ (see above). More on that coming with our analysis of the Estimates hearing (see below).

We made the point also that it would be a bigger tribute to recent conflicts to make hard choices about replacing for a time the displays that are now on the Memorial floor with new displays about recent conflicts (for example, put Colonial Conflicts in storage and replace it with Afghanistan). By comparison, building more and more space is less of a tribute to those who served in recent wars.

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress; first built in 1935 (Wikipedia)

Senate Estimates

Meanwhile, Senate Estimates on the War Memorial seems not to have been reported by the mainstream media – apart from the good coverage on SBS (but our analysis is coming shortly).

*Pusillanimity: not a word we use often but it is apt here. It means ‘lack of courage or determination; timidity’. It comes from Latin words meaning ‘puny’ and ‘spirit’. Not what you’d expect in a war memorial.

David Stephens

23 November 2022

David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and has been convener of the Heritage Guardians community campaign against the War Memorial big build.


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