Stephens, David: ‘Alice in Wonderland’: dissembling and dithering in Senate Estimates

David Stephens*

‘”Alice in Wonderland’: dissembling and dithering in Senate Estimates’, Honest History, 16 June 2023 updated

Update 9 July 2023: See below under ‘And there’s this …’ for our follow-up on one of the War Memorial’s claims.


Senate Estimates are done slowly. First, there is the live video. Then, the next day, if you search diligently through the Australian Parliament website, you can find the recorded video. At this point, there are bits where you say to yourself, ‘Did they really say that?’, or ‘How can they get away with that?’

Then, a week or more later, comes the official Hansard report, where you can actually read what went down. There are stories that past Hansards have been doctored, even saying the exact opposite of the spoken word – for ‘did’, substitute ‘did not’ – but I doubt that anyone bothers doing that with Senate Estimates.

Which underlines what a limp form of accountability Estimates are when there is limited time and inadequate preparation. Absent a Senator Wong or Kim Carr on the questioning side, Estimates are fairly easy for officials to get through, albeit sometimes with red faces and considerable squirming. Or taking questions ‘on notice’, which means a carefully crafted answer lands on the site at some often distant future date.

The final day of May saw officials from the Australian War Memorial have their hour on the stage. Some matters covered are listed below (page numbers shown are from the draft Hansard for 31 May for the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee).

Update 13 November 2023: Senator Canavan asked a question on notice of the Memorial and it has now replied at length. The answer included this sentence: ‘Mr Anderson does not confirm there is no evidence that no forces fought against the Indigenous population’. Honest History will give a prize to any reader who can come up with a plausible explanation of what this sentence actually means. If there is a Humphrey Appleby Shrine for unhelpful gobbledegook this sentence deserves a plaque of its own.

Mostly Senator Canavan, NATS, Qld (pp 108-15)

Colonial-raised military forces

The Senator seized upon two previous Estimates hearings where War Memorial Director Anderson had given evidence about the use of colonial-raised military forces against Indigenous people. (Our earlier report of this matter is in the footnote below.**)  

Senator CANAVAN: Hang on. Now I’m a little bit confused. You’re saying that you had a paper presented to the council in August last year. You presumably read that paper and reviewed that paper. At two estimates since then, I’ve asked you this question and you said, ‘We don’t have any evidence of homegrown military units fighting against the Indigenous population.’ Now you’re coming here and telling me that you’ve got a different view based on a paper that was prepared last August—which you had different conclusions from at the last two estimates. Can you explain? That’s perplexing me a little bit.
Mr Anderson: We know more. We continue to know more. Of course it’s not only what’s in the council paper. It’s in the books that are published almost on a monthly basis. We know more about the nature of the violence in—
Senator CANAVAN: Aren’t you just changing your tune—
Mr Anderson: No.
Senator CANAVAN: to suit the narrative today? What extra evidence have you reviewed since August last year to reach a different conclusion?
Mr Anderson: It’s the weight of evidence over time. Books are published almost monthly on this topic by very, very credentialled institutions and academics, and they continue to point to that and continue to discover— …

The Senator and the Director discussed a specific example of colonial-raised forces, Macquarie’s loyal associations.

Senator CANAVAN: Was this evidence in the August paper?
Mr Anderson: Yes, it was in the paper that—
Senator CANAVAN: So why didn’t you mention that at the last two estimates?
Mr Anderson: It was in the paper that you had, Senator.
Senator CANAVAN: I asked you a direct question, and you said there was no evidence that homegrown military units fought against Indigenous peoples, and now you’re saying the exact opposite.
Mr Anderson: That’s the evidence, Senator.
Senator CANAVAN: Why didn’t you correct the record, then? You gave evidence to a parliamentary committee which was, on your own evidence today, misleading, and you didn’t think to correct the record to the committee—before I asked you questions? If I hadn’t asked you questions tonight, it would have stayed where it’s at. Why didn’t you correct the record?
Mr Anderson: I think the council’s position on this and the memorial’s position on this, as I said, continues to evolve as we know more, as we engage more, as we engage with academics. As we engage in the process of the memorial, we continue to discover more, and the memorial is a living, breathing organisation. But it must be said—you say ‘over time’—that certainly since 1986 the Australian War Memorial has depicted frontier violence in its galleries. (pages 110-11)

Sorry, dear reader, for the long extract. It could not, however be more excruciating to read than it was to watch.

‘I feel like I’m in Alice in Wonderland, where words don’t mean what I think they mean’, said Senator Canavan (page 111) before moving on to other matters. You and me both, Senator.


Update 10 July: Professor Peter Stanley, former Principal Historian at the Memorial, writes, with particular reference to Mr Anderson’s claim at previous Estimates hearings, quoted above by Senator Canavan, ‘We don’t have any evidence of homegrown military units fighting against the Indigenous population’, to which Mr Anderson had responded, ‘We know more. We continue to know more. Of course it’s not only what’s in the council paper. It’s in the books that are published almost on a monthly basis’:

As a member of the AWM’s staff, in February 1981 I presented a paper at an AWM History Conference (entitled “While Acting Under Orders”, dealing with the 1838 Slaughterhouse Creek massacre), which showed that the Mounted Police, a British Army unit, raised in Sydney in 1825, had operated against Indigenous resistance, and it was an 1852 depiction of this action (Slaughterhouse Creek) which was displayed (uncaptioned) in the Memorial’s old “colonial” gallery from 1986.

I included this argument in my book, The Remote Garrison: the British Army in Australia, published in 1986. In 1988, the Memorial itself published a book, Australia: Two Centuries of War and Peace, which included a chapter by Richard Broome on “The struggle for Australia” which included a reproduction of the 1852 engraving. The chapter also referred to the formation of Native Mounted Police, which in all but narrow legalism constituted a military force raised in Australia which operated against Aborigines in several colonies: how would they also not meet the definition in the Act?

Works in the flood of research published on the Australian Wars confirms this reading, something which the Memorial could easily have checked had it been bothered. It is therefore clear that Mr Anderson’s claim that the Memorial had only just learned that units formed in Australia operated against Indigenous resistance is simply untrue. The Memorial had literally had forty years to absorb this point, one that I have made repeatedly in public comments of which memorial officers must have been aware.

It is disingenuous at best and mendacious at worst for Mr Anderson to claim that he now knows more because of books published “almost on a monthly basis”. The Memorial has for literally decades ignored historical facts which undermined and refuted its repeated claims that frontier conflict could not be recognised under the Act because no units formed in Australia prosecuted conflict against Indigenous resistance.


Legal advice

There was also much to-ing and fro-ing about legal advice the Memorial had or had not taken on the ambit of its role in relation to Frontier Wars. It did not add markedly to responses to Senator Canavan at previous Estimates.

What will we see – eventually?

On what exhibits will be put into the redeveloped Memorial, here is something from the opening remarks of Director Anderson:

I will also revisit the depiction of our First Nations people and how we contribute to the nation’s truth-telling. Obviously, it continues to be a matter of debate. The place for the War Memorial in the national narrative will be determined after the gallery teams are stood up in late 2024 or early 2025, but, as with our modern veterans, I can only reassure you that we’ll tell our part of the story with dignity and respect. (page 108)

The link between frontier violence and wearing the King’s or Queen’s uniform

Despite the undertakings of Memorial Council Chair Kim Beazley about future ‘substantial’ coverage of the Frontier Wars (see the material on our home page under the heading ‘Frontier Wars retreat at the War Memorial’), Memorial management still seems keen to constrain the treatment by looking at whether frontier violence survivors went on to fight in the King’s or Queen’s uniform. The story of Private William Punch, a violence survivor and Indigenous soldier of the Great War ‘not only speaks’, said the Director, ‘to the fact of frontier violence but also speaks to the fact that there are those subjected to it who then went on to serve in the Australian Defence Force’ (page 110).

That is no advance on what the Director told Rachel Perkins in 2021: ‘What we seek to do is to tell the story of frontier violence in the way in which it affected the men and the women who joined the Australian Imperial Forces and went away’ (The Australian Wars, episode 3, mark 57.00). It again raises the question whether the Memorial will only recognise and commemorate the Frontier Wars to the extent that they can be linked to later uniformed service.

Consultation groups do not include historians

The Director did confirm to Senator Canavan that the Frontier Wars is a priority topic for consultation with the Memorial’s advisory groups. ‘We have an Indigenous advisory group, a veterans advisory group, a youth advisory group, a culturally and linguistically diverse cultural group, and an accessibility group.’ (page 114) No historians advisory group in that list.

Squeezing the Frontier Wars in with those other old wars

Senator Shoebridge also took up the Frontier Wars question briefly and elicited this response from the Director following a brief exchange about the Waterloo (Slaughterhouse) Creek massacre of 1838:

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: We can talk of case after case, but at the Waterloo Massacre, in my home state in 1838, 50 members of the Gamilaraay nation were massacred by New South Wales Mounted Police under Major James Nunn. That’s the kind of frontier violence and frontier wars that Geoffrey Blainey was referencing 40 years ago and that the War Memorial, appropriately, thinks should be acknowledged, isn’t it?
Mr Anderson: The massacre is an interesting one. Over time, the specific example that you give with regard to police and police actions, while they’re still violence—
Senator SHOEBRIDGE: They’re agents of the Crown, armed agents of the Crown, armed forces—
Mr Anderson: Correct. These are all the things we’re working our way through and they’re all the things that we’ll be taking advice on. The position of the Memorial is that in the pre-1914 galleries there will be an expanded treatment of these very issues when we stand the gallery teams up and, most importantly, when we open the galleries in 2028. (page 118; emphasis added)

That response is no advance on the Memorial’s previous position about space allocation in the redeveloped Memorial. We still look like having the Frontier Wars in the same gallery as the expeditions to the New Zealand Wars, the Sudan, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Boer War. And, dear reader, if those names mean nothing to you that is because, by comparison with the Frontier Wars, they were minor episodes.

Mostly Senator White, ALP, VIC (pp. 115-17)

The Senator asked about pay rates for the Memorial’s casual front-of-house staff compared with those under the Public Service Act. (The former are paid less.) There was a push in a number of Estimates Committees on this labour hire issue. Senator Shoebridge also touched on the matter.

Senator Ciccone, Chair, ALP, VIC (p. 117)

The Senator asked how the Memorial’s redevelopment project was proceeding.

CHAIR: Just quickly, I have a couple of questions with respect to the War Memorial’s redevelopment. Are you able to provide an update of the status of the development project? In particular, is it running on time?
Mr Hitches: We are well advanced now with the three main packages, and we are certainly still on time and on budget …
CHAIR: Is the project on budget?
Mr Hitches: Yes, it is.

CHAIR: Can you explain why there’s been a movement of funds from this year to future financial years?
Mr Hitches: That is the input of funding into the memorial. The expenditure funding has not significantly changed. That is just in line of the program to deliver the works.

Executive Director (Development) Hitches really should have got more of a grilling than that. All it needed was for someone, perhaps Senator Ciccone himself, to have read Steve Evans’ article in the Canberra Times five days earlier, which referred to the slippage of equity injections and quoted someone at the Memorial talking about a ‘revised construction schedule’.

The Senator could have asked: How can the project be both ‘on time and on budget’ and working to ‘a revised construction schedule’? He could also have asked: What do you mean by those words ‘in line of the program to deliver the works’? Are you saying there is not in fact a ‘revised construction schedule’?

Such an exchange would have been fun. As Senator Canavan said, ‘Alice in Wonderland’!

Senator Shoebridge, GREENS, NSW (pp. 118-22)

The Senator questioned the Memorial’s past dealings with its donor Boeing and precipitated some bizarre business about making copies available of small bits of big documents. It looked unedifying on the screen and no better in the Hansard. It was very late at night but, as with Senate Estimates generally, there must be a better way.

To come – possibly

We’ll have a look at the current list of Questions on Notice from this Committee to check if there are any hidden gems there.

And there’s this …

Director Anderson said (page 113), ‘The depiction of frontier violence was in the new First World War galleries that were opened in 2013 and 2014’. Really? We didn’t notice that in our reviews of the then new galleries in 2015 (here and here) but perhaps we missed something or perhaps something has been added since. We’re checking.

Update 9 July 2023: The results of our check.

We emailed to the Memorial on 16 June:

Good morning


Referring particularly to the final para:

And there’s this …

Director Anderson said (page 113), ‘The depiction of frontier violence was in the new First World War galleries that were opened in 2013 and 2014’. Really? We didn’t notice that in our reviews of the then new galleries in 2015 (here and here) but perhaps we missed something or perhaps something has been added since. We’re checking.

would appreciate your advice of where and how frontier violence is depicted in the First World War galleries at the Memorial, and photograph(s) if possible. We will publish without amendment any response received.

David Stephens

Editor, Honest History

The Memorial responded on 5 July (STEPHENS David Frontier violence FWW galleries). The response is reprinted below (with typoes as in original):


Mr Matt Anderson PSM

04 July 2023

Dr David Stephens
Dear Dr Stephens,

Thank you for your correspondence dated 16 June 2023 in relation to frontier violence at the Australian War Memorial.

You requested details of the depicition of frontier violence in the First World War galleries following statements at Senate Estimates. Frontier violence is told through the story of Private William Joseph Punch. Private Punch was taken in by a foster following following the murder of his family through frontier violence. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force at Goulburn on 31 December 1915. Many stories and themes are told in the galleries through the lens of a personal experience.

This personal story has subsequently been supplemented with artworks by Indigeous artists at both entry/exit points to the First World War galleries. The Anangu Pitjanjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands painting is in a prominent near the orientation desk and Ascot landing boat. This painting is titled Kulatangku angakanyini manta munu Tjukurpa [Country and Culture will be protected by spears]. The second painting is the well known Ruby Plains Massacre 1 by Rover Thomas. This painting was relocated in order to keep it on display during the Development works. As the focus of the gallery is the First World War rather than frontier violence, other individual stories of Indigenous service are as they relate to that conflict.

The galleries that will display frontier violence as a conflict will be designed as part of the Development process. Work for this gallery will commence in late 2024 with an expected opening in mid-2028. As you are aware, we have committed to a broader and deeper depiction than previously portrayed.

Yours sincerely,


Leanne Patterson
Acting Director

More on this: We asked Professor Peter Stanley to check out the World War I gallery. His report.

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

** An extract from our post:

According to Memorial Deputy Director, retired Major General Brian Dawson, Agenda Paper 178 ‘was first submitted to the [Memorial] council’ in August 2021 (Estimates, 8 November 2022, p. 36). Without another FOI claim, we do not know whether the August 2021 version of Agenda Paper 178 also contained the information about colonial-raised forces, including military forces.

Whether the August 2021 version contained that information or not, the August 2022 version clearly did. It seems clear that the Director’s evidence on 8 November 2022 to Estimates did not reflect the advice he signed off to the Memorial Council in the August 2022 version. That is a cause for concern. It suggests the Memorial needs to take more care with history.



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