Stephens, David: Big reveal of War Memorial’s $500m expansion plans – as approval processes continue

David Stephens*

‘Big reveal of War Memorial’s $500m expansion plans – as approval processes continue’, Honest History, 19 November 2019 updated

Update 20 November 2019: Follow-up stories.

Yesterday saw the Prime Minister and others reveal further details of the Australian War Memorial’s $500 million, ten-year expansion program: PM’s speech; speech by War Memorial Council member, Sharon Bown; War Memorial website; Canberra Times; ABC story; Heritage Guardians’ David Stephens on ABC Local Radio Canberra (from mark 3:2:0). The plans were much as had been foreshadowed previously, though again observers might have wondered at how much commitment was on show at a time when a number of formal approval processes have still to be completed.

The expansion now officially carries the label ‘Our Continuing Story’, suggesting that, while the sharp focus of the new space will be on recent wars, the tale being told is the same one that the Memorial has told for more than a century – how well our men and women fight. The ‘fly-through’ inside and out confirms earlier impressions that telling the story requires large open spaces with large technology objects – planes, helicopters and the like – hanging from the ceiling or parked on the floor. The CGI figures wandering through are widely-spaced. The design seems much as before, with the Anzac Hall replacement, if anything, larger. The underground entrance comes from both sides now.

The reports mention in passing that approvals are still to come from the heritage angle and from the National Capital Authority regarding the car parks. Director Nelson mentioned to Senate Estimates on 23 October that the heritage material would be going to the Department of the Environment and Energy ‘[n]ext week’, but the documentation has still not appeared on the Department’s heritage consultation page. The project will also be considered by the Public Works Committee and again by the National Capital Authority.

In a real sense, however, all this consultation is a formality, given the political commitment made by the Prime Minister on 1 November last year – and the nomination of a price tag which – surprise, surprise – was within small change of the price, $500 million, which had been the subject of Canberra gossip for more than six months before that (‘The money and Mr Stokes’). And that price may well have arisen out of a chat between War Memorial Council Chair, Kerry Stokes, and the Prime Minister of the day (Turnbull) or possibly the Treasurer of the day, later Prime Minister (Morrison) – Director Nelson has given both accounts at different times (‘The money and Mr Stokes’). Mr Stokes had given his personal guarantee to the Prime Minister (or perhaps the Treasurer) that the Memorial would not come to the government for more than $500 million. The figure of $500 million arose, Director Nelson told Senate Estimates, from Mr Stokes’ long experience in ‘development, major building and construction in both the public and private sectors’ (pages 104-05 of the Proof Hansard).

We still don’t know definitely what degree of cost assurance had been given to the government in April 2018 (apart from Mr Stokes’ punt at $500 million), on 1 November 2018, when the Prime Minister committed to $498 million, on 21 December 2018, when the Detailed Business Case was delivered to the government, or at a later date, when the first four years of costs were included in the Forward Estimates. If there was cost assurance at 80 per cent, as the Department of Finance rules require for a detailed business case, this still gives the project a 20 per cent chance of costing something more than the budgeted figure. It does seem heroic to be sticking to a figure when, as we see from the announcements yesterday, contracts are just now being awarded for design work. We shall, as they say, see.

Finally, the ABC News clip had Director Nelson re-running a furphy about costing, specifically how none of the money for the expansion is coming from the Veterans’ Affairs budget. This is nonsense and a slippery missing of the point, as we said previously:

Director Nelson said this: ‘not a cent of the money being spent on the memorial is at the expense of veterans and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs budget or the Department of Defence budget’ (page 101 of the Proof Hansard). It is a good rhetorical line, but it glosses over the fact that over 90 per cent of the Veterans’ Affairs budget is taken up with fixed payments – pensions and the like – under legislation; it is locked in. Discretionary money – where there is a choice as to how the money is spent – is a much smaller amount each year. The government has made a choice to spend some of this money for the next nine years on extending the Memorial; it could have chosen instead to spend it directly on veterans, to add to the considerable – but inadequate – sums already spent on veterans’ mental health, transition to civilian employment, and related programs.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and a member of Heritage Guardians, co-ordinating a community campaign against the Memorial extensions.

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