‘Frontier Wars retreat at the Australian War Memorial: September 2022-September 2023’, Honest History, 27 September 2023 updated
Friday this week, 29 September, is the first anniversary of a remark by the then Chair of the Australian War Memorial Council, Dr Brendan Nelson, that the Memorial was committed to a much broader, much deeper depiction of the Australian Frontier Wars. Since September 2022, progress has been difficult to detect.
Truth-telling should accompany the Voice, whether that Voice is achieved by a change to the Constitution or by legislation. A central part of truth-telling should address the Frontier Wars and what they did to First Nations people – and, in a rather different way, what they did to settler-invader Australians.
For some time, Honest History’s home page has included a link to our summary of the period since September last year. The document below is an update.
*David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and a member of Defending Country Memorial Project Inc.
Frontier Wars retreat at the War Memorial
This document follows the history of the Australian War Memorial’s approach to the Australian Frontier Wars. It covers the period September 2022 to September 2023. The material was collected on the Honest History website (honesthistory.net.au). Most of it originally appeared in the mainstream media or was our analysis of Senate Estimates hearings.
Our first post on 29 September 2022 noted the encouraging remarks of then Memorial Council Chair, Brendan Nelson (the Council had decided the Memorial would provide a much broader, much deeper depiction of the Frontier Wars) and the follow-up from others, including scepticism from Council member and RSL national president, Major General Greg Melick. We suggested all should wait and see what came next. Our analysis of later media reports encouraged us to remain cautious. More of the same.
The Memorial missed an opportunity at Senate Estimates in November to provide some clarity. Meanwhile, Chair Nelson was packing his bags for London and a new job with Boeing, and new Chair, Kim Beazley, was preparing to take up the baton.
Henry Reynolds and Rachel Perkins, long-time advocates of change at the Memorial, tried to sound hopeful. Honest History, however, was more sceptical on the basis of close analysis of what the Memorial had said at Estimates and since. Early in December, we started to say the Memorial was ‘running away’ from the Frontier Wars, even as Mr Beazley made his first tentative remarks as Chair. More analysis of November Estimates.
We tracked Mr Beazley’s successive media appearances, as he gradually refined his position and moved to support for the Memorial giving ‘substantial’ coverage to the Frontier Wars and giving Indigenous people ‘the dignity of resistance’. More of the same. We pointed out that the Chair now had the task of bringing others along with him – apart from people like us, who supported him.
The question remained, though, what did ‘substantial’ mean, particularly as there was ample evidence that Memorial management was not singing from the same sheet as the Chair? Indeed, Memorial management admitted that it expected to devote very little more space to the Frontier Wars after the redevelopment than it had before, and that space would, as before, be shared with four late 19th century military expeditions in support of Queen Victoria.
Early in May, in an answer to a Senator’s question, Memorial management doubled down on the minimal change scenario: the area to be devoted to the Frontier Wars would be 410 square metres in the post redevelopment Memorial and this area would be shared with displays on other ‘pre-1914’ conflicts, meaning the contingents that went to the New Zealand Wars, the Sudan, the Boxer Rebellion and the Boer War. The co-location was just as it had been in the ‘old’ Memorial, the amount of space was just 25 square metres greater. (The Memorial’s own figures show that just 2.3 per cent of its gallery space after the redevelopment will be taken up by the Frontier Wars – and New Zealand, the Sudan, the Boxer Rebellion and the Boer War.)
Four weeks later, at May Senate Estimates, Memorial management stuck to its guns, amid accusations that its Frontier Wars evidence to previous Estimates had been misleading – or at least showed a lack of awareness of history and of the briefings it had received from its own historians. This Estimates hearing was uncomfortable, even by the high standards of that venue.
A hint of the reasons for this embarrassing situation emerged in a media report of a difference of view between Chair Beazley and the Council’s September decision, on the one hand, and Major General Melick of the Council and the RSL, on the other. We had already written about the ‘credibility gap’ at the Memorial on the Frontier Wars; it now seemed to be personified as Beazley vs Melick. More on this aspect.
The Major General argued the Memorial should stick to portraying uniformed soldiers, like those who went to New Zealand, the Sudan, China, and South Africa from 1860 to 1900 to defend Queen Victoria’s Empire. The Chair presumably maintained the line he had been pursuing for the first months of the year (giving non-uniformed Indigenous warriors ‘the dignity of resistance’), although by August he was less inclined to say so publicly. (The judgement in early June in the Roberts-Smith case created a separate set of – presumably time-consuming – problems for the Memorial and its Council.)
Honest History and the members of the new Defending Country Memorial Project Inc. thought Beazley should ask Melick to resign. We told Beazley – and the Minister – just this and Beazley replied with an unsigned letter saying that what mattered was Council decisions; individual Council members were free to spruik their own views. Honest History thought this could lead to awkward situations, with potentially all 13 Council members having licence to freelance.
Meanwhile, Memorial Director Anderson, perhaps reflecting dissension on the Council, had reverted to an earlier position that the Memorial was primarily interested in the Frontier Wars in terms of how Indigenous soldiers affected by, say, massacres had still gone on to wear the Queen’s uniform. This seemed to Honest History to be a regrettable backward step and we said so.
Way back in April 2023, we had written to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Mr Keogh, to keep him abreast of events. After much agitation on our part, we received a reply five months later, from the Minister’s office, referring to an offer by Mr Beazley in March to meet with us. We found the letter puzzling in part, but wrote to Mr Beazley, proposing a meeting.
Update 17 November 2023: Answers to Senate Estimates questions on notice (in Hansard from late September 2023) took observers behind the scenes at the War Memorial. Our article analysed the draft and confirmed Minutes of the War Memorial Council meeting of 19 August 2022. Our media release summarised: ‘The analysis shows how far the Memorial has retreated from a commitment in September 2022 by its then Council Chair, Dr Brendan Nelson, for a “much broader, much deeper depiction and presentation of frontier violence”, how it has misused the Freedom of Information process to conceal and mislead, and how its Council has become divided on an issue where it had the chance to lead Australians to a new understanding of our history.’
From 17 November 2023, further updates to this post can be found on Defending Country, Honest History’s new associate website.