Stephens, David: Getting the story straight: Senate Estimates hears from War Memorial on Afghanistan, extensions, and other matters

David Stephens*

‘Getting the story straight: Senate Estimates hears from War Memorial on Afghanistan, extensions, and other matters’, Honest History, 6 April 2021 updated

The Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade spent just 28 minutes on the evening of 24 March questioning officers of the War Memorial (Director Matt Anderson and Executive Project Director Wayne Hitches) on a number of subjects. Honest History has noted previously (submission No. 14, para 32) that Senators tend not to spend much time on the Memorial nor press it hard. We have speculated whether it is ‘the Anzac cloak‘ that shields the place and gives it an easy run in the accountability stakes. Maybe it’s just the compressed time-frame and the fact that the Memorial often makes its Estimates appearances just after dinner.

Whatever the answer to that question, the Proof Hansard is now available, with the Memorial’s effort commencing at page 105 of the pdf. Hansard extracts are below with Honest History’s comments interpolated in bold italics. The video of the Memorial’s appearance is here (from mark 20.45); some of the body language and sidelong glances are instructive.

Afghanistan

Senator STEELE-JOHN: The Afghanistan exhibit within the memorial is a significant part of the memorial. I’m just wondering, given the context of what has now been revealed, in relation to our time in Afghanistan and what has been uncovered in the Brereton report, what, if any, modifications have you made to the exhibit or exhibits to add that additional piece of contextual information?

Mr Anderson: The memorial’s position on the Brereton inquiry is that, at this stage, it’s the start of a process. We have not put anything up. We have not taken anything down. For people who wish to gain access to the redacted version of the Breton [sic] report, they can do that through our research centre. That’s the extent of it, at this stage, because it is the start of a process.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: I totally understand, Mr Anderson. But I would have thought that just the existence of the Brereton report may have warranted its inclusion somewhere in the exhibit. These are serious allegations, as you know. If they are corroborated, they will be the most serious war crimes our country has ever been involved in, arguably, since the colonisation of the continent. Is there not any mention of it anywhere, unless you go and look at it online in the archive?

Mr Anderson: I think it’s important to note that the War Memorial is three things. It’s the archive, it’s the memorial and it’s the museum component. So something being—

Senator STEELE-JOHN: In the exhibit, I meant.

Mr Anderson: The exhibit, right now, is a very small exhibition. The Afghanistan section—I know you note the significance of the conflict, but one of the reasons we need to develop it is that the Afghan exhibit is currently in an exit corridor. There have been no changes to the current exhibit, and, as they are only allegations, at this stage, there is no intention of changing that. It’s a question, ultimately—I would imagine, because of the time that’s likely to pass—for the new galleries, but the memorial’s position on this is we have not put anything up and we have not taken anything down. What I am determined to do is to make sure that we honour the service and sacrifice of a generation of service men and women who have served in Afghanistan with courage and distinction. But, ultimately, we will tell the truth whatever that truth is. (pages 106-07; emphasis added)

Mr Anderson made further comments along similar lines in response to Senators Fierravanti-Wells and Kitching.

Comment: Honest History previously reported the response – by shock jock Ben Fordham, followed by Prime Minister Morrison, followed by the War Memorial Council – to remarks by Mr Anderson on how the Memorial would deal with Afghanistan following Brereton. It is worth another read.

As for spatial constraints on the Memorial, the ‘exit corridor’ where the Afghanistan exhibit is located is actually quite spacious, as the plan below shows. There’s also a lot of space on that floor which is not well-patronised by visitors (Colonial Conflicts, Reg Saunders Gallery, Special Exhibitions Gallery, to a lesser extent). (DS for HH)

AWM Maps of the Memorial

Update 13 April 2021: There is also, of course, the Alex Seton ‘As of Today’ work, 42 ceramic sculptures of flags to commemorate the Australian dead in Afghanistan. That work is located one floor up from the main Afghanistan exhibition and it is indeed to be found in a corridor leading to the Memorial shop. So, parts of the Memorial’s collection relating to Afghanistan are in two places: the wide space; the corridor.

It would have been correct for the Director to have said, ‘part of the Afghan exhibit is currently in an exit corridor’. He could have added, ‘that exhibit is very popular in that location and many visitors stop and place poppies above the flags’.

In a Canberra Times piece on 10 April, there appeared this paragraph, presumably paraphrasing remarks of the Director during an interview:

The memorial’s exhibits on Australia’s most recent military operations are confined to small sections of the institution, which faces a shortage of space for new displays. Its presentation on Australia’s longest military engagement, the war in Afghanistan, is limited to an exit corridor. (emphasis added)

The bolded words in  both the Hansard extract and the Canberra Times extract are clearly not correct and HH has drawn them to the attention of both the Canberra Times and the Director. (DS for HH)

Extensions

Anzac Hall: demolition and construction

Director Anderson noted the decisions of Minister Sussan Ley under the heritage provisions of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act and the parliament on the Public Works Committee report. He went on to refer to the Anzac Hall demolition and preparations for it:

[Mr Anderson:] I just stress that we have not and we will not start any construction related activity without the necessary approvals in place. But, in order to be ready if and when the NCA grant us necessary planning approvals, at the end of March the memorial will commence the process of slowly and very carefully removing 963 objects from Anzac Hall to ensure their protection and conservation. This process will take three months, and it is of course entirely reversible if we’re not granted the necessary approvals. (page 105; emphasis added)

Comment: So, that seems to mean there will no work on building a new Anzac Hall within the three months that it takes to remove all those objects. But the current ‘early works’ application is not for construction but for demolition, and an NCA decision on this application will not come down before 30 April. The intention is to then bring in four ‘main works’ applications, one of which covers building a new Anzac Hall (Planning Report, p. 6). For more on timing, see Mr Hitches under sub-heading below, ‘National Capital Authority consultation: different hymn sheets?’

Some questions are begged. Is demolition ‘construction related’? Might there be some demolition going on while objects are still being removed? Might demolition commence before the NCA approves construction? Or does ‘entirely reversible’ mean that the building has to remain in place to house the removed objects – on the off-chance that they have to be put back – until all possible approvals have been received? It would have been nice if Senators had asked some of these questions.

Approval process, particularly regarding the Australian Heritage Council

Senator Steele-John asked Mr Hitches some questions about the Public Works Committee inquiry and Mr Hitches said he would provide further information on notice. He also spoke about the Memorial’s survey methodology and results in relation to the extensions and about its consultation with the community and interest groups, including about what exhibits would be housed in the extensions.

There was a bit of thrust and parry about the advice given by the Australian Heritage Council, the government’s principal advisory body on heritage matters:

Senator STEELE-JOHN: The Australian Heritage Council advises the government, obviously, on heritage matters and is chaired currently by the Hon. Dr David Kemp AC, a former cabinet minister. In its recent submission to the memorial, under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, its submission included this reference:

‘Regrettably the council cannot support the conclusion that the proposed redevelopment will not have a serious impact on the listed heritage values of the site and recommends that the matters above be given serious attention.’

Do you regard this advice as wrong?

Mr Hitches: Any of those items that were put to us we have respond to in your [sic] final preliminary documentation, which went back and is available on the website and addresses the questions that came to us.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: So you feel that they have been satisfactorily addressed do you?

Mr Hitches: We believe that they’ve been addressed, yes, to our satisfaction and hopefully to the satisfaction of the submitters, but I can’t speak to that.

Mr Anderson: If I can add, as a consequence of the EPBC process and the submissions that came in, in our response there were more than 50 changes that were made to the documentation, including in response to the particular report [sic] that you mentioned. So they were taken very, very seriously and responded to as part of our final preliminary documentation. (pages 107-08)

Comment: The Australian Heritage Council (AHC) submission to the Memorial on the EPBC Act heritage process is here. The changes the Memorial made in response to public input can be found in its Final Preliminary Documentation and the Minister’s decision contained 29 ‘conditions of approval’. Most of these changes are trivial or unremarkable; the key elements of the design were largely unaffected. The Minister’s decision does not mention the AHC criticism. (DS for HH)

Heritage Management Plan – and Anzac Hall again

Senator Kitching asked about the Memorial’s Heritage Management Plan and how it related to the proposed demolition of Anzac Hall:

[Senator KITCHING:] I want to ask you about your heritage management plan, which I understand has to be renewed every five years. Do you have one? Has it been renewed? I understand you had one in 2011. Have you renewed it? How is that impacting on the new development that you’re doing?

Mr Anderson: We do have a heritage management plan. We were seeking to update it at the same time as we were seeking to go through the EPBC process. The advice I understand from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment was to concentrate on—

Mr Hitches: I can add to that. Currently we are still operating under the 2011 plan. There was potentially a 2019 plan but, because the submission under the EPBC Act was going at the same time, the advice was to hold back to make sure that that process finalised under that current plan and then submit the revised plan. That’s going through its final edits at the moment. I can’t give you an exact time, but it’s in its final throes, so it will go in shortly.

Senator KITCHING: Was that advice from the department?

Mr Hitches: Yes. (page 109)

Comment: Heritage Guardians has an FOI claim in with the department, asking whether the above is the case. The draft 2019 plan was circulated in 2019 It recommended Anzac Hall’s ‘important architectural qualities’ be ‘respected’ and any future change be ‘sympathetic to the heritage values’ of the Memorial. One assumes that those will not be the words in the final ‘2019’ plan, when it eventually emerges in 2021. Instead, there will be words like those below from Mr Hitches; in other words, the document which is supposed to manage heritage is itself to be managed.

Finally, note that the EPBC Act section 341X says Heritage Management Plans are meant to be reviewed at least every five years. The new plan will be five years late. (DS for HH)

Senator KITCHING: The heritage management plan that’s on foot I guess states that Anzac Hall forms part of the site’s heritage significance and must be protected. How is that being accommodated in the redevelopment project?

Mr Hitches: The replacement of Anzac Hall was put forward as a positive. There is a negative impact, but overall the positive impact was seen to be sufficient in the final heritage assessment of the site.

Senator KITCHING: Can you give me some of the positive feedback and the negative feedback?

Mr Hitches: As far as positive feedback, the increase in size to allow us to tell the stories and give that additional space for galleries close to the heart of the memorial and with direct contact to the heritage part of the memorial is seen as a very positive item. The removal of Anzac Hall does have a negative impact, but the new Anzac Hall also has design elements which are complementary to the site. (page 109)

Comment: The Senator’s question had not really been answered, but she went on to other matters. (DS for HH)

Hot air in Canberra (National Capital Authority)

National Capital Authority consultation: different hymn sheets?

On the current consultation by the National Capital Authority, both Director Anderson and Executive Director Hitches spoke:

[Mr Anderson:] On 20 March, the National Capital Authority commenced public consultations on our plans to ensure they’re consistent with the National Capital Plan. That’s going to take the next six weeks in public consultations. (page 105)

[then, a few minutes later]

Senator KITCHING: You’re still subject to the National Capital Authority for approval?

Mr Hitches: Correct.

Senator KITCHING: Has that process been completed?

Mr Anderson: No. In my opening statement—

Senator KITCHING: Yes, you said.

Mr Anderson: we lodged our submission the week before last, and they’ve just started their six weeks of public consultation, so we’re into week 1 of a six-week process of public consultation.

Senator KITCHING: Yes, you did say that. Thank you, sorry.

Mr Hitches: If I can follow that, there will be some more submissions as well. This isn’t the last of them, so it is a process through the National Capital Authority.

Senator KITCHING: When do you expect that to be completed?

Mr Hitches: We have already put through some 20-odd submissions for small works. There are four major pieces of work that are now in with the National Capital Authority which are out for public consultation, which I believe closes on 30 April. Beyond that, there are the major submissions that will go in for the constructed works, and they will go in in June. I would expect they have a six-week review process as well, so it will be end of July-August by the time we’re through that. And there is still public realm works and things to happen in 2022. So, as I say, it is a process with the NCA, and we have engaged with them for about a year already. (page 109; emphasis added)

Comment: The Director seemed not to know that there was to be more than one NCA consultation. That aside, assuming the NCA leg of the approval process is completed satisfactorily, the project will not receive the final nod before about August this year.

Meanwhile, the estimate of ‘about a year’ for the Memorial’s engagement with the NCA is too modest: material released by the Memorial under FOI shows that the NCA’s Chief Planner was a member of the Australian War Memorial Redevelopment Project Inter-departmental Steering Committee, chaired by the then Memorial Director, from its inception in April 2018. That’s three years, not ‘about a year’. The FOI material covers seven meetings from April 2018 to May 2019, and the Chief Planner attended six of them. The Chief Planner plays a key role in the NCA’s consideration of Works Approval applications, like those from the Memorial.

Other matters

These included progress on the monument to mentally damaged veterans and the arrangements for and progress of official war histories. The Director also mentioned arrangements for Anzac Day and for visitors, including school students, all being matters affected by Covid-19.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and convener of the Heritage Guardians group, campaigning against the War Memorial extensions.

 

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