Stephens, David: Kim Beazley, Chair of War Memorial Council, makes welcome progress towards proper recognition of Frontier Wars – but now needs to drag others along, too

David Stephens*

‘Kim Beazley, Chair of War Memorial Council, makes welcome progress towards proper recognition of Frontier Wars – but now needs to drag others along, too’, Honest History, 7 February 2023 updated

Kim Beazley spoke to Patricia Karvelas on ABC Breakfast yesterday, paying particular attention to how the War Memorial will properly recognise and commemorate the Frontier Wars. His remarks were well summarised by Chris Knaus in Guardian Australia. Also: Canberra Times; SBS; SMH. Earlier remarks from Mr Beazley.

Mr Beazley is providing a welcome and much needed new approach to how the Memorial deals with the Frontier Wars. He should receive strong support from government and from Australians generally. Now his task is to get War Memorial management – and some members of the War Memorial Council and their conservative supporters – singing, loudly, from the same hymn sheet.

Beazley (from Knaus article)

Asked about the opposition to a more substantial recognition of the frontier wars, Beazley said: “How can we have a history of Australian wars without that? It’s a simple question, because we long since abandoned the idea that the memorial only depicted events from world war one onwards,” he said. “If you do that – which we have, comprehensively moved away from that – you have to have frontier wars reflected in it because it is by that means we established ourselves.”

Beazley also suggested that the memorial had new legal advice about the restrictions in the AWM Act, previously cited as a reason for its failure to properly commemorate the conflict.

“There was a legal interpretation at one point of time that said that and then more recently we’ve had legal representations that within the broader mandate you can do it,” he said.

Beazley stressed the need to recognise First Nations resistance – conflict – as well as massacres.


Update 12 February 2023: Beazley talks to Peter FitzSimons for Nine Newspapers

Fitz: And yet, the $500 million building program currently underway to expand it has been bitterly criticised, including the accusation that it is being turned into a kind of “war Disneyland”.

KB: [Scathingly.] That is laughable. I have been to Disneyland, and it will be nothing like that. The purpose of the War Memorial is to honour, commemorate and recognise the service of the people who have defended the country. And this transformation of the War Memorial will help us to ensure that it is done better than ever. After it is completed, those who have been familiar with the memorial in the past will see that the spirit is there, just displayed better.

Fitz: Which brings us to the coming display of Frontier Wars, the idea that if we are to have an institution to honour those who fought for Australia, it must include the people of the First Nations who fought against the white colonisers.

KB: Yesthe memorial has become the portrayal of the experience of Australians at war. So if we do not have an understanding of the conflict during colonial times prior to Federation, it’s not complete. The thing I hope the Frontier Wars display can give the Aboriginal people is the dignity of resistance. That has been important in the collective respect for Native Americans. We now know much more about the massacres. We know much less about a number of very successful guerrilla campaigns that kept the whites at bay in a number of places, and the superb Aboriginal generalship. The War Memorial is the most effective venue to display that.

Fitz: Would a display likely include details of, say, the Myall Creek Massacre in 1838, where 11 stockmen killed 28 Aboriginal women, children and babies?

KB: That’s not a matter for me. All those matters will be questions that will be between the curators of the Frontier War and the Aboriginal advisory committee. We might have views, we might have advice, but the council does not supervise that.


War Memorial management

War Memorial Director Anderson told Senate Estimates in November that the Frontier Wars would occupy just 408 square metres of the ‘new’ War Memorial – and it would share that space in the ‘Pre-1914’ gallery with displays on the Boer Wars, the Maori Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and the expeditionary force to the Sudan. That 408 square metres of shared space is just three per cent of the total new space at the Memorial (17 783 square metres, as reported in the Memorial’s progress report to the Parliamentary Public Works Committee in October 2022).

War Memorial Executive Director (Development) Hitches told Senate Estimates that spending on the new space would be around $80m, of which somewhere between $5m and $10m would be on the Frontier Wars and all the other small wars in the Pre-1914 galleries. That is somewhere between one-sixteenth and one-eighth of the $80m. (The Memorial later provided an answer to a Question on Notice from Senator Thorpe – Qn 17 from Budget Estimates October-November 2022 – which clarified what that $5m or so would cover: ‘The cost of the Pre-1914 gallery is estimated to be upwards of $5 million including designers, curatorial staff and gallery installation (HH emphasis). The curatorial team will be stood up in late 2024 to commence design work with the gallery opening in 2028.’)

Other Council members and friends (from Cameron Stewart in The Australian in October 2022 pdf from our subscription)

‘The whole thing has been stuffed up, mainly by the press,’ says [MAJ GEN Greg] Melick, who is a member of the AWM Council [and national president of the RSL]. ‘Brendan Nelson [then Memorial Council Chair] didn’t say we were having major new galleries on the frontier wars. He said we will probably do a wider and deeper treatment of it. The RSL doesn’t have a problem with that. But others have taken his comments to mean that the War Memorial will have a major new feature on frontier wars and I can tell you that a major feature on frontier wars will piss off the majority of Australia’s 600,000 veterans.’

Stewart also quoted Peta Credlin (‘Why turn an institution that should be a source of unity and pride into one of division and shame?’), Barnaby Joyce (‘the War Memorial was built in sacred recognition of wars that Australians fought as a nation, unified against an external foe’), and Brendan Nelson, contacted in Washington, who had as Council Chair in September promised a ‘much broader, much deeper’ depiction and presentation of frontier violence, but was now perhaps feeling the backlash and glad to be out of it, agreed that the treatment of the Frontier Wars would after all be ‘proportionate, sensitive and modest’. Nelson left the Council Chair position a few weeks later.

Where to next?

Honest History and Heritage Guardians welcome Mr Beazley’s efforts. We urge him to assess the differences between his recent remarks, particularly those made yesterday, and earlier remarks from War Memorial management and other Council members, and to work assiduously to eliminate those differences.

In particular, the details (about floor space, co-location with minor expeditionary forces, and expenditure on the Frontier Wars presentations) that came from War Memorial management in November do not look like ‘substantial’ recognition or a Memorial that has ‘comprehensively moved away’ from its past practice. The remarks from the Council, and the resistance from conservatives, suggest there is some way to go.

Mr Beazley must say clearly, within the walls of the Memorial and outside, ‘We need to do better than this – and we can!’

There is broader relevance, too. The Prime Minister made this point in his Chifley Research Conference-National Press Club speech at the weekend:

By rejecting the false choice between constitutional recognition and practical outcomes – and embracing the fact that we need constitutional recognition to improve practical outcomes.

Embracing the Voice as a vehicle for Closing the Gap and improving lives.

Proper recognition and commemoration of the Frontier Wars at the Australian War Memorial is part of a much bigger picture. Closing the commemorative gap at the Memorial is a ‘practical outcome’ and it is intricately connected with the Voice and with Truth-telling as Australia comes to terms with its history – all of it.

*David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and convener of the Heritage Guardians group. Dr Stephens, Professor Peter Stanley, military and social historian, and Noel Turnbull, Vietnam veteran with 50-year career in public relations, politics, journalism, and academia, wrote last week to Mr Beazley, urging him to continue positive action on the proper recognition and commemoration of the Frontier Wars at the Memorial. We look forward to his reply.

7 February 2023


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