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Stephens, David: National Capital Authority consultation report on War Memorial Main Works: latest (but maybe not last) phase in a sorry saga

David Stephens*

‘National Capital Authority consultation report on War Memorial Main Works: latest (but maybe not last) phase in a sorry saga’, Honest History, 25 November 2021 updated

Summary: The War Memorial redevelopment project is unstoppable. We tried!

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The National Capital Authority has published its consultation report on the Main Works for the $498m redevelopment project at the Australian War Memorial. Canberra Times report. Canberra Times again. The Riot Act. Canberra CityNews. And again. Canberra Weekly. ABC Canberra (NCA Chief Executive Sally Barnes). The Mandarin. Medical Association for Prevention of War media release. War Memorial media release.

For those readers who have not followed this saga to date, we recommend the campaign diary maintained by the Heritage Guardians group. We will not go through the arguments pro and con yet again.

If new readers are puzzled by the fact that the NCA is still reporting on approvals when the destruction and construction work at the Memorial is clearly under way already (see supplied pictures below and here), we can only say that that is how things are done in Canberra and Australia in 2021. See also our analysis of the NCA’s ‘Early Works’ approval.

As we have said before, once the Prime Minister in November 2018 (at a gala launch paid for by the Memorial Council Chairman, Kerry Stokes) announced that the government had committed the $498m, all the subsequent consultation (Interdepartmental Committee, Cabinet, Public Works Committee, heritage, NCA) could have been seen as just so much hot air. On the other hand, the constant attention paid to the project has tempered to some degree the spin imparted by its proponents.

It is unclear why the NCA’s consultation report was delayed past the original deadline of end October, but we would be surprised if any of the opponents of the development – including Heritage Guardians – can claim credit for this. There were hints at Senate Estimates in October and in advice from the NCA to Honest History (28 October 2021 Updated) that there would be a delay. The 28-page report that has emerged should not have taken long to throw together.

The consultation report

Here’s a quick summary of what the NCA had to say this time (and some comments):

What’s next?

So, there it is. We could well say now, ‘Let the bulldozers rip!’ but, as noted above, they are ripping already. There remains the possibility that the Australian National Audit Office may do a performance audit into the management of the War Memorial project. But that is just a ‘potential audit’ at present and may never happen. It should. An audit would not stop the project but it might show how flawed the process has been.

There have been a couple of stumbles in the Memorial’s rounding up of builders to do the work (scroll down to ‘Update 29 July 2021 updated: Hiccup, roadblock, setback, in War Memorial build. Cockup? Pear-shaped? Hitches?’) The Memorial had to go back to market after a couple of successful tenderers pulled out.

The AusTender website at the time of posting shows that decisions still have to be made on which big construction firms finally get the gig for Main Works Package 1 (New Southern Entrance and Parade Ground) and Main Works Package 3 (Anzac Hall and Glazed Link). The Memorial has advised (17 November 2021) that the Request for Expressions of Interest process that closed on 1 September produced a shortlist of respondents for the Request for Tender phase (which was being conducted as a Limited Tender). The successful tenderers will be announced on AusTender in due course.

Once all that is settled, there is the matter of actually building the 2.5 hectares of new space and filling it with suitable content, lots of it big and shiny and aggressive looking, bearing the names of manufacturers who are also donors to the Memorial. There is something terribly sad about a national institution destroying itself, essentially to fulfill the dreams of billionaires and politicians wanting to leave a legacy (and a bloody big one, at that), no matter how the proponents of the project try to dress it up as something else.

The Memorial is meant to be at once a memorial, a museum, and an archive. The risk is that the new space, filled with war machines, will tilt the balance of the place irretrievably towards the museum function, making it a military Disneyland.

Bigness and history – and take your Marx

Is bigger better? ‘If we’re doubling the space available to tell the stories, we’re doubling the heritage value of that building, and of the memorial’s power to tell the story of continuing service and sacrifice.’ That was Memorial Director Matt Anderson, quoted, April 2021. It is one of the more ill-judged and vacuous statements in this whole saga – and there have been some rippers.

Yet, ‘the bigger, the better’ is the official line. No-one seems to have looked at the alternative argument: we pay greater respect to recent service by making hard decisions about the use of existing space rather than spending shitloads of money (which could be better spent on direct benefits to veterans and their families) on building more space.

But it is to be more space, more stories, more superannuated military kit. The Memorial wants to build for the wars of at least the next 50 years. That means going big. In that respect, and because we are often told that the Memorial is a sacred place, it seemed appropriate to include some words from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) (from mark 0.40).

Oh Lord, you are so big, so absolutely huge!

Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell you.

That scene is set in a sacred place and the words are about bigness. Sure, piss is well and truly taken, but that is an approach that we have often felt like following over the more than three years (to date) of the Memorial redevelopment.

For those who want a more conventional historical tag to round off, though, there is Karl Marx: ‘History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce’. In the Memorial’s case, though, tragedy and farce have been running at the same time. And it’s gonna be big, folks, absolutely huge, and some of the dwindling numbers of visitors to the Memorial will be really impressed.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and has been convener of the Heritage Guardians group, opposed to the Memorial development.