‘Nine embarrassing minutes: the Australian War Memorial at Senate Estimates’, Honest History, 5 November 2023 updated
When the government changed it looked, just for a moment, as if some of our less accountable institutions, like the Australian War Memorial, might be in for more of a grilling at Senate Estimates. There have been a couple of memorable outings, particularly the one in May**, but the most recent one, on 25 October, was rather different.
The Memorial was set down for a 7.30 pm start but it was not to be. The Defence Department’s time dragged on and on, and the Memorial finally appeared nearly three hours late at 10.20pm. Still, it was an interesting nine minutes the Memorial endured, punctured with embarrassing admissions and awkward, rapidly spouted, non sequiturs. The main players were the Greens’ Senator Shoebridge and the Memorial’s Director Anderson, with a couple of the latter’s helpers. Here are the highlights and our comments, marked HH:
Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Thank you all for coming so early in the day. Could I ask you first of all about the progress on commemorating and acknowledging frontier wars. Where are we up to?
Mr Anderson: I think the last time I appeared I spoke to the process, the council having taken a decision that we would more broadly and more deeply cover the issue of frontier wars in galleries. We haven’t yet stood up the design team for that. It’s still the expectation that these are galleries that will be opened in 2027-28. We would be standing up the design teams, I would imagine, in 2025, and that will include, of course, our Indigenous advisory groups, our veterans advisory groups and others.
Senator SHOEBRIDGE: It’s not intended, as I understand it, for them to be any part of the new and
expanded galleries that will be open in 2025.
Mr Anderson said that the Frontier Wars would be covered in a refurbished area to be opened in 2027-28 at the front of the Memorial. He went through the areas that would be completed before that.
Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Do you have a plan for engagement, especially with First Nations historians and
curators? Have you commenced that work?
Mr Anderson: We have. Because of the interest that’s out there with the announcement, we are already. I
know the chairman in particular is engaged actively in this. We will have an Indigenous advisory group that is working on this. We have five advisory groups throughout our gallery development, and one of them is an Indigenous advisory group, absolutely.
[There is no advisory group of historians. But the Council Chair, Kim Beazley, is on the case. HH]
Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Is there a plan to recruit First Nations curators and historians in order to have them on staff in a critical place in order to shepherd through the opening of the First Nations frontier war galleries?
[Senator Shoebridge has seen an opening. Mr Anderson is on his guard. HH]
Mr Anderson: Whether they’re on staff or whether they’re engaged as a separate body, I couldn’t speak to that because we haven’t stood them up yet, but certainly it’s being driven by the gallery development team. It’s being driven by our Indigenous liaison officer, Mr Bell. It’s being driven from the chairman down, in fact, to make sure that what we do we do well and in a culturally appropriate and honest way, and we’re determined to do it.
Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Do you have First Nations employment targets?
[The Council Chair is mentioned again, while the Senator nears the nub. HH]
Mr Anderson: Not that I’m aware of, no.
Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Do you have a strategy in place to recruit First Nations employees at all?
[The Senator is closing in. HH]
Ms Patterson [senior Memorial staff, to the rescue]: No, we don’t have a formal strategy beyond the broader government strategy to increase Indigenous participation. It is quite low at the moment, and we’re looking, through the consultation and stakeholder arrangements that the director is referring to, to increase our exposure to Indigenous stories and learning so that we can better represent.
Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You said ‘quite low’. What is it?
[Closer and closer. HH.]
Ms Patterson: I’ll confirm that for you. It’s currently 1.8 per cent.
[The opening is widening. HH]
Senator SHOEBRIDGE: How much below the Commonwealth target is that?
Ms Patterson: I understand the APS average is 3.5 per cent.
[Again, oh. HH]
Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Given the nature of the War Memorial and given the contribution of First Nations
diggers and soldiers, has that been brought to your attention before, Mr Anderson—that the First Nations
employment rate, engagement rate, is basically half the national target?
Mr Anderson: No, it hasn’t been brought to my attention, but I am determined and the staff are determined to make sure that, with the program that we’re engaged on right now—and you rightly said this—we seek to identify the stories of and contributions that have been made by First Nations to the defence of the nation, the defence of country. We’re seeking to identify those stories. We have an active program in place to ensure that we do identify, most recently, Indigenous Australians who served during the Korean War. We have active programs that are focusing on the telling of the stories, but I take your point that part of that is making sure that we have adequate and appropriate employment within the memorial.
[Manages a reference to ‘defence of country’ but then falls back on, not an example of First Nations’ defence of country, but the safe ground – some would say ‘the fig leaf’ – of Indigenous service in uniform, reflecting Memorial management’s recent tendency to conflate the Frontier Wars with service in the King’s or Queen’s colours. HH]
Senator SHOEBRIDGE: In the absence of a strategy and in the absence of direction from the senior
leadership, it won’t just magically happen. Is this something that you’re going to turn your attention to?
Mr Anderson: Yes.
[Relieved, as the clock ticks down. HH]
Then Senator Shoebridge returned to the old favourite of arms manufacturer donations to the Memorial. The Memorial’s Ms Bennie advised of arms company donations for a ‘defending-country Indigenous art project’ and a transcription project. The money came from Boeing and Leidos in amounts that could justifiably be called, by neutral observers, ‘small change’. Northrop Grumman gave an even smaller amount to restore an old aeroplane. ‘Twas ever thus, but imagine the community relations spin-off from having the corporate label on that piece of polished-up kit.
And that was it for the night; time called at 10.29 pm.
*David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and a member of Defending Country Memorial Project Inc. whose website defendingcountry.au will launch soon. Defending Country Memorial Project Inc., has been formed to encourage the Australian War Memorial to properly recognise and commemorate the Frontier Wars. Its other members are Noel Turnbull (Secretary), Professor Peter Stanley, Dr Carolyn Holbrook and Pamela Burton.
**More to come from us soon, analysing recent answers to Senate Questions on Notice, which are very revealing, including of stuff that the Memorial has been coy about previously. Update 12 November 2023: here it is.