Stephens, David, Peter Stanley & Noel Turnbull: Voice, Treaty, Truth: an Action Plan for Australian Frontier Wars recognition and commemoration

Update 1 December 2023: An updated, shorter version of the Action Plan is now available on the Defending Country website. The earlier version is retained below for the record. HH.


David Stephens[1]

Peter Stanley[2]

Noel Turnbull[3]

‘Voice, Treaty, Truth: an Action Plan for Australian Frontier Wars recognition and commemoration’, Honest History, 31 March 2023 updated

Truth-telling about the Australian Frontier Wars is an essential follow-up to the Voice to Parliament. Urgent actions are needed now to ensure that the Australian War Memorial properly recognises and commemorates the Frontier Wars. Truth-telling demands no less. There is a Commemoration Gap that needs to be closed.

Memorial Council Chair Kim Beazley’s recent remarks need strong follow through if momentum is not to be lost. This article covers ACTIONS 1 and 2 in a proposed Action Plan. A second article deals with ACTIONS 3, 4 and 5. Each action should happen this year, 2023.

Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023: Attorney-General’s speech in the House of Representatives, 30 March 2023; government media release, 30 March 2023; Joint Select Committee terms of reference

The story so far: for Honest History posts since September 2022 on Frontier Wars retreat at the Memorial, scroll down to the foot of this post.

Media release 5 April 2023

Update 10 April 2023: Canberra Times articles.

Update 12 April 2023: War Memorial has been slow to answer Senate questions, particularly on Frontier Wars.


When the Honourable Kim Beazley AC speaks, we should listen. He has been described as the most distinguished Australian politician never to become Prime Minister. He was a senior Minister and twice Leader of the Opposition. Since leaving politics, he has been Chancellor of the Australian National University, Australian Ambassador to Washington, and Governor of Western Australia.

Since November, Kim Beazley has been Chair of the Council of the Australian War Memorial and has made several statements about how the Memorial should recognise and commemorate the Australian Frontier Wars. These statements came after positive remarks on 29 September 2022 from then Council Chair Dr Brendan Nelson AO, a retreat under conservative pressure during October, and unhelpful evidence from Memorial management at Senate Estimates in early November.

Honest History has tracked the story under the heading ‘Frontier Wars retreat at the War Memorial’. Now, consistent with but building on Kim Beazley’s remarks, we believe there are five actions that need to happen this year, 2023.

Slaughterhouse (Waterloo) Creek massacre, 1838 (Wikipedia; lithograph by WL Walton, 1852). Kamilaroi warriors in the Moree, NSW, area were killed by mounted police. Estimates of Kamilaroi fatalities range from 40-50 to more than 200. This was the lithograph displayed in the Memorial’s Colonial Conflicts/Soldiers of the Queen gallery from 1985 to 2020.

ACTION 1: Amend the Memorial’s Act to mandate coverage of the Frontier Wars; do not rely on legal interpretations of the current Act

Both Kim Beazley and Memorial Director Matt Anderson have said recently that a 2013 legal interpretation of the Australian War Memorial Act 1980 allows the Memorial to depict frontier violence. The Director referred to sub-section 6(1), ‘which gives the general power “to do all things necessary or convenient” with regard to the performance of its [the Memorial’s] functions’.

By convention, that legal advice is not publicly available, which is unfortunate. As the advice is immensely significant, we believe it should be public. After all, if we can’t see it, how do we know the Memorial is following it properly?

More importantly, the Memorial has a history of using its corporate planning process to effectively reinterpret its Act. In corporate plans over a number of years the Memorial produced successive refinements of a Mission Statement. ‘Leading remembrance and understanding of Australia’s wartime experience’ were the Statement’s words after 2018-19 and down to the 2021-25 plan. That Mission Statement led the Memorial to microscopic examination of what Australians have done during ‘wars and warlike operations’ – or some of them, not including the Australian Frontier Wars – but far less interest in ‘the events leading up to, and the aftermath of, such wars and warlike operations’ which is also within the ambit of ‘Australian military history’ in section 3 of the Memorial’s Act

The 2022-26 plan then dropped the Mission Statement, while retaining a paragraph headed ‘Purpose’, which was even narrower than the Mission Statement: ‘To commemorate the sacrifice of those Australians who have died in war or on operational service and those who have served our nation in times of conflict’. Again, that is clearly a long way short of ‘Australian military history’ as defined in the Act.

Further, we saw on Rachel Perkins’ documentary, The Australian Wars (episode 3, mark 57.00), Director Anderson in 2021 restricting the Memorial’s interest in the Frontier Wars to how good a role model they provided for Indigenous service people joining the Australian Defence Force. ‘What we seek to do’, the Director said, ‘is to tell the story of frontier violence in the way in which it affected the men and the women who joined the Australian Imperial Forces and went away’. That looks like the Frontier Wars becoming no more than a recruiting ploy for the ADF.

A secret legal interpretation, possible future corporate planning sleight-of-hand, plus persistence of the Director’s 2021 line, do not bode well for real change on the Frontier Wars. Far better to have the Parliament legislate an explicit amendment to the Act.


The Act could be amended like this (amendments shown underlined):

3  Interpretation

Australian military history means the history of:

  • wars and warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service, including the events leading up to, and the aftermath of, such wars and warlike operations; and
  • the Defence Force; and
  • wars and warlike operations after 1788 within Australia and involving Indigenous Australians, including the events leading up to, and the aftermath of, such wars and warlike operations.

5  Functions of Memorial

(1)  The functions of the Memorial are:

(a)  to maintain and develop the national memorial referred to in subsection 6(1) of the Australian War Memorial Act 1962 as a national memorial of Australians who have died:

(i)  on or as a result of active service; or

(ii) as a result of any war or warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service; or

(iii) as a result of any war or warlike operations after 1788 within Australia and involving Indigenous Australians;

The Memorial Council should go to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs (responsible for the Memorial) with a recommendation for change along these lines. The Minister should then take draft amending legislation to Cabinet, to be followed by a Bill in the Parliament, moved by the Minister and seconded by the Minister for Indigenous Australians. (The Council’s advice to the Minister should be made public.)

Three officers of the South Australian Company, c. 1899, wearing full dress (AWM A03855). These men may well have gone to South Africa to fight Boers or to China to help quell the Boxer Rebellion. Under the Memorial’s current plans, these expeditionary forces (and the men who went to the Sudan and the New Zealand Wars) would share gallery space with the Frontier Wars.

ACTION 2: Defer any allocations of gallery floor space until decisions have been made about gallery content in accordance with the Memorial’s Corporate Plan and National Collection Development Plan

Memorial Director Anderson in November 2022 told Senate Estimates how much – or, rather, how little – space in the ‘new’ Memorial will be filled by Frontier Wars material:

[T]he precolonial galleries, as they are called – and they will now be called the pre-1914 galleries – are about 408 square metres of space. That’s what we’re talking about. In those 408 square metres of space we’ll also discuss the Boer Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, Sudan, and the New Zealand wars. In that process, the gallery teams will be stood up in late 2024, early 2025, and those gallery teams include a number of advisory groups. (page 36)

For comparison purposes with that 408 square metres, Honest History asked the Memorial what was the size of the old Colonial Conflicts (Soldiers of the Queen) gallery at the Memorial. We were following up the Director’s statement above that the new pre-1914 galleries were to cover the same subject matter as the old galleries – the Frontier Wars, plus the other four conflicts and the ‘Soldiers of the Queen’ who went to them.

The Memorial responded that the old gallery covered approximately 385 square metres. So, the new space of 408 square metres is to be just 23 square metres larger than the old space of 385 square metres. That is, just under 6 per cent larger.

This does not sit well with then Council Chair Brendan Nelson’s 29 September promise of ‘a much broader, much deeper depiction and presentation of the violence committed against Aboriginal people’. The space envisaged is certainly ‘of modest dimensions’, the descriptor Nelson had retreated to less than a month later as he took up his big promotion with Boeing, possibly following a battle within the Council, with the opposition led by Council member and RSL National President, Greg Melick, egged on by Barnaby Joyce, Peta Credlin, and eleven thousand signatures on a petition organised by a Quadrant author.

That 408 square metres, also portraying those other small wars, is certainly not enough space for the ‘substantial’ treatment of the Frontier Wars, including resistance as well as massacres, that Kim Beazley envisaged in his interview on The Wire in January. Nor is it enough, even with that risible extra 23 square metres, to produce coverage of the Frontier Wars that is ‘done better than ever’, which is what Kim Beazley promised Peter FitzSimons in February.

At present, the many Australians who wish the Memorial well – and who have welcomed what looked like change – are entitled to feel dudded. The assurances from the Council Chair must be set against that other evidence.

What’s more, that figure of 408 square metres has been put on record two years before the content teams (curators) are due to come together. It seems that these teams will be handed the space decided by the architects and project managers two years before and told to fill it. Still, there are hints in the advice from the Memorial to Honest History that more space may be found. It must be.

What then should guide the Memorial’s gallery content plans and the actions of curators? They should both be based on the Memorial’s corporate plans and its National Collection Development Plan (NCDP). How do these documents look at present? The latest edition of the Corporate Plan (2022-2026, 2022-26 update) contains in its 24 pages not one reference to Frontier Wars, frontier violence or First Nations. The word ‘Indigenous’ appears just three times (referring to the work of the Memorial’s Indigenous Liaison Officer and to a Welcome Ceremony at a monument commemorating Indigenous service people), and the words ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Torres Strait Islander’ just once each.

The NCDP, last updated in October 2019, sets out the Memorial’s priorities for adding to the National Collection. The NCDP contains just one sentence on collecting material about frontier violence and that is the very last sentence in the 12-page document. By contrast, collection plans for other pre-1914 conflicts are given a full page of text.

Both the Corporate Plan and the NCDP must be reworked urgently to ensure that they reflect the views of the Memorial Council on what should be displayed and provide clear guidance for curatorial decisions on acquisition and display. Curators might decide what episodes of Indigenous resistance, or which massacres of Indigenous warriors and their families, are to be displayed, but decisions about whether resistance and massacres are to be displayed at all, and the context in which they are displayed, need to be made by the Council – and be forcefully expressed, transparent and public.


The Memorial Council should resolve (and direct Memorial management accordingly – as it has the power to do under the Memorial’s Act, sections 9 and 20) that any previous space allocations for the Frontier Wars be rescinded until after gallery contents have been considered in the light of proposed amended legislation as in ACTION 1 above and a revised Corporate Plan and revised National Collection Development Plan that give appropriate weight to the Frontier Wars, reflecting Council decisions. (The Council’s decisions should be made public.)


Our second article presents ACTIONS 3, 4 and 5, which call for the War Memorial to provide separate gallery space for the Frontier Wars, to undertake wider consultation with historians and Indigenous people, and to develop a theme of ‘Defending Country’, applicable to all our wars. The article concludes by asking the question, Why should Australians care about this? Our answers: because dishonest history about past wars can support disastrous decisions about future wars; because we need an honest history, growing from our land; because proper recognition and commemoration of the Frontier Wars is an essential part of Truth-telling.


The authors

[1] Dr David Stephens is Editor of the Honest History website, Convener of Heritage Guardians, and co-editor with Alison Broinowski of The Honest History Book (2017). He has written many articles on Australian history.

[2] Professor Peter Stanley is an Honorary Professor at UNSW Canberra and author of more than 30 books on military and social history, including Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Murder, Mutiny and the Australian Imperial Force (2010), which was jointly awarded the 2011 Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History, Armenia, Australia and the Great War (with Vicken Babkenian, 2016), and The Crying Years: Australia’s Great War (2017). He was Principal Historian at the Australian War Memorial and then inaugural head of the Research Centre at the National Museum of Australia.

[3] Noel Turnbull is a Vietnam veteran (104 Field Battery, 1968-69) with a 50-year career in public relations, politics, journalism, and academia. His books include How PR Works But Often Doesn’t and A History of Port Melbourne (with Nancy U’ren). He has been a member or Chair of many public bodies. With Bob Weis, he founded and developed the Truth and Integrity Project as a campaign vehicle and online access centre for organisations and individuals opposed to the Morrison government. The website also produced online and social media advertising, with viewing figures exceeding one million. Its patrons were the Honourable Barry Jones AC and the Honourable John Hewson AM.


The story so far: our posts since September 2022 show the uncertainty about just what the Memorial intends to do about the Frontier Wars (most recent first)

War Memorial’s clarifications reveal how little space it plans for the Frontier Wars, unless something changes in a big way; Another skirmish of attrition in Senate Estimates but slides over Frontier Wars; Latest media appearance from Kim Beazley is moving in the right direction, but are other Memorial folks in step? War Memorial Council Chair Kim Beazley’s recent interviews parsed; More lunge-parry-thrust at Senate Estimates, including on Frontier Wars; War Memorial is again running away from the Frontier Wars; Estimates Committee transcript shows the extent of the Memorial’s backsliding as former Chair Nelson flies out to London; Henry Reynolds and Rachel Perkins at the National Press Club; War Memorial misses opportunity to clarify confusion about Frontier Wars; Media reports 9-18 November; Media roundup on Frontier Wars at the Australian War Memorial: RSL grumbles, united front crumbles; Encouraging noises from the War Memorial about future recognition and commemoration of the Frontier Wars – but is the Memorial backsliding under conservative pressure?

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