Stephens, David: Remembrance Day mysteries at the War Memorial: answers to Senate Questions on Notice

David Stephens*

‘Remembrance Day mysteries at the War Memorial: answers to Senate Questions on Notice’, Honest History, 11 November 2023 updated

Accountability via Senate Estimates Committees is a slow process. The difficult or embarrassing questions often get ‘taken on notice’, so the answers can be delayed (until any initial fuss has died down) and refined (to conceal any meat beneath layers of fatty verbiage). Still, there is usually something to be gleaned, and we’ve done the work here so you don’t have to.

Recently released material throws light on some mysteries that have for more than a year surrounded the Australian War Memorial’s approach to the Australian Frontier Wars. The question remains: why on earth did it take so long for the Memorial to come clean?

Update 14 November 2023: There is a related post on the new Defending Country website. The analysis there shows how far the Memorial has retreated from the commitment in September 2022 by its then Council Chair, Dr Brendan Nelson, for a ‘much broader, much deeper depiction and presentation of frontier violence’, how it has misused the Freedom of Information process to conceal and mislead, and how its Council has become divided on an issue where it had the chance to lead Australians to a new understanding of our history.

Update 21 November 2023: Director Anderson’s opening statement tabled.

How this post is structured, sourced and relates to other material

Much of the post is ‘for the record’; some of the redactions are of interest, others encourage the reader to ask questions like ‘Why did they bother?’ There is a lot of supporting material in our three Appendices (attached as pdfs). There will be a related article on our soon to be launched associate website (here).

The main sources are the Memorial’s answers AO595, AO596, AO597, AO598, AO602, to questions on notice from Senator Matt Canavan (NAT, QLD), and AO643 to a question on notice from Senator Ross Cadell (NAT, NSW). In what follows we will use the AO numbers for ease of reference.

The Senators’ questions were dated 31 May 2023, the day of the Estimates hearing. The Memorial’s answers were dated 20 September 2023 and published in Hansard that day.

These subjects have been of interest to Honest History for more than 12 months: our summary of events from September 2022 to September 2023; our analysis of the Memorial’s response to our FOI claim relating to the events of August-September 2022 (our claim is in the Memorial’s FOI disclosure log (Ref. 2022-23-07)); successive remarks of War Memorial Council Chair, Hon. Kim Beazley AC, about the Memorial’s intentions relating to the Frontier Wars: 20 January 2023; 7 February 2023; 10 April 2023; 19 April 2023. The main points in the Chair’s remarks were that the Memorial should contain a ‘substantial’ presentation on frontier conflict, that it should portray resistance as well as massacres, and that other institutions had a responsibility also, particularly those in parts of Australia where conflict had occurred.

What the Memorial redacted when it released the August 2022 Council Agenda Paper in October 2022 under FOI

AO643, the answer to Senator Cadell, contains the full text of the 2022 paper to Council Meeting 178 on 19 August 2022. It can be compared with the redacted version (redactions are bits blacked out), which was released on 4 October 2022 in response to Honest History’s claim. (Honest History’s analysis at the time.) The redactions were all marked s. 47C ‘deliberative matter’.

Appendix 1 to this post contains the detailed redactions. Because of the redactions’ extent (about 25 per cent of the 39 pages) we will just summarise them here and leave it for readers to (if they wish) make their own detailed comparisons.

Here are the main redactions:

  • comments about the role and views of various historians on frontier conflict; information about previous Memorial Council consideration (1984, 1999, 2009) of the depiction of frontier conflicts;
  • summaries of two different legal interpretations (1992-93 and 2013) about whether the Memorial could portray frontier conflict;
  • material on the Memorial’s Master Plan for the redevelopment, which disclosed that, of the 408 square metres set aside for the Pre-World War One gallery, 198 square metres was for frontier conflict, New Zealand wars and the Sudan, with the remaining 210 square metres for the Boer War and the Boxer rebellion (more recent calculations have set the total at 410 square metres but the difference is immaterial);

(Update: 1 December 2023: revised pdf shows frontier conflict, New Zealand and Sudan 198 square metres taking up just 1.1 per cent of total gallery space after redevelopment.)

  • a paragraph about discussions with AIATSIS about the Ngurra Precinct in Canberra;
  • options and recommendation.

The options and recommendation led – in a rather tortuous way – to the Council’s decision of 19 August 2022. There is more on that in the post.

What the Memorial Council actually decided on 19 August 2022

AO597 was the Memorial’s answer to Senator Canavan’s question at the Estimates hearing of 31 May 2023, where he asked about references in previous Memorial Council Minutes. Senator Canavan did not disclose how he came to have a copy of the confirmed Minutes of the meeting of 19 August; presumably someone at the Memorial or on the Council gave them to him. His having these Minutes made it pointless for the Memorial to conceal any longer the Minutes or the associated (and previously redacted) Agenda Paper.

The post (now here) will have more on AO597 and its implications. In its ‘Frontier violence’ decision of August 2022, the Council actually made minimal changes to the status quo. It tried to confine the Memorial to depicting men and women who had gone on from being frontier violence victims to serving in the King’s or Queen’s uniform. Meanwhile, places like the National Museum and the proposed Ngurra Precinct would tackle ‘the full story’.

By not releasing the full wording of the August 2022 Council decision until September 2023 – and doing so then with no publicity – the Memorial was able to frame the intervening public discussion (such as it was) around a misleading impression of what the Council had decided, an impression derived mainly from Council Chair Nelson’s statement of 29 September: ‘The council has made the decision that we will have a much broader, much deeper depiction and presentation of the violence committed against Aboriginal people’. The Memorial let observers – or some of them – think it was prepared to do more about the Frontier Wars than it had actually decided to do.

Differences between August 2021 and August 2022 versions of Council Agenda Paper

AO643, the answer to Senator Cadell, contains the full texts of the 2021 paper to Council Meeting 174 on 27 August 2021 and the 2022 paper to Council Meeting 178 on 19 August 2022. (The 2021 version was an Attachment to the 2022 version.)

Appendix 2 to this post has the full details but here are the main points:

  • in the 2022 paper, slippage of dates for delivery of redeveloped Pre-First World War galleries;
  • in the 2022 paper, attribution to ‘academic historians’ after 1910 the view that Australia’s development was peaceful;
  • in the 2022 paper, correction of description of intervention of historian Geoffrey Blainey in 1979 regarding frontier conflict;
  • in the 2022 paper, insertion of a paragraph on recent discussions between the Memorial and AIATSIS officials about the proposed Ngurra Precinct.

Misleading treatment of the Ngurra option

That last point about Ngurra deserves further comment. Having inserted the paragraph in the August 2022 paper to take account of the recent discussions, the Memorial then redacted (blacked out) the following sentence in the version of that paper released to Honest History in October 2022: ‘The Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Mr Craig Ritchie, has informally advised the Director that Ngurra will not be telling the stories of frontier wars’.

How does that redaction of information that Ngurra was not an option match with what happened next? Let’s look:

Senator CANAVAN: … Have you had any discussions with the builders of the Ngurra about how they will showcase domestic conflicts and how you might work with them?
Mr Anderson: Very preliminary discussions just to get a sense. We’ve had Craig Richard [sic], the CEO, into the War Memorial to give us a briefing on the general details of the Ngurra precinct, and we certainly asked him whether or not frontier violence would feature, and he told us that it would.

  • on 15 February 2023, Director Anderson told Senator Canavan that Ngurra was an option: ‘I’ve not specifically asked him [Craig Ritchie of AIATSIS] yet how they will portray frontier violence in the Ngurra Cultural Precinct, but certainly it would be my expectation that they would.’

Quizzed by Senator Canavan in February as to the reason for redaction of what appeared to be something about Ngurra (and which turned out, once the redaction had been removed, the blackout taken off, to be the sentence about Craig Ritchie’s veto) Director Anderson cited the FOI requirements about deliberative material and protecting individuals’ evidence. Maybe. On the face of it, nevertheless, concealing Ritchie’s thumbs down helped the Memorial to keep the Ngurra option alive. This was to the advantage of the Memorial because Ngurra was an important prop in the Memorial’s defence against fundamental change: ‘what we don’t do can be picked up by Ngurra and/or the National Museum’.

Whatever the case, Memorial Council member Melick was still touting the Ngurra option in June 2023. Three months later, with the release of the unredacted version of the August 2022 paper, Craig Ritchie’s veto was again on the record. But the Ritchie redaction had played an important role for the Memorial in the meantime.

Update 13 November 2023: James Massola in Nine Newspapers reports possible delay in Ngurra project, seen as a legacy of the Morrison era.

Answers to other questions on notice

Appendix 3 to this post picks up some other answers to questions on notice, notably one which indicated that the Memorial’s Indigenous Advisory Group on the redevelopment is very much looking at both the Frontier Wars and Indigenous service in uniform, though its current membership is rather better suited to considering the latter than the former. There is also a link to an answer AO602 to Senator Canavan, which adds some gloss to an earlier stoush between the Senator and the Memorial Director.

*David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and a member of Defending Country Memorial Project Inc. whose website 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.



Click here for all items related to: , ,
To comment or discuss, Log in to Honest History.
2 comments on “Stephens, David: Remembrance Day mysteries at the War Memorial: answers to Senate Questions on Notice
  1. Leighton View says:

    CAN the AWM really get its act together? They almost seem to be in perpetual war with reality.

  2. Stewart says:

    The AWM really needs to get their Act together.

Leave a Reply