Stephens, David: Strengthening the RSL link is not the most pressing need for the War Memorial Council

David Stephens*

‘Strengthening the RSL link is not the most pressing need for the unrepresentative and anachronistic War Memorial Council’, Honest History, 30 June 2019 updated

During the recent election campaign, New South Wales President of the RSL, James Brown, chaired a discussion between Veterans’ Affairs Minister, Darren Chester, and Labor’s then Shadow Minister, Amanda Rishworth. Towards the end of the session, Brown asked this:

For the first time in many decades there is no representative of the RSL on the Australian War Memorial Council. As representative of a significant proportion of Australian veterans and their families the RSL should have representation on the Council. Is that something either of your governments could commit to if elected?

While membership of the RSL may well be an attribute of a number of Memorial Council members, at the time of Brown’s question the Council lacked a senior RSL office holder among its number. Rear Admiral Ken Doolan had recently retired from the Council and he had, at one time, been both a Council member and National President of the RSL.

Responding to Brown’s question, the Minister was cautious: ‘It’s a fair question, but I’m not going to commit to what you want me to say’. The Council needed to have a mix of ex-service and serving personnel and community representatives but ‘the RSL nationally at this point I don’t think is in a position to put forward someone who is necessarily going to get through the process that I go through’. (This may have been an oblique reference to the troubles of RSL National President, Robert Dick, who resigned in 2018 in the midst of an investigation into RSL governance and accountability issues, or perhaps to former NSW president, Don Rowe, who was charged with fraud for misusing an RSL credit card.)

Since the election, however, the link between RSL office-holding and Memorial Council membership has been restored, as sitting Council member Reserve Major-General Greg Melick of Tasmania has been elected National President of the League. Former member of the Council, the late Les Carlyon, has not been replaced as yet, and he might not be as the Australian War Memorial Act s. 10 merely provides there should be on the Council ‘not less than 8 nor more than 10 other members’ besides the three service chiefs. There are at present nine ‘other members’ for a total of 12.

If the Carlyon vacancy is filled, it is to be hoped the Minister takes the opportunity to broaden community representation on the Council. Of the current 12 members, eight are former or current members of the Australian Defence Force. (Under the Act as it stands, only three of these have to be there, the three service chiefs as ex officio members.)

Honest History has posted previously on the unrepresentative nature of the Memorial Council. More. More. We suggested that positions on the Council could be filled by public advertisement:

Australians enlisted for our major wars in great numbers. Some of them became officers. A handful of them became senior officers. Decades on, too much of the control of our national war memorial has devolved to the senior officer cadre and a supporting cast of the Australian version of “the great and the good”. The people should be allowed to take back this role. The remembrance of war – and, more importantly, the prospect of peace – are too important to be left to those who have made a profession out of military activity or a hobby out of military history. These matters affect all of us and our future, not just those who try to keep the Anzac flame burning in pretty much the same way as it has for the last century.

The War Memorial Council as presently composed is an anachronism. It stands in the way of significant change in the way we commemorate war and hope for a peaceful future. A Council which was more representative of the range of Australian experience of war – and of Australians – would help the Memorial tell a more rounded story, a story not just of daring and death in uniform but of the widespread and lasting effects of war on individuals, families (especially women and children) and communities. The story not just of what Australians have done in war but of what war has done to Australia and Australians – and what it should never do again.

The War Memorial is not a possession of the RSL or of ex-service people but of all Australians.


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