Stephens, David: Two absorbing evenings: the National Capital Authority information sessions on the Australian War Memorial $498m redevelopment project

David Stephens*

‘Two absorbing evenings: the National Capital Authority’s information sessions on the Australian War Memorial’s $498m redevelopment project’, Honest History, 23 August 2021 updated

After the farce of the ‘early works’ consultation on the War Memorial project, the National Capital Authority (NCA) said it wanted to make sure people had a better grasp of the Authority’s role and of the plans for the project. Accordingly, these information sessions were foreshadowed and were held on 10 and 11 August at the National Library with live streaming. The third, 12 August, session had to be cancelled due to Covid.

The material at this link includes videos of the two sessions held, plus the questions asked (and mostly answered) at the two sessions and the cancelled session, plus instructions for providing submissions. The submission period opened on 21 August and closes on 10 September (Canberra Times story). Update 24 August 2021: how to make a submission that might be noticed.

Heritage Guardians may do a submission, though we can see why people would not bother. Much of the rationale for bothering disappeared at that moment on that Sunday afternoon, 4 July, when the first bulldozer ripped into Anzac Hall, after the NCA gave its approval to the so-called ‘early works’ (demolish Anzac Hall, dig the big hole out the front, massacre all those trees).

Indeed, ever since Prime Minister Morrison announced on 1 November 2018, at a $740 000 shindig paid for by Memorial Council Chairman, Kerry Stokes, that there was $498m earmarked for the project, consultation in its various phases (Public Works Committee, heritage, NCA) has been so much window-dressing. See the Heritage Guardians campaign diary and the many posts linked from it.

Sessions and people

The first information session dealt with the New Southern Entrance (Main Works Package 1), the second with the Bean Building Extension (Main Works Package 2), and the third was to cover Anzac Hall and the New Glazed Link (Main Works Package 3). There is a video of Main Works Package 3.

The first surprise was in the people present. Readers of the blurb from the Authority and the press articles would have gained the impression that these were primarily sessions for the architects (package by package, Scott Carver Architects, Lyons Architecture, Cox AH&GL) to show off their designs. Indeed, there were architects on line, four at the first session, two at the second, explaining the designs, showing renders and flythroughs, and answering questions about points of detail. The artwork and the draftspersonship were a credit to the people who produced them, and we wish them well in their future careers.

The architects were not the real stars of the shows, however. First, the sessions were introduced by NCA Chief Executive, Sally Barnes. She was in no doubt about the importance of the Memorial project (‘this most significant development’, ‘this will be a very, very important change’, ‘this incredible redevelopment’) but less sure about the terminology, referring on both nights to the Griffins’ ‘land access’ rather than ‘land axis’ (Main Works Package 1 video, mark 0.50; Main Works Package 2 video, mark 0.30).

Ms Barnes handed off to master of ceremonies, David Marshall, who seemed a little uncomfortable in the role (perhaps from lack of detailed knowledge of the project), but did a workmanlike job of passing questions on to the panel. The fact that Dr Marshall is Chair of the Canberra Region Tourism Leaders Forum gave a strong hint at one of the spin-offs from the project, as seen by some of its proponents, like Senator Zed Seselja: this project may, post-Covid, post-construction, bring lots of tourists and lots of dollars to the national capital. Or not, if the construction work puts the tourists off in the meantime.

In the comfortable seats at the front, with the microphones, were the other surprises, Memorial Director, Matt Anderson, Memorial Executive Director, Development Program, Wayne Hitches, and NCA Chief Planner, Andrew Smith, the officer who, exercising the NCA’s delegation, actually signed the paperwork getting the ‘early works’ under way and who has been the Authority’s representative on the redevelopment Interdepartmental Committee (chaired by the Memorial) since 2018. The comfortable seats were clearly where the power resided. Their occupants answered the big questions – and avoided a couple of them.

Highlights

Given the focus of the Heritage Guardians campaign over the last two years – essentially, that this is an unnecessary and vainglorious project, whose dollars would far better have been directed to other purposes – we were interested particularly in higher level remarks. Here were a few that leapt out (with our comments in italics):

  • the Memorial has the ultimate say on the materials approved by contractors involved in the project (Hitches; Main Works Package (MWP) 1 video, mark 27.30);
  • the redevelopment project will not have a foundation stone (Hitches; MWP 1 video, mark 30.50);
  • Peter Corlette’s Simpson and his donkey statue has been removed from its position at the front of the Memorial and there has been no decision made on its future location, but there is ‘a commitment that it will come back’ (Anderson; MWP 1 video, mark 31.50);
  • the commemorative areas of the Memorial will not be affected (Anderson; MWP 1 video, mark 34.40);
  • we honour veterans through additional space and through telling their stories (Anderson; MWP 1 video, mark 35.00); our relevant question did not get asked, despite the NCA list recording that it did: ‘Would it not be greater honour for recent veterans to make difficult decisions about how to use existing space, rather than going for more?’;
  • the southern facade of the Memorial will remain unchanged; the changes are from the forecourt level down (that is, to the south) (Anderson; MWP 1 video, mark 38.00); it all depends on how you define the word ‘facade’: there is a ‘current’ and ‘proposed’ toggle gizmo here – you be the judge; then look just below the gizmo for the first of 15 pictures, which shows from the air how much space the new work covers south of the facade;
  • one of the reasons for changing the shape of the parade ground (making it square) is to make it easier for soldiers to march up and down on ceremonial occasions (Anderson; MWP 1 video; mark 41.00);
  • the project is on time and on budget (Anderson & Hitches: MWP 2 video, mark 37.00); the Memorial’s latest timetable has four key events happening in the remainder of 2021, which looks ambitious;
  • the architects of the Bean Building are ‘one of Australia’s best architectural practices … Although we are still on the assessment stage, the review work we have done to date indicates that it is all of a very high standard, a very high material standard’ (Smith, MWP 2 video, mark 26.40);
  • the Discovery Zone for children will be coming back (Anderson; MWP 2 video, mark 35.00); this is a pity: the former Discovery Zone encouraged its young visitors to ‘[d]odge sniper fire in a First World War trench, take control of an Iroquois helicopter and peer through the periscope of a Cold War submarine’.

The remarks of Ms Barnes and, to a lesser extent, Mr Smith, are interesting. Given that the Authority (actually, its delegate, Mr Smith, as Chief Planner) has still to make its decisions on Main Works Packages 1, 2 and 3, were these supportive statements not rather premature? Or were the critics right that the real decision was the one to let the ‘early works’ go ahead – and beyond that nothing has really mattered? The die has been well and truly cast for a long time.

Is dignity preserved by a phrase?

During the sessions, Mr Anderson almost invariably referred to the institution he runs, not as ‘the Memorial’, or ‘the AWM’, but as ‘the Australian War Memorial’ (in full). This is also how Mr Anderson’s predecessor, Brendan Nelson, mostly referred to the place, as here, pages 117-26, in a random example from Senate Estimates on 30 May 2018.

The use of this phrase is presumably meant to lend dignity to the Memorial, as befits what Mr Anderson called it during the first NCA session: ‘Australia’s most sacred place’ (Anderson; MWP 1 video; mark 47.50). (See the Appendix to this post.) Yet, the redevelopment program is trashing the Memorial’s dignity, as surely as the bulldozers and chainsaws do their work. Mr Anderson has told us that, as the Memorial gets bigger, its heritage value will grow also. Perhaps we should take comfort in that: the bigger the place is, the more it’s value to the nation. Really?

Maybe the Memorial’s dignity will come back, too. Maybe.

Appendix: If the Memorial is our most sacred place do we have to worship there?

From The Honest History Book

There should be no sacred cows in a free society. Anzackers, the peddlers of Anzackery*, deserve and should receive trenchant criticism, whether they are jingoistic ministers of the Crown or sentimental directors of war memorials, gung-ho office-holders in the Returned and Services League or commercial shysters making money from the Anzac ‘brand’. Anzackery – the extreme version – aside, Anzac may still be a secular religion for some Australians, but it is not the established church; other Australians have the right to be atheist or agnostic about it. In turn, Anzac atheists and agnostics should respect the adherents of the Anzac religion, but they should not in a democracy be required to worship at its altars.

(* ‘Anzackery’ is defined in two Australian dictionaries as ‘The promotion of the Anzac legend in ways that are perceived to be excessive or misguided’.)

Source: Alison Broinowski & David Stephens, ‘Conclusion’, David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, ed., The Honest History Book, NewSouth, Sydney, 2017, p. 288.

(As Honest History has offered previously, we will print without amendment any comment the Memorial or the NCA cares to make on this piece.)

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and has been convener of the Heritage Guardians campaign against the War Memorial project.

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One comment on “Stephens, David: Two absorbing evenings: the National Capital Authority information sessions on the Australian War Memorial $498m redevelopment project
  1. Leighton View says:

    The words “hubris” and “fall” for some reason come to mind. What a sad chapter in Canberra’s history.

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