Stephens, David: War Memorial misses opportunity to clarify confusion about Frontier Wars

David Stephens*

‘War Memorial misses opportunity to clarify confusion about Frontier Wars’, Honest History, 3 November 2022 updated

Update 28 November 2022: Analysis of the Estimates transcript confirms the Memorial’s backsliding from the position of 29 September. The Memorial has passed in six weeks from Brendan Nelson’s ‘much broader, much deeper’ treatment of frontier violence to ‘proportionate’ and ‘modest’. The people who welcomed what looked like a change in direction at the Memorial have the right to feel dudded. The ‘new’ Memorial will look much like the old one.

Update 9 November 2022: Last night’s Estimates (FADT Committee) went for 45 minutes with Memorial Director Anderson very much under the pump. Nationals Senator Canavan hogged the stage, pushing the Coalition line referred to in the Updates of 5 and 7 November below. The backlash has begun against any suggestion of change at the Memorial.

People who welcomed Dr Nelson’s off-the-cuff remarks of 29 September need to realise that his ‘much broader, much deeper depiction and presentation’ is a very vague objective and as rubbery as all get out. Without full disclosure of what the Council decided, we are in the dark (see our original post of 3 November below). The few hints that Anderson gave about what is intended make the word ‘modest’ (again, see 3 November) seem very apt as a descriptor of what is intended. As for the presumed supporters of change on the Committee, Labor Senators were conspicuous by their absence and Greens Senators were either chasing gargoyles or running out of time.

More to come when we’ve seen the transcript. Video here meanwhile (from mark 17.10).

Also: letter to Canberra Times from Professor Stanley: ‘Having correctly and courageously (if reluctantly) accepted that Frontier War needs to be recognised, the memorial now faces attack from ignorant and ungenerous conservatives, out of step with history or the nation’s mood’. 

David Stephens

Update 7 November 2022: Wild frothing from Barnaby and Bolt on Sky News, hinting at a stoush in Estimates. Backlash continues: Barnaby and Bolt beating up on Brendan from Boeing. Bolt is incorrect that Australian-raised forces were not used against First Nations, as the Memorial’s Agenda paper admits. At page 10 it refers to ‘five historical examples of colonial-raised forces that did take part in frontier violence’ and gives details in an Appendix. We sent this feedback to Mr Bolt, cc. Mr Joyce:

G’day Boltster and Barnaby

Your interview last evening was great fun. Just to pick you up on a point of fact, Andrew: the Memorial’s own Agenda paper, made available (redacted) under FOI refers at page 10 to five historical examples of colonial-raised forces that did take part in frontier violence’ and gives details in an Appendix as follows with more details under each heading:

‘The definition of the Defence Force given in the Australian War Memorial Act, 1980 includes
any colonial naval and military forces. Naval and military development in Australian colonies
followed different historical trajectories. As far as is known, the volunteer militia, artillery, and
other units of the second half of the nineteenth century did not take part in frontier violence.
Other forces raised in the colonies, however, did take part in frontier violence, and some were clearly military in nature. Below are five historical examples of colonial-raised forces
that did take part in frontier violence.’ (Emphasis added.)

[Details follow about Governor Macquarie, NSW 1816; Van Diemen’s Land, 1830; Pinjarra WA, 1834; Waterloo Creek, NSW, 1838; Native Police, Queensland 1848-c. 1910.]

See ya, gents.

Estimates should be fun.

Update 6 November 2022: Minister Keogh on Hobart radio from 31 October: ‘As part of that expansion, there’s an opportunity to provide some greater context to Frontier Conflict in terms of how that impacts on our overall involvement in war and conflict as a nation …’

Update 5 November 2022: Geoff Chambers in The Australian picks up a 2014 blog from the War Memorial on its attitude to Frontier Wars – there have been plenty of similar bits of evidence in the intervening eight years – but more importantly, foreshadows questions at Estimates next week – from the conservative side:

The Weekend Australian can reveal AWM director Matt Anderson will come under pressure at a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday to explain how the Frontier Wars can be recognised without the memorial breaching its longstanding mandate.

The Coalition says Labor should “try its hand” at amending the Australian War Memorial Act before ­increasing the Frontier Wars presence as part of the $550m War Memorial upgrade.

Further down: ‘the Albanese government believes no changes to the Act are required to recognise historical conflicts that Australians have fought in’. (Honest History’s post in August covering these issues, including legislative option.)

The article also has quotes from a Memorial spokesperson which provide further tweaks on our original post below:

The Australian War Memorial will expand on the depiction and presentation of the violence committed against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The memorial aims to broaden awareness and education through an inclusive presentation of frontier conflicts in a respectful and appropriate way, in keeping with our mission and purpose.

Update 4 November 2022: Media release from Honest History/Heritage Guardians. Earlier material on the Frontier Wars at the Memorial: here; here; here; here (some overlaps). The Memorial’s FOI Disclosure Log now allows access to the same material as referred to below.


[Our original post from 3 November]

War Memorial Council Chair, Dr Brendan Nelson, made some remarks on 29 September about the Memorial’s intentions regarding the Frontier Wars. Since then, confusion has reigned. The Memorial has now missed an opportunity to clarify matters through full disclosure under Freedom of Information.

How we got to where we are

At the media conference on 29 September, Dr Nelson said:

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, initially by British, then by pastoralists, then by police and by Aboriginal militia. That will be part of the new galleries (emphasis added).

Memorial Council member Greg Melick then tried to interpret what Nelson had said (Cameron Stewart, The Australian, 21 October): ‘Brendan Nelson didn’t say we were having major new galleries on the frontier wars. He said we will probably do a wider and deeper treatment of it’ (emphasis added).

Dr Nelson was then quoted by Stewart:

[I]n the new galleries we will professionally and sensitively present the story of frontier violence perpetrated against Aboriginal Australians …  It will be of modest dimensions … [I]t will be proportionate, sensitive and modest (emphasis added).

Freedom of Information fails to deliver

Immediately after the 29 September media conference, the Heritage Guardians group and another Canberra citizen separately lodged Freedom of Information requests seeking Memorial Council Minutes and other material. In response to both requests, the Memorial refused to release the Minutes of its meeting of 19 August (six pages), and released a heavily redacted Agenda paper (38 pages) from the same meeting.

The refusal and the redactions are based on applying sub-section 47C (‘deliberative matter’) of the FOI Act and failing to modify the application of that sub-section by applying the Act’s public interest test. According to the Memorial:

  • the Minutes contain ‘exchange of opinion, advice, recommendations, a collection of facts, interim decisions and recommendations’ – that is, ‘deliberative matter’;
  • the redacted sections of the Agenda paper contain ‘advice, opinions and recommendations involved around deliberative processes of the Memorial and Frontier Violence … It can be noted that this information is in the nature of weighing up competing arguments and evaluating considerations.’ That is, ‘deliberative matter’ again.

As for the public interest, ‘access must be given to a conditionally exempt document unless access to the document at the time would, on balance, be contrary to the public interest’. The Memorial found that disclosure without redactions would mean unveiling ‘deliberative matter’, and its decision ‘does not require an assessment of whether harm would result from disclosure’. So, it’s not a matter of pursuing the greater good but whether the rest of us can know what material the Council considered as it came to whatever decision it came to – which we are not allowed to know either.

What is left of the Agenda paper after the redactions contains some interesting tweaks on the Memorial’s previous attitudes on what counts as a ‘war’ and on whether ‘home-raised forces’ were used against First Nations people. We may have more to say on this later.

Finally, we were impressed by the names responsible for the Agenda paper. It was authored by Brian Dawson, Assistant Director, National Collection, had six contributing authors, including two historians, and was cleared by Director Anderson. On the other hand, it looks a little dated, with extensive quotes from a Stan Grant article from 2019 and a letter to the Canberra Times from 2021. (Update 17 November 2022: General Dawson confirmed at Senate Estimates on 8 November – page 36 of the Proof Hansard – that the paper was a resubmission of one originally prepared in August 2021.) Reference to the Honest History website would have produced better material but maybe that was redacted.

What should be next?

Honest History/Heritage Guardians made its FOI request precisely because we wanted to know what the Memorial had actually decided – given that it seemed to be a significant departure from decades moving in a different direction – and what had led to its decision – we were interested in the ‘deliberative matter’. This became of even more interest after the Melick and later Nelson comments, which seemed to cut across the favourable reactions to the original Nelson remarks of 29 September, including the reactions from Ministers Burney and Keogh. Despite the FOI request, all we have to go on is Dr Nelson’s two versions of what happened, Mr Melick’s interpretation, and Cameron Stewart’s report.

The Memorial’s failure to respond properly to this FOI request made in good faith calls into question its willingness to make real changes in the way it deals with the Frontier Wars – and to bring Australians along with it. To put it crudely, the Memorial is playing silly buggers – and doing it arrogantly. Off-the-cuff remarks from a Council Chair who is leaving at the end of the month for a new job in London, followed by grumpy commentary from a Council member who is also national head of the RSL, followed then by remarks from the Chair over the phone from Washington to Cameron Stewart – these do not cut it.

It is not even clear how often the Memorial Council has dealt with this matter – at the 19 August meeting but perhaps on another occasion also. Cameron Stewart: ‘The AWM council debated this question twice this year behind closed doors, with the second meeting in mid-year reaching a majority – but not unanimous agreement’. Were there two meetings or one, and how did the numbers fall? Australians need to know.

Two things are clear from all this. First, we need the Memorial to come clean about what, behind closed doors, it has decided and why. We need nothing less than full disclosure, with no redactions, of all Council discussions on the Frontier Wars. Hiding behind FOI bumph doesn’t cut it either.

Secondly, the future direction of the Memorial is too important to be left to its unrepresentative Council and rattled senior management. Government needs to act to bring the Memorial back in touch with the rest of us. The Memorial belongs to all Australians, not just to the Council or to recent veterans. This is about the future of a great national cultural institution.

Meanwhile, Senate Estimates next Tuesday (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee) may unravel some of the mystery. Or not.

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

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