Stephens, David: War Memorial news: backing Chairman Stokes; reaching out to military history buffs; jumping the gun on closing Anzac Hall; possibly getting Tony Abbott as Council Chair

David Stephens*

‘War Memorial news: backing Chairman Stokes; reaching out to military history buffs; jumping the gun on closing Anzac Hall; possibly getting Tony Abbott as Council Chair’, Honest History, 8 March 2021 updated

The Australian War Memorial benefits not only from ‘the Anzac cloak’ – ‘Drape “Anzac” over an argument and, like a magic cloak, the argument is sacrosanct’ (Peter Cochrane) – but also from its aversion to publicity unless it is on its own terms. The Memorial’s spokespersons put its views – the current Director, Matt Anderson, more politely and with somewhat more concern for evidence than was the case with his predecessor, Brendan Nelson – but the institution has often been reluctant to engage with its critics; it gives the impression it feels it does not need to do so. Consequently, it has been known to some of these critics as Fort Campbell. (Campbell is the Canberra suburb where the Memorial sits.)

Stokes is still our guy but be careful with Brereton

FOI remains a means of extracting things from the Memorial, however, and the ABC’s Mark Willacy (alumnus of the Afghanistan-Brereton story team) recently struck a small nugget with the story that, at a Memorial Council meeting on 27 November, the Council unanimously supported Kerry Stokes in his role as chairman. Stokes himself had raised ‘concerns about the impact of recent media interest regarding his support of war veterans [particularly Ben Roberts-Smith] on his role of Chairman, and the potential impact on the Memorial’s reputation’.

The Council Minutes also covered how the Memorial should deal with the Brereton report.

Council agreed that the existing exhibitions should not be altered but future proposed exhibitions would be informed by the outcomes of the investigations as a result of the report.

The Director advised that no changes had been made to the Afghanistan gallery in response to the report. Due process must be followed and “strategic patience” would be central to the Memorial’s response. It would, as ever, hasten slowly.

The Council’s meeting came just two days after 2GB ‘shock jock’ Ben Fordham had attacked Anderson for wanting to create ‘a hall of shame’ at the Memorial. Anderson had said the Memorial should be ‘a place of truth’. The Prime Minister responded to Fordham the same day, saying that the Memorial Council would deal with the matter (‘I trust the War Memorial board [sic] directors to exercise the appropriate judgement’). And, so it seems, they have – in the PM’s and Fordham’s view, at least. (More on the Brereton backwash and the Memorial.)

Update 17 March 2021: William De Maria on the same meeting, in Pearls and Irritations.

A glossy appeal to military history buffs

Meanwhile, the Memorial’s central task at present is landing the $498m extensions project, which now only requires approval from the National Capital Authority to go ahead. Recently, the Memorial looked to building up public support for the project by ‘reaching out’ to members of military history societies through a glossy booklet, Our Continuing Story, and asking the military history folk to send it on to their networks.

The Memorial’s claims for widespread public support for its project are dubious, as the Heritage Guardians group has argued consistently (for example, here, under sub-heading ‘Not 80 per cent support, not by a country mile’). Still, the Memorial’s efforts with military history buffs will probably bear fruit in terms of support for the project, particularly because the glossy lacks the vistas of retired military machinery in hectares of space, which have generated accusations that the project will produce a ‘military theme park’ or ‘military Disneyland’.

Something similar happened last year. Honest History noted (under sub-heading ‘Just as the gate was closing …’) that the numbers on the Memorial’s consultation on heritage matters under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act showed a late turn in favour of the project.

Of the first 80 submissions received, only 13 (16 per cent) were classified [by the Memorial] “generally supportive”, but, of the next 87 received, 51 (64 per cent) were labelled generally supportive. These 87 submissions were sent and/or received close to the nominal deadline 0f 31 July. … 37 of the 43 ‘Veterans Community’ submissions were among that late-arriving second 87, and 35 of them were “generally supportive”.

Of course, veterans have just as much right to have a say as anyone else does, but one wonders whether the reaching out to military history societies might generate a similar statistic.

Update 10 March 2021: The Memorial has advised that the brochure had a wider distribution than just military history societies. It was also sent to other Memorial stakeholders such as ex-service organisations, RSL state branches, DVA state offices and the like. As the above post pointed out, the focus in this document is not imagery of LTOs but on personal stories. In this context, the Memorial says, the brochure is part of its ongoing outreach to veterans to ask them to help the Memorial tell their stories in their words and through their objects, photographs and the Memorial says it has already received some promising responses in this regard.

Champing at the bit in Campbell

Talking of the Memorial’s big project – irreverently known to some observers as ‘the Brendanbunker’ after the former Director, although Chairman Stokes has also been very keen to kick it along – a report last week in the local free journal, the Canberra Weekly, had it that Anzac Hall will be closed from later this month (March), preparatory to its demolition as part of the $498m project. This seems odd, as Honest History understands that the Memorial’s Works Approval application for the project, including the demolition of Anzac Hall, will not come before the National Capital Authority (NCA) until May or June.

While the Memorial project has received two out of three necessary approvals – Minister for the Environment under the EPBC Act, Public Works Committee – it still has to get Works Approval from the NCA. It is possible, though extremely unlikely, that this may not be given.

Is the Memorial then jumping the approval gun with its preparations for demolishing Anzac Hall? Last year, the Memorial got the tick from the NCA for carpark works, which Heritage Guardians and others described as ‘salami slicing’ – the proponent getting approval for bits of the work so it could say when the final big project comes up for approval, ‘How can you knock this back when you have approved all these earlier bits?’

Salami slicing is effectively gaming the approvals process, although the Memorial insists that this is not the case in the present project. We understand that the Memorial will put more ‘early works’ to the NCA during March, covering hoarding, services relocations, and excavations. There may be other items which do not require NCA approval, such as the temporary relocation of the Stone of Remembrance to ensure it is not damaged during the construction works.

Update 16 March 2021: War Memorial media release confirms above story.

A Chair for a former PM?

Finally, the Sunday Telegraph‘s Ellen Whinnett filed a long article (paywall) speculating that War Memorial Council member, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, might be the pea for Chair of the Council once Stokes’s term ends in August. The Chair is elected by the members of the Council.

Honest History speculated more than six months ago about the possible rise of Abbott to this position. We and others argued that he is the wrong choice for the Council, whether as Chair or mere member.

Minister Chester has announced the reappointments of three members of the Memorial Council. Two new members were appointed recently and either of them, businessman Glenn Keys (Aspen Medical, Invictus Games, Veteran Sport Australia) and war widows advocate (National President of Australian War Widows Incorporated) Rhonda Vanzella, have the credentials to be Chair of the Council. Biographies of current Council members.

For discussion of the composition of the Council – currently nine out of 13 members are current or ex-military, only four of 13 are women – and of how it might be chosen in a different way, use the Honest History search engine, with search term ‘Council’. One thought: why not advertise War Memorial Council vacancies publicly in the same way that we have recruited men and women in times of war?

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and convener of the Heritage Guardians group, opposed to the $498m War Memorial extensions project.


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