Stephens, David: What happens if the War Memorial Council goes in 13 different directions?

David Stephens*

‘What happens if the War Memorial Council goes in 13 different directions?’, Honest History, 20 July 2023 updated

Honest History recently received an unsigned letter from the Hon. Kim Beazley AC, Chair of the Council of the Australian War Memorial. It set us thinking.

We had written to Mr Beazley asking him to request the resignation of Council member, Major General Greg Melick, because of General Melick’s public opposition to a decision of the Council regarding its future depiction of the Australian Frontier Wars. Mr Beazley replied as follows:

In practice the Council has always had members with a variety of views on matters about Memorial content and more broadly. This is a strength.

These views are from time to time expressed publicly. What matters is what Council decides and Council has decided there should be recognition in the redeveloped galleries of frontier wars. All members of Council are entitled to individual views. **

There are 13 members of the Memorial Council, including the Chair and the three heads of the three service, ex officio. The official biodata on the Memorial’s website leaves out important information on some members, which we have added below:

(The Memorial’s website is way out of date on appointments, too, Mr Abbott, Ms Bown and Mr Keighran all having been re-appointed during 2022, but only Ms Bown’s entry saying this. More on that and on the Memorial Council’s conservative credentials.)

If the freedom to publicly diverge from decisions of the Memorial Council applies equally to all members – for example, there is no special deal for General Melick because of his RSL connection or for the service heads (ex officio members) because they are service heads or for Mr McMahon because he works for Kerry Stokes, influential donor to the Memorial and former Chair of the Council – there is potential for 13 different views about any Council decision and for all of these to be aired in public. (We are not suggesting any deals exist.)

For example, if the Australian Defence Force service heads (Air Marshal Robert Chipman, Vice Admiral Mark Hammond, Lieutenant General Simon Stuart) disagree with the rest of the Council on how the Memorial is to provide its promised broader and deeper depiction of Frontier Wars, will they feel free to say so publicly? After all, when British or colonial-raised military forces were involved in the Frontier Wars they were fighting against ‘the Queen’s enemies’ and the ADF today is the direct descendant of those forces. Could that fact influence service head members of the Council?

Turning to more recent wars, if the Memorial’s plans to devote more attention to Australia’s Afghanistan deployment involve Council decisions with which Mr Abbott, Prime Minister during part of that deployment, disagrees can he publicly differ from the Council decisions? Remember that Memorial Director Anderson said that the Memorial would be ‘a place of truth’ in relation to Afghanistan and generally.

The trigger for an individual member to publicly disagree with a Council decision might even be something that had not arisen in Council discussions. General Melick presumably raised in Council his fear – or threat – that 600 000 RSL members would rise up in righteous anger if the Memorial went too far with its plans for broader and deeper depiction of the Frontier Wars. (He certainly made such remarks to The Australian in October.) There are other possibilities, however: Aspen Medical, headed by Council member Glenn Keys, might want to make and announce a generous donation to the Memorial, even though the Council had decided that the Memorial would no longer receive donations from companies that had contracts with the Australian government;*** Council member Daniel Keighran VC, faced with such a Council decision, might make a similar remark in the interests of his employer, Thales. What is the difference between those cases and that of General Melick going against the Council decision on the Frontier Wars? Is there indeed a special deal for the RSL?

(Again, we are not suggesting specific deals exist or that the cases here are other than hypothetical. We are just asking questions which the Memorial presumably asked before Mr Beazley wrote to us. Or did it?)

There is an exact precedent for the Melick case, but one that had a different outcome. In 2012, the Council of the War Memorial had to consider whether proposed rival war memorials in Anzac Parade were compatible with its mission. Council member, Rear Admiral Ken Doolan, was also National President of RSL and said in a Council meeting that the RSL had a policy of never opposing plans for new war memorials. Another Council member reminded him that he had to make a decision as a member of the Council, not wearing his RSL hat. He did. Why did someone not say the same to General Melick?

These are all questions left hanging by Chair Beazley’s letter. We’ll draw his attention to them.

As for the rest of the letter, it is disappointing that it simply says ‘Council has decided there should be recognition in the redeveloped galleries of frontier wars’. In the endless game of parsing the Memorial’s delphic and dissembling statements, we are left wondering whether this form of words is a retreat from then Chair Nelson in September last year (‘much broader, much deeper depiction’) or from Chair Beazley (‘substantial’ representation) on a number of occasions this year.

Words matter. Given the inconsistencies in these public statements, we need to ask the straight question: does anyone at or responsible for the Memorial really know what is going on?

*David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website, and convener of Heritage Guardians, opposed to the $550m War Memorial redevelopment. He is a member of Defending Country Memorial Project Inc., formed to encourage the War Memorial to properly recognise and commemorate the Frontier Wars.

**That the letter (as received here) was unsigned struck us as unprofessional. Perhaps it was a function of the Memorial being in Canberra and Mr Beazley being based in Perth. Even attaching a pdf or photograph of Mr Beazley’s signature would have given the letter extra authority.

*** The Council has not made such a decision, but it should, particularly where companies manufacture the weapons and vehicles of war.

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