Veterans’ Affairs team visits Estimates Committee for another round

Last week, the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee hosted a phalanx of officers from the Defence portfolio which included, as usual, a team from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and a smaller team from the Australian War Memorial. Among the highlights, taken from the Proof Hansard (but easy enough to find in the final version):

  • The Memorial has been pleased at the numbers of Australians attending its travelling Spirit of Anzac Centenary exhibition (particularly in Toowoomba, where the visit was booked out). The satisfaction ratings have been over 95 per cent, recorded as a smiley face on an I-phone type device (pp. 98-99).
  • The Memorial is to build a Flanders memorial garden, commission a statue of Sir John Monash, circa 1925, wearing his RSL badge and looking ‘Churchillian’ (or at least ‘determined’), and a knitted poppies project for Remembrance Day 2018 (p. 99).
  • There was also brief discussion of a planned exhibition in 2o18 on the aftermath of wars (this is welcome), a recent event with John Schumann (I was only nineteen), the commemoration of the Battle of Long Tan, the centenary of the Beersheba charge, and the revamped Afghanistan exhibition and video (pp. 99-102).
  • Right at the end, Director Nelson hinted at plans the Memorial has to extend its exhibition spaces (p. 102). These plans have been in the wind for a while (scroll down to Steve Gower’s cravat).
  • Turning to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Major General Chalmers gave a run-down on the Battle of Long Tan commemorations and how they did not go quite to plan, though he ended with an encouraging vignette about the welcoming attitude of local Vietnamese veterans (pp. 103-05).
  • Major General Chalmers outlined commemoration plans over the years 2017-18 (pp. 112-13), which Honest History has already reported on (scroll down to ‘Tour operators …’).
  • Finally, very late at night, DVA representatives spoke briefly about the Sir John Monash Interpretive Centre under construction in Picardy, France (p. 132). The centre is being built by a French company, Bouygues Batiment Grand Ouest, and the ‘immersive’ sound and light show has been contracted to Wild Bear. The work is within budget. As to a completion date, War Graves Director, Ken Corke, said this: ‘We are still targeting to open the centre on Anzac Day 2018. There are clearly some issues that may arise between now and then, which will our challenge our ability to meet that date, but at the moment we have them pretty much under control.’ Nous, as the French say, verrons.

No Senator saw fit to ask War Memorial representatives whether they had any views about the recent definition in the Australian National Dictionary of the word ‘Anzackery’, about the Director’s speech-making technique, or about whether the Memorial’s next annual report to Parliament will be less misleading than the last one was about the number of visitors to the Memorial’s website. One wonders if Senators do much homework at all.

For those recently arrived spectators who are surprised that War Memorial representatives appear in Veterans’ Affairs jerseys, this dates back to 1984, when Sir William Keys, then National President of the Returned and Services League, persuaded Prime Minister Hawke that the Memorial was better placed in the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio rather than in a cultural portfolio, where it had resided for some time. (See Michael McKernan’s Here is Their Spirit, pp. 328-31.) This has meant ever since that the Memorial has had a better deal from the Budget than it otherwise would have, because it does not have to directly compete for money with other national cultural institutions. More on this.

David Stephens

25 October 2016

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