War Memorial chairman Stokes prods PM on PWC progress on project

Update 3 December 2020: Rick Wilson MP elevated to Chair (entry for 3 December).


It’s interesting what goes down at national ceremonies, even under Covid restrictions. Yesterday’s Guardian blog from Canberra, under the byline of Paul Karp, reported thus at 16.48 hrs:

Stokes asked for prime minister’s “help” on public works committee

At today’s Remembrance Day ceremony, the Australian War Memorial chairman, Kerry Stokes, was overheard telling Scott Morrison: “I [Stokes] need your [Morrison’s] help with the PWC [Public Works Committee].” [Update 13 November 2020: a picture of their chat.]

[There followed background on the project, the controversy it has aroused, and the current PWC inquiry on the $498m Memorial project.]

Asked what he was requesting from Morrison and whether it was appropriate to lobby him at the event, Stokes responded through the Australian War Memorial:

“The conversation with the prime minister today took place after all official commemorative elements had ceased. He simply raised the need for a chairman to be appointed to the parliamentary standing committee on public works.”

As Karp noted, the chair of the PWC is currently vacant, following the resignation from the Parliament on 18 September of the former chair, Dr John McVeigh. This resignation occurred while the inquiry into the Memorial project was under way (Dr McVeigh chaired the public hearing session), and the committee now has an Acting Chair, Tony Zappia MP, ALP SA.

The Guardian is seeking comment from the PM. The PM would have to be particularly off the pace to treat this as a simple case of a position not being filled. The PWC received by far the largest number of submissions (74) it has received on an inquiry since the PWC began work in 1913, and some 80 per cent of them were against the Memorial project. Similarly, there were 167 submissions to the Memorial on its ‘final preliminary documentation’, a clear majority of them, by the Memorial’s own admission and despite Memorial Director Anderson’s attempts to fudge the figures, ‘generally not supportive’ of the project.

Distinguished Australians, including former Directors and senior staff of the Memorial, historians, architects and former senior public servants, have come out against the project as envisaged, most recently in an open letter to the Prime Minister. Blind Freddy could see that this is not something that can or should be fixed by a nod and a wink on the sidelines of an event at the Memorial.

Blind Freddy could also surmise that Stokes’ ‘I need your help’ might relate to more than just filling the vacant PWC chair position. Perhaps the remaining members of the PWC, having considered the evidence, are digging their heels in and are seen to need a push along. The PWC inquiry should be suspended and so should the EPBC process, by withdrawal of the Memorial’s Final Preliminary Documentation because of its failure to address significant heritage concerns.

David Stephens

12 November 2020 updated

David Stephens is convener of the Heritage Guardians campaign against the Memorial project. Heritage Guardians’ campaign diary traces the story since early 2019.

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