Australian Frontier Wars: credibility gap at the War Memorial

Apr 16, 2023
Australian War Memorial, Canberra

There is a gap between Kim Beazley’s assurances about how the Australian War Memorial will properly recognise and commemorate the Australian Frontier Wars and what is actually being planned at the Memorial as it continues its $548m redevelopment. Action is needed now to get the Memorial on track.

The Honourable Kim Beazley AC has been Chair of the Australian War Memorial Council since December. Since then, he has made a number of statements on the Frontier Wars. (The Frontier Wars lasted from 1788 to at least 1928 and saw the deaths of between 20,000 and 100,000 Indigenous Australians in massacres by and resistance against settlers, police and native police, and military detachments.)

Mr Beazley said this to Samuel Clarke on The Wire in January: “The Frontier Wars are an important part of our military and our general history … [It is] part of the Truth-telling that we need to go through as a nation … [There will be in the redeveloped Memorial] a substantial recognition of those Frontier Wars … It will be substantial and important.”

Mr Beazley then said this to Patricia Karvelas on the ABC in February: “you have to have frontier wars reflected in it [the Memorial] because it is by that means we established ourselves”. Also in February, he said this to Peter FitzSimons in Nine Newspapers: “The thing I hope the Frontier Wars display can give the Aboriginal people is the dignity of resistance [as well as recognition of the massacres of Indigenous men, women and children]”.

Most recently, over Easter, Mr Beazley told Steve Evans of the Canberra Times that Aboriginal resistance to British invasion should get its own “substantial” section at the Memorial. “My view is that we need to have a focus on Aboriginal guerilla campaigns. This should be in a special section of the galleries in the museum section of the memorial.”

Reading those words, you would think that big changes – “substantial” ones – were afoot at the Memorial. Not so, if you turn to what has been said by Memorial management at Senate Estimates and in response to recent inquiries from Honest History.

Here is Memorial Director, Matt Anderson, at Senate Estimates in November last year: “[T]he precolonial galleries, as they are called – and they will now be called the pre-1914 galleries – are about 408 square metres of space. That’s what we’re talking about. In those 408 square metres of space we’ll also discuss the Boer Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, Sudan, and the New Zealand wars.”

In March, Honest History checked with Memorial management on whether this was still the intention. We were told that the current plan still provided for just 408 square metres of space, just 23 square metres more – or six per cent – than in the Colonial Conflicts/Soldiers of the Queen gallery in the pre-redevelopment Memorial.

We asked: were the Frontier Wars still to be co-located with displays on those pre-1914 expeditionary forces, as had been the case at the Memorial since 1985 in the old gallery and as the Director insisted in November? The answer was equivocal in some respects, but we detected no change from the November position.

Let’s parse this. What has been presented as a major new initiative by Australia’s premier commemorative institution boils down to recognising and commemorating the Frontier Wars – the wars that historian Henry Reynolds has described as our most important war and “foundational” to the Australia we have today, the wars that killed perhaps 100,000 Australians – in very limited space which will also depict four colonial adventures that killed around 600 Australians, almost all of those in the Boer War.

What to do? Gaining public support for the Voice clearly has to be the current priority for government, but without action soon, proper recognition and commemoration of the Frontier Wars – an essential part of the Truth-telling that has to accompany and follow the Voice – will be irrevocably compromised by stealthily taken decisions by architects and builders and Memorial management.

Kim Beazley’s “substantial recognition”, “the dignity of resistance”, and our appreciation of how “we established ourselves” look likely to be squeezed into that 408 square metres, that additional 23 square metres, along with those moustachioed good old boys sailing off to fight for Queen Victoria against Māori rebels, the Mahdi in Sudan, rebellious Boxers in China, and the Boer farmers in South Africa. That is crass and ludicrous and demeaning, and surely not what Kim Beazley has in mind.

What to do indeed? Two articles by David Stephens, Professor Peter Stanley, and Vietnam veteran, Noel Turnbull, propose five Actions for the Memorial:

  • amend the Australian War Memorial Act 1980 to explicitly require the Memorial to deal with the Frontier Wars (rather than leave the Memorial to interpret the current Act);
  • delay allocating space for the Frontier Wars until decisions have been made about gallery content;
  • provide a designated Frontier Wars gallery rather than co-locating the Frontier Wars with colonial expeditionary forces;
  • consult a wide range of historians (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) and Indigenous people (not just the Memorial’s narrowly based Indigenous Advisory Group); and
  • develop the theme of “Defending Country”, which is applicable both to First Nations people defending Country on their Country and uniformed Australian service people sent overseas to fight.

There are some hints in what the Memorial told Honest History and in Kim Beazley’s Easter remarks that there is room to manoeuvre. Change will not happen, however, without the public and the media – both of whom have believed the claims that change is coming – applying pressure and the Memorial being willing to listen. Kim Beazley needs to recognise the current unsatisfactory situation and continue to lead the way out of it.

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