AWM needs lessons in democracy

Apr 23, 2021

While fine and solemn words about our democratic values and freedoms will be uttered from the Australian War Memorial (AWM) on Anzac Day, behind the scenes the institution is engaging in processes that treat with contempt our right to help shape the important decisions that affect us all. 

Approvals for the proposed $1/2 billion demolition and expansion of the Memorial are nearing completion.  The final approval needed is that of the National Capital Authority (NCA), which has not yet considered the redevelopment as a whole.  Not content to wait however, the Memorial has applied to the NCA for “early works” approval for destruction and demolition at the site, approval that would render any further NCA decision superfluous. 

Specifically, the “early works” would include the demolition of Anzac Hall (one of the most controversial parts of the whole project), the destruction of over 100 trees including every eucalypt in front of the Memorial and many others, and excavation of a large area around the entrance to the Memorial.

The characterisation of such irreversible steps as “early works”, to be conducted before final approval of the project, beggars belief.  What would one do with a rubble-filled virtually tree-less building site other than rebuild and replant ….and then wait a few decades until the new trees approach the grand stature of those already there. The salami-slicing that has characterised the AWM’s processes to date is about to take its final cut; there will be nothing left for the NCA to decide if the “early works” are approved.

The most recent rubber-stamping of the project was by the federal parliament’s Public Works Committee in late February.  Of the 77 submissions to the PWC – by far the largest number it has ever received an anything since the Committee began in 1913 – approximately three-quarters were against the proposal.  The Committee’s report downplayed the quantity and quality of the opposition to the project.

Before that, in December last year, the federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley gave the necessary EPBC (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation) heritage approval, despite the Government’s own Australian Heritage Council, and many other experts, advising that the project should not proceed.  (On heritage matters, AWM Director Matt Anderson recently referred to the heritage value of destroying Anzac Hall: “If we’re doubling the space available to tell the stories, we’re doubling the heritage value of that building“.  Someone should tell him that heritage doesn’t work like that.) 

A “done deal” mentality appears to have characterised this project from its inception.  Former AWM Director Brendan Nelson stated nearly two years ago that The train has left the station” and that plans were well advanced.  He derided the project’s very many authoritative and knowledgeable critics and claimed that they were a small group. 

This “small group” included more than 83 prominent Australians, with a collective rich understanding of Australian society and history, who in March 2019 expressed strong opposition to the plan. They included Tom Keneally, Richard Flanagan, Carmen Lawrence, Gillian Triggs, many eminent historians, former departmental secretaries and diplomats, the founding chair of ICAN (Australia’s only Nobel Peace Prize recipient), architects and others.  Two former AWM directors Brendon Kelson and Steve Gower have actively opposed the plan.  All were dismissed by Dr Nelson as a “facile” minority.  

The “small group” of opponents also includes the vast majority of the many letter writers who have expressed an opinion on the subject in the Canberra Times.  Since early 2019, 90% of them (that’s counting, not guessing) have expressed opposition to the project.

Compare that 90% with the statement made by the current AWM Director to parliament’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee on 24 March (on page 112 of the linked PDF):

“…In the last survey that we conducted, which was leading into this current process of community consultation, 4,000 people nationally were engaged about the development, about the project, about the galleries, what they’d like to see et cetera. Only 6% of the 4,000 were opposed to the development.” 

Such statements, and the survey to which it refers, continue the AWM’s habit of posing extremely leading questions to which the number of negative responses would predictably be tiny, making critical responses difficult to register, and shamefully misrepresenting the results.   While a discrepancy between 90% opposition and 6% opposition is sufficiently vast for serious questions to be asked, the AWM seems blissfully unconcerned, and our parliamentarians, with a few notable exceptions, are missing in action.

 Perhaps most significant is the Director’s recent seemingly innocuous statement that critics of the redevelopment were “entitled to their views“.  He has however overlooked a key element in our democracy: we do not simply have permission to think, but also the right for public opinion to help shape important decisions. On the AWM redevelopment, public opinion has instead been misrepresented and marginalised. 

 The NCA appears to be falling into line to be the final rubber stamp.  Their email of 19 March to stakeholders, inviting submissions on the AWM’s “early works” application, made no mention of Anzac Hall nor the scale of proposed tree removals, all of which is apparent only on a careful reading of the documentation.

 Nevertheless, readers are encouraged to make their views known to the NCA.  We must still hope that overwhelming public opinion means something.  NCA information on the project is available here, further information from the website Honest History is available here, and submissions, short or long, can be emailed to [email protected] .  They must be submitted by 30 April.

 If nothing else, the widespread opposition to this project has been placed firmly on the public record for all time, and will stand as a testament to the abuse of power.

 As we commemorate on Anzac Day those lives lost in Australia’s wars, let’s remember that we must honour them by fighting for our democracy back here at home.  At many levels, including in our national war commemoration, it’s falling apart.

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