DAVID STEPHENS. A grandiose commemorative project for Canberra raises lots of questions

Nov 2, 2018

There has been for some time an air of inevitability about the extensions to the Australian War Memorial, a project announced on Thursday by the Prime Minister and Memorial Director, Dr Brendan Nelson. Serious questions remain, however, about this grandiose undertaking, which is known irreverently to some observers as the Brendanbunker and could be seen as a legacy of Dr Nelson’s term.

Director Nelson has been talking for more than a year about his desire to extend the Memorial. He has made good use of a number of platforms, including Senate Estimates, to put the case. He has chaired an interdepartmental committee representing all interested departments and authorities and he has made sure the Opposition, as well as the Government, is on side.

The project now announced will cost just under $500 million, spread over nine years, and will include completely redesigning the Memorial’s lower ground floor, a new underground exhibition space to display large items such as helicopters and jet fighters, a live feed of current Australian Defence Force activities, and pictures of other memorials throughout the country. The extended Memorial will be 80 per cent larger and the existing Anzac Hall will be demolished after less than 20 years of service.

Here are some questions about the project that should have been asked already and which are still worth asking:

  • If the Memorial has a problem finding space to display more of its exhibits might it consider saying ‘No’ to some donations, or, to the extent that there are legislative or other constraints forcing it to accept donations, seek changes to these constraints? (The proportion of displayed items to total holdings is much the same at the Memorial as it is at other cultural institutions.)
  • To the extent that much of the proposed new space will be used to accommodate large items of superannuated military kit (helicopters and fighter jets, for example), might these be parked somewhere else, like the Temora Aviation Museum, where they would do wonders for local tourism?
  • Given that much military kit cannot safely be climbed upon or played with by visitors, might an enlarged investment in digitisation be more interesting for visitors – and cheaper? (This question applies in some degree to any exhibit at the Memorial.)
  • Could the money mooted for these extensions be better spent by the government at large on non-bricks and mortar schemes of benefit to former ADF members and their families? (Increased direct support for PTSD sufferers and their loved ones would be more useful than the proposed ‘contemplation space’ in the bowels of the extended Memorial.)
  • Could the money proposed for the extensions be better spread across other national cultural institutions, which have suffered for a number of years (more than the Memorial has) from the effects of efficiency dividends and other cutbacks?
  • Do appeals like Dr Nelson’s trade on the idea that the Memorial is somehow a ‘sacred place’ for Australians? (It may well be sacred for some of us, but Anzac is not – yet – the state religion.)
  • Does the official approach to Anzac commemoration amount to bullying or worse? (The writer Paul Daley, said this recentlyabout the extensions: ‘To publicly challenge such emotive signalling for public funding is to run the risk of being portrayed as heretical, even treasonous, of course’.)
  • Does the implication that the Memorial is ‘sacred’ effectively exempt it from the accountability regimes applicable to other government institutions? (Dr Nelson frequently locates the Australian ‘soul’ in the Memorial or refers to the place in spiritual terms. The historian Peter Cochrane wrote in 2015, ‘[d]rape “Anzac” over an argument and, like a magic cloak, the argument is sacrosanct’.)
  • If government money is insufficient to fund the Memorial’s plans, will it try to make up some of the short-fall by falling back on corporate donations, including donations from arms companies?
  • Is a claim to ‘sacred’ status incompatible with the Memorial’s current attitude to donations from arms companies?
  • If one of the features of the extended Memorial is to provide real-time reporting on current activities of the ADF, is this turning the Memorial into an arm of defence policy?

Dr Nelson’s current term as Director ends on 30 May 2019. Recently, he approvingly quoted an unnamed visitor to the Memorial: ‘whatever the government spends on the Australian War Memorial … will never be enough’. That attitude rather makes a nonsense of accountability processes in government. In Senate Estimates recently, Labor’s Alex Gallacher asked Dr Nelson whether anyone ever said ‘No’ to him. Dr Nelson avoided the question but today’s announcement brings it to mind. If nothing else, the extensions will be an expensive legacy of its formidable Director.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website (honesthistory.net.au) which contains many posts on the Memorial’s extension plans. Use the site search engine with terms like ‘extension’ and ‘bunker’.

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