DAVID STEPHENS. What will be the Nelsonian Legacy at the Australian War Memorial?

Jan 31, 2020

When it was announced that Dr Brendan Nelson was finishing up as Director of the Australian War Memorial, the Chair of the Memorial Council, Kerry Stokes, said Dr Nelson’s ‘enduring legacy’ will be the Memorial’s $498 million expansion program. There is a strong argument, however, that a more notable Nelsonian legacy is the Memorial’s eagerness to chase and receive donations from arms manufacturers.

Dr Nelson made no apology for seeking money from companies that a senior retired RAAF officer once described to the author as ‘gunrunners’. Indeed, Dr Nelson was critical of those arms companies which had not made donations. Of course, the Memorial had received donations from these sources prior to Dr Nelson taking the reins in December 2012 – the Memorial’s theatre has carried the name of arms manufacturer BAE Systems since 2008 in recognition of that company’s largesse – but it seemed to put more effort in this direction under Dr Nelson’s leadership. (It is unknown whether Dr Nelson’s annual performance bonus of $60,000 was recognition of his skills in extracting money from corporate donors, including gunrunners.)

The Memorial has been inconsistent in disclosing how much it received from corporate donors, including arms manufacturers. Some of its annual reports have been opaque as to whether a list of donors is cumulative or relates only to the year being reported. Its responses to Senate Estimates Committees have been evasive and too clever by half, for example, deliberately overlooking donations in kind and wrongly denying that the Memorial conceded naming rights to donors (‘the BAE Systems Theatre’).

Recent changes to Department of Finance rules for annual reports mean that it is no longer necessary for reports to show donors and amounts. That must have been a great relief to the Memorial, whose money-raising habits had come under growing attention from the media. Donors, too, may breathe more easily under the new rules, though many of them like to bask in the public relations benefits of making donations.

Donations and sponsorships from all Memorial donors amounted to $4.5 million in 2018-19, $6.7 million in 2017-18, and more than $14 million in 2016-17. Donations from individual companies are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and are small change compared with the value of these companies’ sales.

The Memorial’s arms company donors are some of the world’s largest arms companies. Of the ten largest arms companies by value of sales in 2018, seven have been donors to the Memorial in recent years, including the top six, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, General Dynamics, BAE Systems, and the tenth, French arms company Thales.

Dr Nelson’s recent appointment as Boeing’s President for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific reinforces the existence of a military-industrial-commemorative complex in Australia. President Eisenhower decades ago warned of the links between the military and the industries that supply it; commentators since have examined the ‘revolving door’ between senior military and senior arms company appointments. Dr Nelson’s translation to the Boeing job, after years of touting for arms company donations to the Memorial, and while holding an unpaid position on the Australian advisory board of Thales, shows us that career time spent commemorating wars does not preclude moving on to a post in a company that profits from wars.

Matthew Anderson, Dr Nelson’s replacement as Director, takes up the job in March. Asked about the arms donations issue, Mr Anderson said ‘he had not reached a view on whether the war memorial would continue to accept sponsorships from arms manufacturers under his leadership’.

Mr Anderson may not have to press Dr Nelson’s Boeing very hard for donations to the Memorial, but it will be interesting to see whether he does as well in extracting money from other corporates, including gunrunners. Will he, too, get a performance bonus for success in this role?

Because of the changed reporting rules, we may be hard pressed to answer these questions, though there will be hints in acknowledgements in Memorial exhibitions (Boeing’s assistance in mounting the Memorial’s Afghanistan exhibition is acknowledged on the Memorial’s website), awarding of Memorial Fellowships to donors (Boeing’s then President, Dennis Muilenburg, was made a Fellow), and speeches at black tie occasions in Anzac Hall (before it is demolished as part of the extensions).

Meanwhile, Dr Nelson’s other legacy, the Memorial’s expanded space, will be taken up with the shiny, retired weapons and vehicles of war manufactured by the Memorial’s gunrunner donors. As John Menadue said some time ago, the Memorial has lost its way – unless the new Director manages to steer it in a different direction. Over to you, Mr Anderson.

David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website (honesthistory.net.au) and a member of the Heritage Guardians group, campaigning against the War Memorial extensions.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!