On Friday the Director of the Australian War Memorial Brendan Nelson announced plans for a massive redevelopment of the institution which would cost up to $500 million.He hoped to receive the required funding in next year’s budget and he is likely to be given what- ever he asks for having already received strong support from both sides of politics. He also explained there would be an opportunity for the public to provide input into the project.
What an ideal opportunity it will provide for the Memorial to come to terms with Australia’s frontier wars. In fact what should happen is that the funding he seeks should depend on it finally meeting this profound national responsibility.
The debate on this matter goes back many years. In 1998 William Deane urged the Memorial to deal with frontier conflict and the debate has continued ever since. At no time in the ensuing 20 years has the Director or members of the governing board provided a satisfactory public defence of their recalcitrance. Only rarely does an official head appear above the parapet. The Memorial justification lacked cogency in 1998 and it is even less defensible today.
The case for change is well known but bears repeating. The most obvious point to make is that visitors from comparable countries find Australia’s official silence about the frontier wars difficult to understand and suspect that our ancestral racism is to blame. Both the United States and New Zealand recognize and commemorate their wars with the first nations. And conflict in Australia lasted for 140 years. It was an unmissable accompaniment to the history of settlement. And since William Deane’s intervention there has been a new generation of scholarship which has transformed our understanding of the scale and intensity of conflict all over the continent. The death toll was certainly much higher than we realized twenty years ago. The meticulous scholarship of Ray Evans and Robert Orsted-Jensen about the Queensland frontier is pointing to at least 50,000 violent deaths in that state alone. Lyndall Ryan’s team at the University of Newcastle is mapping the multiple sites of mass killing. It is clear that in terms of death and suffering the frontier wars are right up there with the two world wars.
But there is more to it than the alarming death rate. In the past there has been an understanding that violence accompanied the outward thrust of settlement even when there was disagreement about its extent and intensity. However the common view was that it was what international lawyers used to call private warfare, more akin to banditry and crime arising from personal revenge, as well as trespass, theft and disputes about women. But as William Dean no doubt appreciated this dismissive attitude was no longer tenable in the wake of the Mabo judgement in 1992 which changed our historiography as much as it revolutionised our jurisprudence.
The High Court determined that at the time of settlement the first nations not only occupied the land but had a form of traditional tenure which could be recognized by the common law. By clear implication they therefore exercised a form of sovereignty over their traditional homelands. Our historical interpretation had to change in sympathy. Frontier conflict had to be about land, about ownership and control of the whole continent. It was war by any measure. And it was more significant than most of the overseas ventures commemorated in the Memorial and along Anzac Avenue. It is not unreasonable to suggest that it was Australia’s most important war.
The trouble with the leadership team at the War Memorial is that their understanding of Australian history is a generation out of date and becomes more untenable with every passing year and all the while they manage a great and heavily funded national institution. How can they explain themselves to indigenous Australians? They no doubt want them to be part of the nation and would likely shun any assertion of a separate and distinctive nationalism. But their present policy has a hidden agenda. Their message is this: your warrior ancestors who fought for their land and way of life against impossible odds do not belong in the Memorial which Brendan Nelson repeatedly calls the soul of the nation. Your war dead do not belong in the national pantheon. Go away and find someone else to take them in.
Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian who is focused on frontier conflict between Indigenous people and European settlers.