Our War Memorial needs to show courage on Frontier Wars

Dec 16, 2023
Mounted police engaging Indigenous Australians during the Slaughterhouse Creek clash of 1838

One wonders what our legendary generals and our volunteer soldiers in many wars would have made of the dithering and dissembling at the top level of the Australian War Memorial on how it deals with the Australian Frontier Wars, a defining part of our Australian history.

The Australian War Memorial has lost its way. Here’s how to start getting it back on track: an Action Plan for Truth-telling about our history.

The Action Plan comes from Defending Country Memorial Project Inc. We recently launched our website defendingcountry.au, with the objective of ensuring that the War Memorial properly recognises and commemorates the Frontier Wars. Here’s a summary of the Action Plan:

ACTION 1: Amend the Memorial’s Act to mandate coverage of the Frontier Wars. This would make it harder for the Memorial to continue to misuse its corporate planning process and interpretations of its current Act (Australian War Memorial Act 1980), while giving it a buffer against conservative forces trying to prevent it depicting the Frontier Wars.

ACTION 2: Defer any allocations of floor space at the Memorial until decisions have been made about content. It will be 2025 or 2026 before curators start deciding what exhibits go into the area set aside for the Frontier Wars. Yet the space available – 410sqm – has already been set and it is only 25sqm more than ‘Pre-1914 conflicts’ occupied before the current redevelopment program at the Memorial.

ACTION 3: Ensure that the Frontier Wars have designated, separate gallery space. Under current plans, the Frontier Wars will be covered in a Pre-1914 gallery, along with Australian contingents to overseas wars 1845-1902. The Frontier Wars (20 000-100 000 First Nations people killed) will share 198sqm (of the 410sqm total) with the men sent to fight for Queen Victoria against te iwi Māori in New Zealand 1845-62 (no members of Australian colonial contingents died) and the 1885 New South Wales contingent to the Sudan (nine members died of illness, none in the fighting). That shared 198 sqm is just 1.1 per cent of the Memorial’s total gallery space after the current redevelopment is completed.

ACTION 4: Ensure that the Memorial consults external historians and First Nations people. There are many historians available, including First Nations people. Meanwhile, the Memorial’s Indigenous Advisory Group is not well suited to advising on the Frontier Wars, as distinct from Indigenous service in the King’s or Queen’s uniform.

ACTION 5: Ensure that the Memorial expresses the theme of ‘Defending Country’. ‘Defending Country’ applies just as much to First Nations Australians (Arrernte, Noongar, Wiradjuri, and others), defending Country on Country as it does to uniformed Australians fighting our overseas wars. ‘Defending Country’ is the common thread.

The Memorial needs to commit to these actions. Instead, there has been division on its governing Council after a promising start when Kim Beazley, former Defence Minister and Opposition Leader, became Chair of the Council just over a year ago.
‘The Memorial has dropped the Frontier Wars ball largely because its Council is not fit for purpose’, said Defending Country secretary, Noel Turnbull. ‘It has become more like the Qantas Chairmans’ Lounge than the governing body of a very special cultural institution. Because the Memorial is special, it is even more important that Council members work well together and exert proper oversight of management.’

After Kim Beazley became Chair, he said often that the Memorial was committed to ‘substantial’ coverage of the Frontier Wars. The record since then has been disappointing. In June 2023, one member of the Memorial Council, Major General Greg Melick (Ret’d), national president of the RSL, even insisted that the Memorial should only depict and commemorate men and women wearing the country’s uniform – which would rule out First Nations warriors in the Frontier Wars.

Previously secret documents quietly made available through Senate Estimates in September this year reveal the Memorial Council’s convulsions on this issue – and that General Melick’s interpretation was not far off the mark. The Council’s August 2022 decision about the coverage of the Frontier Wars had been heavily qualified: ‘Wherever possible it [the coverage] would relate to and inform, subsequent Indigenous military service to Australia, providing a context for that service. The gallery will inform visitors of the significant institutions whose charter it is to tell the full story of Frontier Violence.’

What do those words mean? The Memorial has made much of Private William Punch, a Wiradjuri man whose family was massacred before the Great War. Despite this, Private Punch went on to fight and die as a member of the 1st Australian Imperial Force.

So, what the Memorial is offering on the Frontier Wars is this: a share of that 198 square metres (this is what the Memorial calls ‘a broader and deeper depiction and presentation’, alongside the glorious expeditions to the Sudan and New Zealand), portraits of William Punch and men with similar histories, and a sign saying if you want the full story head off to the National Museum. Really?

‘Decades of research confirms the fact of frontier conflict’, according to Defending Country member, Professor Peter Stanley. ‘Australians want to know the truth about the Frontier Wars. Despite General Melick, they want to commemorate the victims of these wars alongside the dead of Australia’s overseas wars.’

One wonders what our legendary generals and our volunteer soldiers in many wars would have made of this dithering and dissembling at the top level of the War Memorial on how it deals with the Frontier Wars, a defining part of our Australian history. Meanwhile, thousands and thousands of First Nations warriors and their families slip further and further down the memory hole.

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