PETER STANLEY. Reading the Act: what is the Australian War Memorial for?

Dr Brendan Nelson’s pitch for the Australian War Memorial’s half-a-billion-dollar expansion is that the institution helps to heal traumatised war veterans. But is healing veterans even the Memorial’s responsibility? To answer that question we need to read the Memorial’s Act.

Anyone familiar with public administration will know that official agencies are governed by legislation – Acts embodying the will and direction of Parliament.

They are, of course, legal documents inevitably expressed in formal and often obscure English, not the stuff of bedtime reading. But for the public servants responsible for the operation of those agencies, institutions or departments, ‘the Act’ is the basis of their day-to-day actions and decisions.

It will come as no surprise that the Australian War Memorial is governed by the Australian War Memorial Act, passed by the Fraser government in 1980. I have a special affection for this Act. Not only did it prescribe my 27-year career on the Memorial’s staff, but I joined the Memorial on the very day the Act passed its third reading in the House of Representatives in May 1980. That Act remains in force.

But it may surprise those who have been following the continuing debate about the Memorial’s plans for expansion to learn that nowhere in the Australian War Memorial Act 1980 are ‘veterans’ even mentioned. The Memorial has no responsibility for veterans’ welfare. The task that Dr Brendan Nelson has been talking up as central to the Memorial’s mission – that of ‘healing’ veterans – is in fact not a part of the Memorial’s responsibilities and operations at all.

The Act essentially empowers the Memorial to manage the national memorial, to care for and display the collection and to interpret Australia’s military history. That’s all. It has no role in caring for veterans; the Department of Veterans’ Affairs does that.

Of course, no one who knows anything about the situation of those who have served Australia since 1999, in East Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan and other zones of conflict, can remain unresponsive to their wellbeing. In contrast to the indifference of the Vietnam years, both government and community are fully aware of veterans’ needs. Surely no one is ignorant of the appalling rates of suicide among veterans. Charities such as Soldier On rightly attract strong support from the community. The Australian Defence Force and the Departments of Defence and Veterans’ Affairs, even if they don’t always get it right, have made massive progress in recognising and responding to the scale of veterans’ troubles.

No one begrudges taxes being directed to meet the significant and continuing needs of these men and women, but to claim that $498m in funding for the Memorial would directly benefit veterans is mendacious. That, however, is the essence of Dr Nelson’s pitch.

‘Australian War Memorial to house … stories that heal’, the Canberra Times headed Dr Nelson’s summary of his case in the days before Anzac Day. But it needs to be spelled out very clearly that Dr Nelson’s case to the Australian people for the Memorial’s expansion is a sleight of hand.

Dr Nelson surely knows the Act governing his own institution. He knows that it makes no reference at all to veterans’ welfare. And yet that is practically the main if not the only justification for a half-a-billion-dollar expansion, a plan based on virtually no consultation – notoriously, the Memorial got ‘feedback’ from just 134 people, and not all agreed with it.

Dr Nelson represents the Memorial as ‘part of the therapeutic milieu’ for veterans and their families. I know that when I was the Memorial’s Principal Historian, creating galleries such as the Second World War gallery, WWII veterans appreciated our work, and I gained a great deal by listening to them. But I never kidded myself that our job was to ‘heal’ veterans; how presumptuous. It was to display the collection and interpret the history it represented. Sometimes I had to disagree with veterans, because their emotional investment prevented them from seeing conflict dispassionately. Dr Nelson also tends to view war emotionally, to the detriment of effective institutional management.

It is as if the National Library decided on its own initiative that its function was to support authors, or if the National Gallery decided that it needed to support artists. – and then invoiced us for half-a-billion dollars. But national institutions can’t do what they like – they must observe ‘the Act’.

The Memorial’s Act makes no reference to veterans. Australians have been conned into thinking that the Memorial belongs to veterans. Like Anzac Day, the Memorial belongs to all Australians.

If Dr Nelson wants to fundamentally change the Memorial’s purpose, he should ask Parliament to change its Act. That might open a welcome debate. Dr Nelson might discover that while Australians appreciate veterans, they also want the Memorial to recognise the Frontier Wars, or to acknowledge that war has been a major factor in bringing people to Australia, from Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust to Vietnamese escaping after 1975, to Sudanese victims of war finding refuge in Australia.

But for now, until and unless that change occurs, the Memorial remains a memorial museum. The veteran whom Dr Nelson quoted who thinks it is ‘part of veterans’ welfare’ simply has not read the Act. But Dr Nelson has, and he appears to be wilfully ignoring it.

Professor Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra worked at the Memorial from 1980 to 2007.

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7 Responses to PETER STANLEY. Reading the Act: what is the Australian War Memorial for?

  1. Peter Stanley says:

    Thank you to all commentators for your thoughtful responses. This is an important national issue and I hope others will contribute.

  2. Steve Flora says:

    A very insightful and considered contribution to the whole muddled question of the proposed and damaging spending on the AWM. The way the current director has almost smothered the institution (at least in the eyes of those outside the Memorial) under his own personal (and self-promoting) aura does it a disservice. It is with ongoing amazement (and often disgust) I watch so many politicians in both the U.S. and Australia eagerly bask in the glow of the sacrifice made by others, when they, themselves never thought of joining the military when they were young enough and presumably healthy enough to do so. The same politicians often turning out to be most eager to send others into possible conflicts on the flimsiest of pretenses.

  3. I’m not sympathetic to the War Memorial spending all that money, and I am sympathetic to it commemorating the frontier wars, but I’m not troubled by the idea of reading the act to include the recognition of Vets and to that extent their ‘healing’, though I doubt too that it’s a particularly good way of doing that healing.

  4. Ed Cory says:

    A reading of the Act requires that the Second Reading Speech (2RS in the jargon) be also read, together with the Explanatory Memorandum (EM). Both of these documents are important pointers in the interpretation of any legislation. I have only been able to find the 2RS for this Act, and with one possible exception, it does not really help this discussion.

    However, the 2RS does state “One of the changes originally proposed was that the title of the Institution be changed to ‘The Australian War Memorial Museum ‘. After further consideration following discussions with the Board of Trustees and, may I say, a number of representations, the Government has now decided that the present name will be retained.”

    It therefore seems that the purpose of the institution was considered, and specifically its role as a museum, but that was consciously rejected. Rather, that rejection only re-emphasises its role as a memorial, its museum subordinate. Indeed the Minister states “This Bill perpetuates and continues the Australian War Memorial. Its primary function has been a memorial and the Government is committed to the maintenance of this essential character.” (2RS tabled in the Senate 23 May 1980, Senate Hansard p2791)

    Prof Stanley is correct: Dr Nelson should be seeking an amendment to the Act he administers, rather than flouting it, or at least skating around it.

  5. J.Donegan says:

    Thank you Professor Stanley for your cogent summary; it is greatly appreciated.
    You are correct to point out: “If Dr Nelson wants to fundamentally change the Memorial’s purpose, he should ask Parliament to change its Act. That might open a welcome debate”. Indeed it might, as there are many other issues readily at hand,
    as both yourself and Bruce Cameron make plain. One of the best (perhaps the best) summary I have read concerning the overweening ability of the current director of
    the AWM comes from Jack Waterford (P&I – 06/11/18), as follows:

    “But, like the accompanying spit and polish, provided for no military purpose
    whatever at vast public expense, it sometimes seems to be part of a project to turn
    the memorial into a Shinto temple, consecrated to some notion of flag, and
    ceremonial glorification of sacrifice at complete odds with what the memorial
    ought to be about.

    All the more so when the frontman is a still active politician, who has manifested
    a genius for turning every story about the memorial and the World War I
    celebrations into a story about himself. He has assumed a role – particularly outrageous for one who did not serve – that seems to be a spokesman for soldiers,
    or soldiers being criticised, or for the very notion of military service. It is invariably tendentious. Like all recent Liberal leaders, he has a cack ear for the public mood.
    He has no right to appropriate the sacrifices of civilians to his own ends, or to
    pretend to channel the thoughts of men and women in the services.”

  6. Bruce Cameron says:

    Dear Professor Stanley,
    Well argued (as expected). I’m a Vietnam veteran. I have a little familiarity with the Act, as I had to refer to it when there was a suggestion that the Frontier Wars couldn’t be included as part of the AWM collection because they did not occur overseas. As you know, the Act makes no reference to only commemorating Australians who died defending their country overseas.
    The Act does, however, include the requirement for the Memorial to “use every endeavour to make the most advantageous use of the memorial collection in the national interest”. It could be argued that this allows for recognition of not just those who died, but also those who were wounded, on active service. This is where a problem exists as far as veterans are concerned.
    I believe that we have excellent soldiers, well trained and with great morale. They’ll do well wherever they’re employed (even if asked to do the same as at the Nek in 1915). The Australian Defence Force embodies a tradition and an ethos which has been built up over many generations. ‘Duty First’ goes without saying. Anything else is unimaginable. While this might seem somewhat trite, I believe that our Nation has been taking things for granted and ‘coasting’ for far too long. It is now time for us all to ‘step up’ in terms of positive support for our servicemen and women.
    The key indicator of such support is not the percentage of GDP spent on the Defence budget, but the depth of the Nation’s understanding that our servicemen and women may have to face certain death in defending Australia’s national interests, and, even more importantly, why they would be prepared to do so.
    We all have choices which determine our day to day priorities; but how do these compare with the choice faced by soldiers on the battlefield: to jeopardise their life or not?
    In my experience and understanding of history, Australian soldiers will generally be prepared to risk their life to save their mate. But are we in danger of assuming that he or she will be prepared to risk their life on behalf of our nation? If they decide to do so (and live), how do they feel when they return home to the overwhelming crisis of decisions made on the basis of: which TV program to watch or which brand of muesli to purchase?
    If the deeper understanding I refer to was shared by the nation generally and the AWM in particular, there would be a different emphasis on the nature of commemoration at the AWM. I was one who responded to the AWM’s request for input re future exhibits. I recommended that there be a much greater focus on the soldiers who operated equipment such as tanks, rather than on the technical specifications of the weapons themselves.
    In closing, the question I ask of us all, is: ‘Do we deserve the sacrifices which the members of the Australian Defence Force may be called upon to make on our behalf, and does the AWM help us so to do?’.

    • Mark Freeman says:

      Thank you for a most informative piece Professor Stanley. I’ve never been to the war memorial and am unlikely to. I’m not ungrateful to our services people but it doesn’t align with my thoughts on remembering war dead. I would like to see all war memorials and memorial days everywhere dedicated to all victims of war on all sides. Soldiers and civilians. Our side and the others.

      Requests for another half billion is like something from an episode of Utopia, a grand gesture wasting money. Spend it on the living not the dead.

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