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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