People who have the power to set the direction of national cultural institutions need to reflect appropriate values. The appointment of Tony Abbott to the Council of the Australian War Memorial reminds us of just how much the Memorial has lost touch with the values of many Australians. A man whose public life has been divisive and polarising seems a very poor choice for an institution that should unite people across political and ideological divides, but a natural fit for an institution that is sliding towards grandiosity and propaganda.
Abbott’s track record of war commemoration is best measured in dollars expended. His Monash interpretive centre at Villers-Bretonneux in France was, at more than $A100 million, by far the most expensive legacy of our World War I centenary, but visitor numbers to it have fallen far short of expectations. Spending taxpayer dollars is easy, especially when “patriotic” drums are beating; spending them wisely is another matter.
Yet a grandiose spender is almost certainly the type of man the Memorial was after, as the current Director, Dr Brendan Nelson, prepares to leave his very controversial grand demolition and expansion plan, all $498 million of it, to a successor. Like Nelson, Abbott is likely to ignore the strong public concern at the direction the Memorial has taken in recent years, its focus on entertainment at the expense of quiet respectful commemoration, its blatant promotions for war profiteers, and, not least, the grossly inappropriate and wasteful new project.
All these concerns have fallen on deaf ears; the institution that commemorates our forebears who fought and died believing in democracy has become impervious to public opinion and takes its decisions behind closed doors. Abbott seems a natural fit.
On the proposed demolition and expansion – a project which risks destroying the whole nature of the Memorial – consultation has been cursory, and appears as window-dressing for decisions already taken. (See Heritage Guardians’ campaign diary.) The Memorial’s Early Works Consultation Report, released in August, stated that “consultation with the community and nationwide will commence in early 2020”, but also that redevelopment is planned to begin after Anzac Day 2021. Informing of a fait accompli is not consultation.
The Memorial’s consultation summary (published late last year then removed from the Memorial’s website) reported feedback from just 134 people. By contrast, an open letter in March this year from 83 distinguished Australians opposed the redevelopment. An online petition in April, also opposing the changes, received over 1200 signatures in just two weeks. A Canberra Times poll in June had 80 per cent of respondents supporting the call of former Memorial Director, Brendon Kelson, to drop the proposal. In the face of such strong opposition, the Memorial’s failure to begin again and institute genuine and meaningful consultation, shows a troubling sense of ownership and control – and arrogance.
To his critics, Dr Nelson offers a personally guided tour of the Memorial, thereby publicly ducking the critical issues that have been raised. What is needed is not his well-rehearsed sales pitch, but serious attention to what appears on any analysis to be majority opposition to his plans.
Several aspects of the proposed redevelopment, apart from its sheer scale and cost, have attracted particular criticism. They include the destruction of the award-winning Anzac Hall, a decision that has been decried by architects and others. They include also the pride of place that will be given to weaponry rather than personal sacrifice, and Dr Nelson’s dismissal of the vastly cheaper and entirely feasible option of displaying such “large technology objects” at the purpose-built Mitchell annexe. The latter facility had its annual “Big Things in Store” opening to the public on 5 October; it could be open every day if the Memorial’s management so chose.
A further troubling element of the plan is the “live crosses” to current Australian Defence Force operations. This is entirely inappropriate in a place of commemoration; it would tend to stifle dissent about current operations, and would undermine our duty of care to ADF personnel – not to mention the civilians in the countries where we fight our wars – to ensure that deployments are subject to the most exhaustive and continuing scrutiny.
The Memorial has already begun down a slope from war commemoration to propaganda, with its promotion of the corporations whose profits rely on warfare – the weapons makers. Dr Nelson’s role on the advisory board of one such, Thales, is a continuing conflict of interest.
While Dr Nelson is the public face of the Memorial, it Council appears to offer little of the necessary critical examination of the redevelopment proposal. Of the 13 members of the Council, eight are current or former military professionals, whereas the overwhelming majority of those commemorated at the Memorial (let alone those left to grieve) were not professional soldiers.
It is high time for a broader community representation on the Memorial Council. Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, so too is its commemoration. And the expenditure of a further $498 million is clearly too big a decision to be left to a director and council that have shown little interest in community views.
Dr Sue Wareham OAM is President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia), www.mapw.org.au, and a member of Heritage Guardians, a community campaign against the Memorial expansion.