Australian War Memorial’s $498 million funding boost would be better spent on veterans
2 May 2019|

The director of the Australian War Memorial, Brendan Nelson, wants to extend the memorial at a cost of $498 million. The case he outlined in a recent ‘Strategist Six’ is as full of holes as a second-hand camouflage net.

Nelson assumes that the War Memorial must continue to expand as Australia continues to go to war. Prime Minister Scott Morrison agrees with him, remarking at the project launch in November that ‘sadly there will be future generations of service as well … The funding will allow the Memorial to implement these [expansion] plans and not be limited in its ambition.’

Open-ended expansion would make the memorial better off for space than most cultural institutions worldwide, very few of which can show more than a small proportion of their holdings at any one time. As former War Memorial historian Peter Stanley said recently, ‘Dr Nelson seems not to understand that if he wants to display more stuff he should do what other cultural institutions do—decide what can and cannot be displayed within the budgets provided.’

Nelson also claims that the extensions would allow the memorial to preserve the link between its museum part and its commemorative part (the Eternal Flame, the Roll of Honour, the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier). But, if co-location were essential, the memorial would never have built its large-objects storage and display facility at Mitchell in the Canberra suburbs more than two decades ago, and it would never run travelling exhibitions. It did and it does.

Nelson claims that there are funding constraints on the memorial. Yet, analysis of how the memorial has fared under the government’s efficiency dividend reveals it has done better than other cultural institutions. It was not caught, for example, in efficiency dividend rounds in 2012–13 and 2015–16. It has also topped up government funding by chasing the corporate dollar. Its annual reports show that its benefactors include the Commonwealth Bank and Telstra, but also Dr Chau Chak Wing, a person of interest to ASIO, and six of the world’s top 10 arms manufacturers.

The memorial is very good at using its money to tell stories of how well Australians fight and how nobly they die, but it is weak on the impact of our wars on those who fight them, their families and the nation. Historian of the RAAF, Alan Stephens, says, ‘[B]y telling [visitors] only half the story, the Memorial is failing in its responsibility.’ When the memorial’s refurbished World War I galleries were about to be opened, Nelson said they would say something about what Australia was like before the war and, by implication, how the war changed us. As it turned out, the galleries have barely a paragraph on that aspect.

The memorial has even diverged from the terms of its own legislation, which requires it to research and publicise ‘Australian military history’, defined in part as ‘the history of wars and warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service’. The history of wars, properly done, would require some consideration of the role of, and impact on, other countries in those wars. Successive corporate plans at the memorial, however, have narrowed its ‘mission’ so that the 2018–19 plan reads, ‘Leading remembrance and understanding of Australia’s wartime experience’ (emphasis added), which is a rather narrower brief.

How are these stories to be told? Nelson’s comments in The Strategist show his penchant for emotive vignettes, in this case about the mother of Private Scott Palmer and the daughter of Lance Corporal Luke Gavin. The fact that he uses these vignettes again and again in speeches and interviews does not make them any stronger as arguments for public expenditure, or even as interpretations of history or the focus of commemoration.

Nelson’s public statements are always heavier on emotion than on the important questions of ‘why?’ and ‘was it worth it?’ As for his reference to veterans of recent wars needing a ‘therapeutic milieu’ at the memorial, Margaret Beavis of the Medical Association for Prevention of War says this is ‘an astonishing trivialisation’ of the complexity of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression and the long-term treatment these illnesses require.

The $498 million intended for the War Memorial would be much better spent on treating veterans suffering PTSD or homelessness, helping veterans’ families, and other programs of direct benefit. Other national cultural institutions also need more funds. These views emerged strongly from comments on a recent petition against the memorial project. There were nine times as many signatures on the petition as there were individual responses to the memorial’s own consultation last year. Nelson’s pet project lacks public support.