The Shameful Capitulation of AWM’s Brendan Nelson

On October 4, I sent a letter to Dr Brendan Nelson protesting his intention to expand the depiction in the Australian War Memorial of violence committed against Aboriginal people. On  October 20 I received a reply from Matt Anderson, the Memorial’s director, to the effect that:

the Memorial is committed to sharing, honouring and acknowledging First Nation’s stories now and in the future.  It is a place for all people to reflect upon and understand the Australian experience of war.

A polite ‘up yours’ in other words.

So, I wrote another letter to Nelson in response.  I had intended to do him the courtesy of giving him a chance to reply before I made my letter public.  However, over the weekend Nelson effectively gave me his answer via an article by Cameron Stewart in the Weekend Australian.   So, I no longer feel constrained about going public.  Here is the text of my letter:

Dear Dr Nelson,

Earlier this month I wrote to you concerning your statement that the War Memorial would have a

much broader, a much deeper depiction and presentation of the violence committed against Indigenous people, initially by British, then by pastoralists, then by police, and then by Aboriginal militia.

I pointed out that this proposal is contrary to the charter of the Australian War Memorial as expressed in the Australian War Memorial Act of 1980.

In response, I received a letter, presumably at your direction, from the Director of the Memorial, Mr Matt Anderson, explaining that for many years the Memorial had displayed details of pre-Federation conflicts such as in Sudan, New Zealand, China and South Africa, but that it had also contained ‘a small number of works depicting frontier violence’ and ‘62 artworks … relating to frontier conflict’.  He said the Memorial ‘is committed to sharing, honouring and acknowledging First Nation’s stories now and in the future.  It is a place for all people to reflect upon and understand the Australian experience of war’.

‘Frontier conflict’ means two different things.  The first, and uncontroversial meaning, is that there were violent clashes between colonists and Aborigines over many years resulting in a significant number of Aboriginal deaths.  The authority most quoted on this subject is the University of Newcastle Massacre Map, maintained under the direction of Professor Lyndall Ryan.  Scores of historians have, over a number of years, scoured the historical record to dredge up every last Aboriginal death they could find. They have documented 416 incidents which reportedly resulted in the death of some 11,000 Aborigines.  Objective historians such as Keith Windschuttle and Michael Connor have raised serious questions over many of the entries on the Map and the total of 11,000 deaths is contested.  We can argue about the exact number of deaths but if you study the Massacre Map it is obvious that the vast majority of these incidents occurred as reprisals for killing settlers or their stock and that they were conducted by private individuals.  They are no less reprehensible for that, and they should be known and understood. 

But they were offences against British law and the law of the colonial governments. They were not military operations and were certainly not sanctioned by the colonial governments. They have no relevance to the defence of Australia.  In the few occasions where colonial military troops did become involved, it was in the nature of what we now call ‘aid to the civil power’.  These were essentially policing actions.  To put it in today’s terms, if a terrorist took over a café and held innocent people hostage, and the police believed they did not have the skill or resources to resolve the situation, they could ask for the help of military special forces, such as the SAS.  If that happened, the SAS troops would not be regarded as being on ‘active service’.  They would be acting in support of the civil power. 

The second interpretation of ‘frontier conflict’ is what has become known as the Colonial Wars, and it is the prospect of having this myth enshrined into the AWM that has got the Aboriginal activists so excited. In your correspondence with Aboriginal activist Graeme Dunstan, he said to you:

I remember saying to you years ago that we Anzac advocates for recognition of the Frontier Wars by the Australian War Memorial are knocking on a door, and we intend to keep on knocking till the door opens.

Our message to you and the directors of the Australian War Memorial is to open up to the Frontier Wars. To admit them.

Recognition of the Frontier Wars is the gateway to reconciliation.

At that time, Mr Nelson, you pushed back on this divisive rhetoric, and rightly so. Now it seems the door is finally open. But what is the provenance of these ‘Frontier Wars’? Activist historian, Henry Reynolds, in a recent article in the Canberra Times wrote:

A new generation of historical research has provided powerful confirmation of the extent and duration of the ‘killing times’, particularly during the conquest of north Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century.  The work of Lyndall Ryan and her team at the University of Newcastle has mapped massacre sites all over the continent.

Extensive new research, concerning the Native Mounted Police, has raised the possibility the Aboriginal death toll may have been well over 60,000.  This would push the casualties in the frontier wars to a figure rivalling the total loss of Australian lives in the First World War.

Reynold’s reference to Ryan’s work implies that this is his source for the figure of 60,000 deaths.  He provides no other source.  As I noted above, Professor Ryan and her team identified only 11,000 deaths.  How is it possible, then, that this legion of researchers could have overlooked 50,000 deaths?  The short answer is that they didn’t.  The figure is totally implausible.  Some might argue that, because the Massacre Map only records massacres of six or more people, that would explain the discrepancy.  For that to be the case, there would have to be many hundreds of smaller scale incidents spread across the entire continent and over a century and a half of settlement.  That sounds unlikely and, in any case, does not sound like a concerted and coordinated military campaign.

There were no frontier wars in the sense of a military conflict with organised Aboriginal forces defending their land against invasion.  This myth has been devised to overturn accepted history that this land was annexed according to international law of the time and peacefully settled.  This is not a ‘truth telling’ exercise.  It is a political ploy designed to overturn the fundamental basis of this nation – to delegitimize it.  As such – as a political device – it has no place in the Memorial.

Where will it end?  Reynolds himself gives us an idea:

The most significant symbolic act would be placing a tomb for the unknown warrior next to the grave of the unknown soldier.  Those who fought for empire would be at rest with those who fought against the empire.

Is that something you would support?  Would you see it as contributing to ‘reconciliation’? If not, how would you propose to stop it once this door has been opened?

In your dealings with Mr Dunstan you made significant concessions to his demands.  You know from that experience that what you might envisage as a healing gesture will not be the end of the matter.  If this initiative proceeds as far as the activists will inevitably demand, then, at best, the Memorial Council will have given its imprimatur to what is a highly contested version of history, and, at worst, it will have perpetrated a monstrous fraud on a sacred institution and on the people of Australia.

I have launched an online petition, “Hands Off the Australian War Memorial”, which at the time of writing has garnered 7,000 signatures in just under two weeks with no media publicity whatsoever.  That will give you some idea of the depth of public opposition to this proposal.

In 2018 I wrote to you to express my admiration of your understanding of the military ethos and your work at the Memorial.  You personally acknowledged my letter.  I beg that this time you will do me the same courtesy.

Yours Sincerely
Peter O’Brien

MY ANSWER, in the form of Nelson’s words quoted in The Australian article, was:

Nelson, a former AWM director who will leave the council in November, is frustrated that his comments have triggered such a strong reaction from all sides. He denies that the expansion of frontier violence exhibits will undermine the AWM’s central purpose.

“As we have had for well over a decade, in the new galleries we will professionally and sensitively present the story of frontier violence perpetrated against Aboriginal Australians to set the context for their service to and suffering for Australia,” he tells Inquirer from Washington DC.

“It will be of modest dimensions. It will also complement the full story of the relationship between the First Australians and Europeans that is the responsibility of the National Museum of Australia. I also look forward to the Ngurra facility to present much of this sad history in the axis on the other side of the lake.”

But Nelson says the Memorial also needs to adapt to changing public expectations even if it is not the primary institution which should be telling the story of frontier violence.

“While we remain true to Charles Bean’s vision for the Memorial in a world he could not possibly have imagined, there is a growing expectation from a new generation of Australians that this is a part of our story and an important one to be found, in part, at the AWM,” he said.

“Australia has changed and is changing but the expectations of a new generation of Australians is that the Memorial will present some of this, and that’s essentially what we’ve decided to do.

“In the end I believe this is the right thing to do but it will be proportionate, sensitive and modest, because the main place for telling the story is the National Museum of Australia.”

Nelson has unleashed a hornet’s nest.  Let me remind you what he originally said:

The council has made a decision that we will have a much broader, a much deeper depiction and presentation of the violence committed against Indigenous people, initially by British, then by pastoralists, then by police, then by Aboriginal militia.

So, this is not about frontier violence as such.  It is not about violence perpetrated by Aborigines upon settlers, or the often horrendous and widespread violence they visited upon each other.  It is really about the morality of colonisation. It is about Aborigines as victims of colonisation. That is a question well beyond the charter of the War Memorial, which I detailed here.

Nelson now tells us that, rather than being a ‘much broader, much deeper depiction’, it will ‘only be of modest dimensions’.  Having got the activists all excited to begin with, he’s now got them off-side by offering what they describe as ‘tokenism’. And, by their own lights, they’re right about that. Having been offered the banquet, they will not now settle for takeaway.

Nelson’s contention that these presentations are designed to ‘set the context for their service to and suffering for Australia’ is nothing more than a piece of cheap rhetoric.  It’s effectively saying, ‘how good are these Aboriginal veterans who served after everything we did to them!’  That their service and sacrifice was somehow more noble. As if they were not really Australian citizens at all. That sounds pretty patronizing to me.

It is not the Council’s prerogative to adapt to what they see as ‘changing public expectations’.  As long as ‘adapting’ means changing the AWM charter, that is Parliament’s role.  And it ill behoves experienced managers to be gulled into believing that the squeaky wheel represents public expectations at large.

The War Memorial is, by its very nature, a conservative institution – and I don’t mean that in a political sense.  It is not a theme park catering to the latest fads.  Its purpose is to honour the memory of those who gave their lives in the defence of this nation and its values.  Its museum must contribute to that aim and nothing more.  The inclusion of frontier conflict couched in terms of ‘violence to Aboriginal people’ – designed to delegitimize or denigrate the origins of the nation – cuts directly against that purpose.

I call on all like-minded members of Parliament to insist that the Council adhere to the Memorial’s charter, even to the extent of removing all such depictions that currently exist.

editor’s note: For background on Mr Dunstan and his movement, visit this site and read an account from 2018 which, apart from mentioning fauxboriginal grifter Bruce Pascoe’s involvement in the campaign, also records Nelson’s now lapsed opposition and how ‘we are winning the media on our campaign to remember the Frontier Wars as part of national Anzac Day commemorations’.

29 thoughts on “The Shameful Capitulation of AWM’s Brendan Nelson

  • gareththomassport says:

    As head of the AMA, Nelson showed his support for political causes, and struck me as a highly political animal, as evidenced by his early membership of Labor, later joining the Liberals, and positioning himself for a political career.
    I saw him from early times as being self-serving, and never really saw his time with the AWM as being anything else.
    Given this, I am unsurprised at his apparent change in philosophy, as I don’t feel he evere really had one.

  • Blair says:

    “Those who fought for empire would be at rest with those who fought against the empire.”
    Don’t forget the tomb of the unknown Eureka Stockade rebel.
    “The Eureka Rebellion was a series of events involving gold miners who revolted against the British administration of the colony of Victoria, Australia during the Victorian gold rush.[6] It culminated in the Battle of the Eureka Stockade, which took place on 3 December 1854 at Ballarat between the rebels and the colonial forces of Australia. ….The exact numbers of deaths and injuries cannot be determined as according to researcher Dorothy Wickham many miners “fled to the surrounding bush, and it is likely a good many more died a lonely death or suffered the agony of their wounds, hidden from the authorities for fear of repercussions”

    • cbattle1 says:

      What about a memorial for the unknown German, Italian and Japanese soldiers that died fighting against Australia and the British Empire; don’t we owe that to Australians which identify with thoses heritages?
      And, what about Australians with ancestors from Africa and the Indian sub-continent that had fought against the British Empire? And then there’s the Palestinians who fought with the Ottoman Empire to defend their homeland against the invading Australians……. shouldn’t there be a memorial to those unknown soldiers?
      It goes on and on……………..

  • Another Richard Harrison says:

    In 2017 I wrote to Nelson (then AWM DIrector) after one of his staff wrote a book review for “The Weekend Australian” that prominently noted the staffer’s position at the AWM.

    The book was about the Battle of Stalingrad, and the review gushed with uncritical admiration of those brave Soviet boys (and girls!). There was no context, such as the fact that the Bolsheviks had been in league with the Nazis for two years, a period during which Australian soldiers were being killed by Germans. The review was not the only overtly pro-Soviet piece from this AWM staffer.

    So I wrote to Nelson, and I actually got a reply. The essence of his response was that the Soviets’ prior dalliance with the Nazis shouldn’t detract from their wonderful bravery at Stalingrad.

    Said Nelson: “The suffering endured by the Russians is a topic often overlooked in the Australian national memory of the war … The article highlighted the enormous losses suffered by the Soviet people in our shared victory over Nazi Germany.”

    Nelson has not surprised me with his latest idea to exploit the AWM brand to denigrate Australia.

  • Wyndham Dix says:

    “But Nelson says the Memorial also needs to adapt to changing public expectations…”
    (Peter O’Brien, alluding to Dr Nelson under MY ANSWER above, paragraph four.)

    I suggest that “changing public expectations” are born much more out of indoctrination in schools and universities and by today’s media than independently acquired knowledge of facts.
    Hysteria of many today about catastrophic climate change is another example of such indoctrination, leading to the expectation, nay demand, that governments act to save the planet and its inhabitants.
    The God the universe has something to say about bearing false witness against one’s neighbour. Forbid it, Lord, that I am so guilty.

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    The AWM Charter states that the Memorial is to commemorate those who were on active service–in the military, I assume. As my sister pointed out, victims of the Port Arthur massacre have no place there. The same applies with this situation, even those Aboriginals who actually WERE killed wrongly by whites (or, for that matter, blacks).

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    October 24, 2022
    Mr. O’Brien:
    This same sister tried to sign your petition. Change.org wanted her to sign in to Facebook or create an account with the web-site. When I signed it, I may have been logged in to my Quadrant account (I do not remember); my sister does not have a Quadrant account, does not use social media, and is not interested in creating an account with Change.org. She simply wants to sign the petition. Is there a way that she can?

    • Peter OBrien says:

      Hi Rebekah,
      I don’t know the answer to that. I thought you could just go online and sign it using your email address. I cannot access the petition other than as its originator.
      Maybe some other reader can answer this?

    • Lo says:

      I too had a lot of trouble signing the petition and I do have a Quadrant account. After quite a few tries the Change org thing discouraged me and I gave up. I hve no idea now if I managed to sign it or not, but I tried.

      • Peter OBrien says:

        Lo, sorry to hear that. I had no idea it was so difficult

        • Trevor Bailey says:

          Peter, you will be sorry to hear that I, too, failed to pass through the electronic gateways and sign your petition. I don’t have the requisite accounts. I regret missing a good opportunity. On the other hand, you might be glad to hear that I appreciate your clear and pointed advocacy decrying this and many other examples of the cultural vandalism daily wrought in our country. More power to your elbow.

        • John C Carrick says:

          I support your campaign Peter, but I would like to do without Change.org. As with all such eager-beaver organisations marketing their wares, as soon as they grabbed my email address I started getting multiple messages from them to join, donate, sign up, commit — you know what they do. In other words, change the world. But I’m old and I already changed the world when I was a student. Perhaps the answer is to provide a template letter and supporters of your campaign could copy and email it to the AWM and their local MP?

  • Farnswort says:

    Another well-written and important piece. Thanks, Peter, for all your efforts.

  • john mac says:

    I usually tune out when I laughingly hear the term “First nations” , and Nelson has always been a squish , stud in ear a tell for me . I remember at school way back in the seventies being taught that the aboriginals were here for 20,000 years , then 50,000 ,now up to a 100,000 , and i keep thinking , this does not strengthen their case . “To the Victor go the spoils” may never be uttered in polite company ever again !

  • John C Carrick says:

    I support your campaign Peter, but I would like to do without Change.org. As with all such eager-beaver organisations marketing their wares, as soon as they grabbed my email address I started getting multiple messages from them to join, donate, sign up, commit — you know what they do. In other words, change the world. But I’m old and I already changed the world when I was a student. Perhaps the answer is to provide a template letter and supporters of your campaign could copy and email it to the AWM and their local MP?

  • simonbenson65 says:

    One could say “What can you expect from a pig but a grunt?” But do any of us seriously have higher expectations of anyone in public life nowadays? Honestly. We all need to take the advice of that humble, well-known postmodern philosopher, Phil Dunphy and “lower our expectations”. And not just ‘lower’, but ‘dumb right down’. Public discourse in the West and the topics that consume our allegedly ‘best and brightest’ are so underwhelmingly and laughably facile and pathetic and false, it makes you wonder why ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ is not back on the school syllabus, alongside ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’. We ought not be too troubled by the existential threat communist China and Russia pose so much as the one from within: the cancer of BS metastasising in the West. It’s not all darkness though. There are shards of light starting to stream in though, but we must look at and along those beams for the truth.. As C. S. Lewis said in his ‘Toolshed’ essay – “…we must never allow the rot to begin. We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. One must look both along and at everything. In particular cases we shall find reason for regarding the one or the other vision as inferior. Thus the inside vision of rational thinking must be truer than the outside vision which sees only movements of the grey matter; for if the outside vision were the correct one all thought (including this thought itself) would be valueless, and this is self-contradictory. You cannot have a proof that no proofs matter. … we must take each case on its merits. But we must start with no prejudice for or against either kind of looking. We do not know in advance whether the lover or the psychologist is giving the more correct account of love, or whether both accounts are equally correct in different ways, or whether both are equally wrong. We just have to find out. But the period of brow-beating has got to end.”

  • citizen says:

    I am appalled by this suggestion of Brendan Nelson. He has been such a champion of the AWM and he wishes this to be his legacy. The politicisation of a sacred place. Where did this idea come from and why has he capitulated to activists?
    I recall a speech he gave to the Menzies Research Centre. Here is a link:https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/values-matter-brendan-nelson/id1434174636?i=1000545255073
    His suggestion in that speech was worth consideration. But this – I’m speechless. Perhaps his reference to “the special place for the first Australians” was a clue after so eloquently referring to the equality of all at the AWM.

  • Searcher says:

    It’s Marxist/communist agitprop “all the way down”. Sad to say.

  • lhackett01 says:

    Australian War Memorial Act 1980 states its functions in Section 5 to be:

    5 Functions of Memorial
    (1) The functions of the Memorial are:
    (a) to maintain and develop the national memorial referred to in subsection 6(1) of the Australian War Memorial Act 1962 as a national memorial of Australians who have died:
    (i) on or as a result of active service; or
    (ii) as a result of any war or warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service;
    (b) to develop and maintain, as an integral part of the national memorial referred to in paragraph (a), a national collection of historical material;
    (c) to exhibit, or to make available for exhibition by others, historical material from the memorial collection or historical material that is otherwise in the possession of the Memorial;
    (d) to conduct, arrange for and assist in research into matters pertaining to Australian military history; and
    (e) to disseminate information relating to:
    (i) Australian military history;
    (ii) the national memorial referred to in paragraph (a);
    (iii) the memorial collection; and
    (iv) the Memorial and its functions.
    (2) The Memorial shall use every endeavour to make the most advantageous use of the memorial collection in the national interest.
    There was no WAR between Aborigines and the new arrivals in Australia either at or after settlement by the British in 1788 . There were murders perpetrated by both sides and hangings of those found guilty of murder. None of this has anything to do with the charter of the AWM and the charter must not be interpreted or changed to deflect its mission from honouring Australia’s war dead. Notably, the AWM rightly must honour too those Aborigines who fought alongside other Australians in actual wars. Those people trying to change history by declaring there were frontier wars are disingenuous and need to be ‘called out’.

  • JamesBowen says:

    Could someone ask Tony Abbott when he joins the Memorial Council to explain to Brendan Nelson and the Minister for Veteran’s Affairs that establishing a so-called “Frontier Wars” exhibit of any size in the Australian War Memorial is a clear breach of the Memorial’s foundation Australian War Memorial Act of 1980 which very clearly indicates to intelligent readers that exhibits are strictly limited to those who died in wars in which the “Defence Force” was engaged in the defence of Australia. Yes, it is very clearly defence of Australia against foreign enemies.

    The only times that members of Colonial military were involved in the often deadly skirmishing between settlers and Aborigines were the very rare occasions when the military were deployed in small numbers to enforce peace between settlers and Aborigines.

    Perhaps it is time to review membership of the Australian War Memorial council, but we are unlikely to achieve that under the present government.

    • Peter OBrien says:

      Tony Abbott is already a member. It was reported that not all Council members agreed with this proposal but we don’t know who disagreed. I hope Abbott would have been one of them.

  • John Cook says:

    Peter, did you know that Graeme Dunstan of “Peace Bus” fame was a Staff Cadet (2023) at RMC In ‘61 & ‘62?
    It’s a small world.

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