The Looming Desecration of a Sacred Site

Some years ago, I attended the annual congress of the NSW RSL. The keynote speaker was the Hon Dr Brendan Nelson, then director of the Australian War Memorial.  His speech was outstanding and I was proud to lead a standing ovation for him.  Here was a man, I thought, who despite not having worn uniform, really ‘gets it’ as far as military service and veterans is concerned.  I was so impressed that I wrote him a personal letter to that effect.

So, it was with no small sense of disappointment that I read recently that:

The War Memorial chair, former Howard government minister Brendan Nelson, revealed the Memorial’s governing council had decided they 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.

An ABC RN Breakfast story by Patricia Karvelas reports:

Filmmaker Rachel Perkins, the director and producer of the ground-breaking documentary series The Australian Wars, which chronicles the battles fought on Australian soil, told me the announcement was a “watershed moment”. The long-running issue, she said, has at times been divisive, polarising and politicised.

The Australian War Memorial has attracted fierce criticism for its minimal depiction of the frontier wars. Historians and Indigenous leaders have long argued that what occurred in this country was a series of battles and wars — a resistance against colonisation — and the failure to tell that history in the most important institution telling stories of war was a great silencing of truth.

Let me set Karvelas straight on one point.  The primary purpose of the Memorial is not ‘telling stories of war’.  It is to honour those thousands of men and women who have given their lives in defence of this country and its values. The story telling derives from that aim. I did not lose my life but, as a veteran, this proposal offends me mightily.  I can only imagine the outrage of those who did die, were they able express it, at the suggestion that myths (and that is all they are) about colonial wars designed to denigrate the very foundations of the nation they cherished, be incorporated into the Memorial.

Peter O’Brien’s petition can be viewed here.

It seems Dr Brendan Nelson doesn’t really get it at all, which is a grave disappointment as only four years ago he was arguing against incorporating anything about the so-called ‘frontier wars’ in a series of letters to an Aboriginal activist (emphasis added):

This story and the story of Indigenous opposition to European settlement and expansion should be told. However, this Australian History should be told at the National Museum of Australia, not the Australian War Memorial. I might add that this is the strong view of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service and Veterans Association.

But what is really troubling is that the War Memorial Council includes the chiefs of the three armed services.  What the hell are they thinking, allowing Nelson to float this divisive and wrong-headed idea, which is contrary to the charter of the Australian War Memorial as expressed in the Australian War Memorial Act of 1980, which states:

Functions of Memorial

♦ The functions of the Memorial are:

♦ 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.

♦The Memorial shall use every endeavour to make the most advantageous use of the memorial collection in the national interest.

Just to be clear, according to the Act, Australian military history means the history of:

♦ wars and warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service, including the events leading up to, and the aftermath of, such wars and warlike operations; and

♦ the Defence Force.

The War Memorial Council has no mandate nor remit to rewrite its own Charter or Australian military history.  I will fight this proposal with every means at my disposal – letters to the Chairman and Service Chiefs, the Minister, the Shadow Minister and the RSL to begin with, followed by a petition to back them up. It is my fervent hope others will likewise say ‘Enough!’.

31 thoughts on “The Looming Desecration of a Sacred Site

  • DougD says:

    Aboriginal warriors who fell resisting colonial expansion are not Australians who died on active service to whom the AWM is by statute a memorial. We are constantly told they were proud First Nations resistance fighters.
    A question: will the commitment to truth-telling ensure the proposed memorial for fallen First Nations people commemorates the Aboriginal troopers of the Queensland Native Police killed in frontier clashes with tribal Aborigines? Or will it or just ignore them?

  • Blair says:

    Torres Strait Islanders engaged in no “frontier wars”. The Coming of the Light, the arrival of missionaries from the London Missionary Society on Darnley Island in 1871, and “The acceptance of the missionaries and Christianity into the Torres Strait Islands is often credited with ending conflict between different island groups”.
    This was prior to the annexation in 1879 by the Colony of Queensland.
    “After 1901, the Islands became part of the Australian State of Queensland, despite some islands positioned off the New Guinea coast.”

  • davidbarton says:

    How can Perkins’ “Wars” be called a “ground-breaking documentary” when it is largely invented and very distorted? Is that why it is ‘ground breaking’ because it is so untrue? What a pity that Nelson has succumbed to public pressure, which is not even real ‘public pressure’ but a concocted and confected media storm. Why have these people no guts to stand up for anything that is right any more? Very sad days.

    • NarelleG says:

      @davidbarton I recall that Henry Reynolds has had pressure on Nelson up until 2019 – I cannot recall who took over in 2019.
      Brendon has only just recently resumed his work there.

      Reynolds has been a strong advocate for the phony wars to be recorded in the War Memorial in Canberra.
      Interesting to see his book listed in their archives.
      Forgotten war / Henry Reynolds.

      Includes bibliographical references (pages 257-271) and index.

      Australia is dotted with memorials to soldiers who fought in wars overseas. Why are there no official memorials or commemorations of the wars that were fought on Australian soil between Aborigines and white colonists?
      Why is it more controversial to talkabout the frontier war now than it was one hundred years ago?

      Forgotten War continues the story told in Henry Reynolds’ seminal book The Other Side of the Frontier, which argued that the settlement of Australia had a high level of violence and conflict that we chose to ignore. That book prompted a flowering of research and fieldwork that Reynolds draws on here to give a thorough and systematic account of what caused the frontier wars between white colonists and Aborigines, how many people died and whether the colonists themselves saw frontier conflict as a form of warfare. It is particularly timely as we approach the centenary of WWI. This powerful book makes it clear that there can be no reconciliation without acknowledging the wars fought on our own soi l.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    I must admit that while my time in the RAAF coincided with our participation in the Vietnam War and a smidgion of Confrontasi, I was fortunate never to have seen the proverbial “odd angry shot”. So my relationship with the War Memorial is not significantly closer than that the average Australian citizen. However, my father was a returned from active service veteran of World War II, so it is very important to me if for that alone.
    I suspect from recent events that our Service Chiefs no longer have much influence in political affairs even within the areas of their direct authority. Wokeness seems to have emasculated them. The process started long ago in the Defence reorganisation in 1975, but appears to have snowballed. The Chief of Army’s rather hysterical reaction to the Brereton Report (indeed, the fact that Brereton was tasked to investigate at all) was a straw in the wind. The Chief of Air Force’s, to me ridiculous, introduction of the generic term “aviators” as the RAAF’s equivalent nomenclature for the other Services “soldiers” and “sailors” was another. Don’t they have more important things to do than bending to every political breeze, no matter how trivial?
    So, Peter, while I wholeheartedly support your efforts in this, I would not hold out much hope that you will get any significant support from the Service Chiefs. I’d be more inclined to lobby the RSL, the RAAF Association and the other Services’ veterans organisations.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    I have set up a petition:

    Please sign it and disseminate to all your friends and acquaintances.

    I have also written to various figures on the AWM Council, the National and NSW RSL, the Minister for Vets Affairs, the Shadow Defence Minister and Senators Jim Molan and Pauline Hanson.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    ” – “The acceptance of the missionaries and Christianity into the Torres Strait Islands is often credited with ending conflict between different island groups”.
    This was prior to the annexation in 1879 by the Colony of Queensland. ”
    That is certainly the experience in the Cook Islands, where we last night attended a ‘cultural performance’ recalling the old warrior traditions in a highland area where the ancient King and the religious Marae was located. The presenter said to the crowd of tourists that the missionaries brought peace between endlessly warring tribes, and invited the crowd at the dinner to bow their heads in ‘Grace to the Heavenly Father’; which we all did. No hatred of the missionaries here and if Australia wants the Pacific islands (Pacifica) to keep away from China then they should reinforce to Pacifica how China treats Christians.

    As for the War Memorial, Brendan Nelson has ‘woke’ rocks in his head over this. What has changed that makes him see things so differently now to just a few years ago? Unless Australia was ‘invaded and conquered’ these skirmishes are simply a small part of historical settlement (and Mabo rests on the fact of settlement NOT conquest). Perhaps someone should inform Brendon Nelson of this fact. The War Memorial consecrates our war dead; nothing more. If there was a war of conquest (which there was not by any proper reading of the historical record) then the only dead to be commemorated would be those who made the conquest. A separate historical memorial in a museum of Australian pioneering would commemorate ALL who lost their lives during that period – settlers and the hunter-gatherer inhabitants.
    As for First Nations – would the bushmen of the Kalahari, also hunter-gatherers, be suitably termed the First Nations of Africa. I think not. There is a lot of re-inventing going on in all of this ‘wokeness’.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Last night we were left in no doubt either that the original tribal peoples here in the Cook Islands engaged in war for the purposes of cannibalism which the missionaries are now thanked even today for having stopped the practice. (Possibly, I think, population pressures may have something to do with this cultural tradition, if one takes an ecological perspective on these small island settlements).
    Australian aborigines were also known to engage in cannibalism, although it was by most accounts more ritual in nature than simply a source of protein meat. However, food source cannibalism cannot be ruled out, and the arrival of more technologically advanced cultures bringing new forms of food production (agriculture and domestic herds) clearly brought the original inhabitants quickly into the settlements. Skirmishes there may have been, but of ‘wars’ there were none. Which should not detract from the valour of those who felt in opposition on both sides of this inevitable settlement.

  • Daffy says:

    I know Aborigines were killed as a result of their open borders policy, and they killed the refugees they should have welcomed (as we are today urged to do), but many Aborigines seemed to be wholly reconciled to the refugees that came as a result of the open borders policy: they enjoyed the food, clothes, shelters, tools, jobs that were generously provided by the productive refugees from England. They also happily married them and raised children together: quite the indicator of fulsome reconciliation.

  • RobyH says:

    Signed the petition. Sent it to others. Will be interesting to see if it get cancelled.

    It is the AUSTRALIAN war memorial. Australia commenced 1 January 1901. It is our nations military history and that is all it should contain. There must be millions who agree with that.

    The Aboriginals were offered their own building for an embassy in Canberra …rather than the disgusting tent embassy. They rejected it. The Police should have evicted them at that moment.

    • Doubting Thomas says:

      With the amount of money sloshing around in the various Land Councils, there is absolutely no good reason why the various so-called “Nations” could not build their own memorials if that’s what they really want. But we know that actual memorials are not what they want at all.

  • maxpart27 says:

    The servicemen and women who served in WW1, WW2, Korea and Vietnam must be wondering what has gone wrong with this country to equate their experience with that of a small number of thieves chased because they had been stealing sheep or cattle.

  • Brian Boru says:

    I think that the Eureka stockade deaths and the Kelly gang’s and their victims should by the same reasoning (if it is valid) also be commemorated. If that sounds wrong for the AWM then so should this.
    All are important parts of our history and the Museum is the appropriate place to record them.
    The real reason this is being pushed is not to remember or commemorate but to advantage one side in a war that is being fought right now.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Spot on, Brian. Agitprop is the entire point of this campaign – and the only point.

  • Jim Muldoon says:

    Signed the petition. Don’t know what Nelson’s motivations are, but it is worth noting that most of the jobs open to people like him are only available to the woke. And this is getting more and more the case.

  • john mac says:

    Could never respect a man (especially a politician/Dr) with a stud in his ear . And how did regional skirmishes become a war ? Only in the deluded mind of taxpayer funded rent seekers. A true war would have wiped out the lot of them , yet here they are dictating to society on many fronts – the ABC form TV to classical radio , the AFL where careers are destroyed on the altar of aboriginal grievance, in parliament where an activist (Thorpe) can bite the arm off at the shoulder of the hand that feeds her and don’t underestimate the ignorance of the general population in voting yes to our moral enslavement re the “Voice’.

  • john mac says:

    “From” of course.

    • cbattle1 says:

      The Quadrant word processing machinery for ‘Comments’ is quite basic, and errors we make are often undiscovered till posted. There is the option, particularly if the comment is long and takes a bit of compositional effort, of composing the comment on a word processing program like Microsoft ‘Word’, which can automatically highlight spelling and grammatical errors, then ‘copy and paste’ into the Quadrant ‘Comment’ box.

  • pmprociv says:

    Having thought Nelson was a bit flaky from the days he was running the AMA, I can’t say this surprises me. Next, they’ll want to include Ned Kelly as a war hero.

  • pmprociv says:

    This just arrived, Henry Reynolds in The Conversation, so riddled with the usual hyperbole and mis(dis?)information:
    As usual, it all boils down to definitions, the question here being: just how do you define a “war”? Was a standing army set up specifically to fight the Aborigines? Was its aim to eliminate that population? When and how did the war end? How was the enemy treated subsequently?

    • Blair says:

      Well we had 500 + “nations” fighting these wars.

    • cbattle1 says:

      That ‘Conversation’ article by Henry Reynolds is a shocker!
      As he informs us:

      “The times are propitious as well. There is now widespread acceptance of the reality of frontier wars far more so than during the “history wars” of 20 years ago.
      There are few contemporary political leaders who would share John Howard’s personal hostility to the “black armband view” of history.”

      Will John Howard be memorialised at the AWM for having being on the losing side of the “History Wars”?

  • cbattle1 says:

    I suppose the AWM commemorates the fallen from the time of Federation, and therefore doesn’t include those who died in the Boer War?

    Brendon Nelson, like many others in positions of prominence, does not have the time or interest to study history for himself, from an objective perspective, and therefore just accept whatever appears to be generally accepted in society. Of course, what ‘society’ believes is whatever story the mainstream media presents to them.

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    The last time I was in Canberra, in 2011 or 2012, the AWM did have an interesting section on the Boer War (which, by the way, did begin before Federation but ended after it). I don’t think it was just a temporary display, but it’s possible that it was.
    The name plaques around the pool include those killed in the Boer War, as well as those killed in the Sudan (spelt Soudan or Soodan) crisis of the 1880s.

  • Davidovich says:

    Money required from the Labor Government to upgrade the AWM may be Brendan Nelson’s reason for agreeing to support moves by the AWM Council to allow the AWM to be used to record, however, distorted, deaths of Aborigines after settlement by the British. However, if Nelson had any integrity, especially given his past opposition to such plans, he would resign rather than be part of this sacrilege of the Memorial to our fallen. That he hasn’t done so shows he is, like most of the Liberal Party, a hollow man and should be condemned as such.

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