A guest blogger on the Australian War Memorial Council cosy club

David Stephens, the author of this post, is the founder of the Honest History website and the inspiration behind the Defending Country Memorial Project.  This article was published recently on the Defending Country Memorial website and is re-published by permission.

The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Matt Keogh, should refresh the Council of the Australian War Memorial, which at present looks like a cosy club of well-connected conservatives and ex-military types.

He can do this by replacing up to five Council members when their terms expire between February and April next year.

Mr Keogh is the minister responsible for the Memorial. Under its legislation, he recommends to the Governor-General who should be appointed or re-appointed to the Council.

Here are the five whose terms are ending. Not all of the information is on the Memorial’s website; there is more on Honest History, collected from public sources:

  • Rhonda Vanzella OAM (NSW), member since 2021, current term expires 3 February 2024; senior office holder, War Widows’ organisations; charity work; electorate office manager (11 years) for Dr Brendan Nelson, then MP, and described in his autobiography as ‘my most loyal confidant’; senior vice-president, Liberal Party NSW (11 years).
  • Glenn Keys AO (ACT), member since 2021, current term expires 3 February 2024; company director (Aspen Medical, founded 2003; large contracts with government); charitable work;  RAAF and Army engineer (1980-94); Raytheon (arms manufacturer) 1994-2003.
  • Josephine Stone AM (NT), member since 2015, current term expires 1 March 2024; lawyer and company director; charitable work; legal positions; spouse of Shane Stone, former NT Chief Minister, former national president, Liberal Party, and former member, Naval Reserve.
  • Retired Major General Aziz (Greg) Melick AO RFD FANZCN SC (Tas), member since 2015, current term expires 18 April 2024; lawyer; Army Reserve since 1966; member of various legal bodies; national president RSL since 2019.
  • Dr Susan Neuhaus AM CSC (SA), member since 2018, current term expires 26 April 2024; surgeon and surgery professor; 20 years Army and Army Reserve in medical roles, with operational deployments and retiring as Colonel; advisory positions in veterans’ health.

What’s missing among those five and the whole Council? The Memorial focusses on an important part of our history but where on the Council are the trained and respected historians? There have been none since Geoffrey Blainey (1997-2004) and Tom Frame (2004-07) and they both did good work while they were there. The Council needs more historians, as well as experts in archives, art, and museology.

The Memorial says it will do more on the Australian Frontier Wars, but where are the First Nations people on its Council? What about First Nations historians?

And who says former service people must be represented by the RSL president, who is elected not by mass ballot but by a stitch-up between State Branches (National By-Law 3.3(b)) and whose members make up barely one-quarter of current Australian ex-service and current service personnel (RSL: ‘more than 147,000 members’; ABS: 496,276 ex-service, 84,865 current service, total 581,141)?

General Melick said last year that ‘a major feature [at the Memorial] on frontier wars will piss off the majority of Australia’s 600,000 veterans’. Looking at the difference between RSL and overall numbers, that claim is questionable.

The Memorial’s Act says nothing about an ex officio position for the RSL. There are other ex-service organisations, some of them set up because the RSL was not cutting it. Why not have someone from Soldier On or Mates4Mates?

Shouldn’t there be a limit on members’ terms generally? Surely, one or two terms (three or six years) is enough?

As for politics, we don’t know the leanings of all Council members, but we do have a 2022 Grattan Institute report, which wondered why four out of ten Council non-ex officio members had Coalition connections. With the departure of Brendan Nelson, it’s probably just three now, not counting political donors, but are there any Green- or Labor-linked people among current members. Why not?

Then there’s the jingling of brass, the tinge of khaki. Every single one of the current thirteen members of the Council has a military connection, from the three service Heads ex officio to the retired Colonel and the retired senior RAAF and Army flight engineer, from the retired Wing Commander to the spouse of the former naval reservist, from the former defence minister to the former prime minister who (as PM) visited Australian troops in Afghanistan, from the War Widow to the former Army medico, from the Victoria Cross winner (and now employee of an arms manufacturer) to that retired Reserve Major General who also heads the RSL.

Of course, there should be military representation – that’s what the ex officio positions are for – but not wall to wall. Too much already!

We don’t suggest that members’ personal or professional affiliations are the only influences on what they say and do on the Council. But this Council looks more like the governing body of a military club rather than of a cultural institution belonging to all Australians. It desperately needs new faces.

The members may be great at their day jobs and worthy in their charitable works, but they don’t look much like the rest of us, nor like most people who served and died in our overseas wars, let alone in the Frontier Wars.

Some of them have weird ideas about military service, too. Council member Tony Abbott once approvingly quoted Samuel Johnson (mark 24.0): ‘every man does despise himself for never having been a soldier’. Really?

Still, Mr Abbott got reappointed to the Council on Mr Keogh’s watch. So there’s no telling.

Michelle Grattan recently wrote an annual report card on Ministers. Minister Keogh didn’t feature at all, but then most Veterans’ Affairs ministers over the years wouldn’t have. Here’s a chance for this one to get a mention 12 months on. Fix the War Memorial Council, Minister!

Noel Turnbull is one of the co-founders of the Defending Country Project along with Professor Peter Stanley, Dr Carolyn Holbrook and Pamela Burton and David Stephens.  Project Patrons include:  Megan Davis, Henry Reynolds and Clare Wright.