Divisions on the Australian War Memorial Council and political pressure are putting Memorial staff in a difficult position over the depiction of Frontier Wars. This has become clearer as time passes and more evidence becomes available.
The immediate past Council Chair, Brendan Nelson, and the current Chair, Kim Beazley, have both committed to the representation of the Frontier Wars, though the extent of this commitment has been muddied as more information has come out on the qualifications and fudges included in the original August 2022 Council decision.
Decades of research confirms the reality of frontier conflict. Australians want to know the truth about these wars. They want to commemorate their victims alongside the dead of Australia’s overseas wars.
The War Memorial knows it can, and should, depict the Frontier Wars in a comprehensive way and has indicated that’s the case in many documents and in Council Minutes. The only question is the extent of that representation, not whether there should be representation or not.
But the Memorial’s officers, as public servants, are reluctant to admit this in the face of pressure from some Council members, right wing politicians and ex-service organisations such as the RSL – an organisation which is no longer representative of all veterans and is perhaps better known by the public for the banks of poker machines in RSL clubs.
There has also been obfuscation which would puzzle even the world’s greatest minds. Back in May 2023, Senator Matt Canavan (Nationals, QLD), followed up in Senate Estimates some questions he had raised previously about whether there is evidence that colonial-raised military forces fought against Australia’s Indigenous population during the nineteenth century.
On 20 September 2023 the Memorial tabled a reply which included this sentence: ‘Mr Anderson [Director of the Memorial] does not confirm there is no evidence that no forces fought against the Indigenous population’. What on earth this means would defy many great philosophers. It has a bit of the sense of Maoist or Xi slogans which always seem to feature three things – in this case it might be the Three Nos.
To the layperson it would seem that, despite Anderson’s verbal gymnastics, he is saying here that it is false to suggest he said there were no military forces who fought against Indigenous warriors and that anyway his earlier comments made on the subject had been superseded and refined by more research. The Memorial’s September 2023 reply effectively admitted what its Director had denied in Estimates in November 2022 and February 2023 and waffled around in Estimates in May 2023.
The Director might have been more forthright, and referred in detail to the definition of the Defence Force given in the Australian War Memorial Act 1980, which includes ‘any naval or military force of the Crown raised in Australia before the establishment of the Commonwealth’. He could have cited – in detail – examples of colonial-raised forces which took part in frontier violence: Governor Macquarie’s ‘Associations’ in New South Wales in 1816; the Black Line, Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania), 1830; the Battle of Pinjarra, Western Australia, 1834; the Waterloo Creek massacre, New South Wales, 1838; Native Police, Queensland, 1848–c.1910.
As Governor Macquarie said at the time, resorting to military force had ‘[driven] away these hostile Tribes from the British settlements in the remote Parts of the country’. Memorial Council members hostile to Frontier Wars representation might explain how they know – or admit – less about what happened during European settlement than Governor Macquarie did at the time. Less also than what the Memorial’s staff knew: the evidence about these five colonial-raised forces was included in an agenda paper put to the Memorial Council in August 2021 and again, in revised form, in August 2022.
On both occasions, the evidence was presented under the heading ‘Historical examples of colonial-raised forces’, was made public under FOI in October 2022 in a redacted version and finally became public unredacted in September 2023. The Director should have come completely clean about this material as a product of the Memorial’s own work, rather than (as he did) waffling about external research continually becoming available.
Meanwhile, the word is well and truly out that War Memorial staff morale is very low, and some historical material is being effectively censored to make war look innocuous. You can hardly blame the staff when their fundamental task – to truthfully commemorate the sacrifices in our many overseas military ventures – has become another element in the culture wars people such as War Memorial Council member Tony Abbott have launched over the years.
Veterans, First Nations peoples and all Australians deserve better than having our national War Memorial becoming another battleground in political campaigns. Better, more honest, treatment of the Frontier Wars is long overdue.
This article was first published on the Defending Country Memorial Project website and subsequently on Pearls and Irritations.