AWM Frontier Wars Action Plan – Part 2

‘An Action Plan for Australian Frontier Wars recognition and commemoration’, Honest History3 April 2023 Part 2.

This article covers ACTIONS 3, 4 and 5 in a proposed Action Plan. Our earlier article covered ACTIONS 1 and 2. Each ACTION should happen this year, 2023. Memorial Council Chair Kim Beazley’s recent remarks need strong follow through if momentum is not to be lost.

Truth-telling about the Australian Frontier Wars is an essential follow-up to the Voice to Parliament. Urgent actions are needed now to ensure that the Australian War Memorial properly recognises and commemorates the Frontier Wars. Truth-telling demands no less. There is a Commemoration Gap that needs to be closed.

‘Voice, Treaty, Truth’: Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023Attorney-General’s speech in the House of Representatives, 30 March 2023government media release, 30 March 2023

ACTION 3: Ensure that the Frontier Wars have designated, separate gallery space, not co-located with pre-1914 expeditionary forces

According to the Australian War Memorial’s website, the Boer War of 1899-1902 killed about 600 Australians. Elsewhere around that time, in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1900-01 six members of the Australian contingent died, all of injury or illness. The New South Wales contingent to the Sudan in 1885 lost just nine men, none of them in action and some of them after they returned to Sydney. Of the Australian contingents which went against New Zealand Māori resistance in the 1860s, not one member died.

Of course, there is more to war than death or casualty figures but it is grossly offensive to compare those four events – in terms of deaths, wounds and trauma – with the Australian Frontier Wars, where First Nations deaths were between 20 000 (the figure the Memorial admits to) and 100 000. (No-one knows the exact figure, which is in itself significant: the Memorial is very precise with the numbers of dead in our overseas wars.) It is unacceptable also for the Memorial to lump the Frontier Wars in with these other events, simply because they occurred at roughly the same time.

The Frontier Wars were a foundational part of Australia’s history; historian Henry Reynolds has said many times that this was Australia’s most important war. The four colonial expeditionary forces, on the other hand, were vainglorious follies on behalf of Queen and Empire.

The old Colonial Conflicts (Soldiers of the Queen) gallery at the Memorial (opened 1985) covered those four colonial wars, as well as a small display on British soldiers in colonial Australia. The gallery referred to ‘Aboriginal resistance’ and included an image of the Slaughterhouse (Waterloo) Creek Massacre of 1838, about the size of an iPad screen, but uncaptioned.

Nearly 40 years on, the Memorial is on track to repeat the same travesty, except now the subject will be the whole Frontier Wars, not just one massacre. And, if current plans persist, there will be just an extra 23 square metres to do it in – 385 square metres previously, 408 square metres in the redeveloped Memorial (see our earlier article). There are hints in the latest advice from the Memorial that this figure is not final. It definitely should not be.


 The Memorial Council should resolve (and direct Memorial management accordingly – as it has the power to do under the Memorial’s Act, sections 9 and 20) that the Frontier Wars are to be presented in a separate, designated Australian Frontier Wars gallery, that this requires rescinding any previous space allocations that assumed co-location of the Frontier Wars with pre-1914 expeditionary forces, and that the Memorial’s Corporate Plan be revised accordingly.

ACTION 4: Ensure that the Memorial consults distinguished historians beyond the Memorial’s own staff and distinguished First Nations representatives beyond the Memorial’s current narrowly based Indigenous Advisory Group 

Evidence-based history should be at the heart of the Memorial’s mission. Change is needed to ensure that this is the case in relation to the Frontier Wars.

The Memorial has in its Military History section just three members (out of 11 staff) who have researched and published on First Nations topics. Agenda Paper 178 (dated 19 August 2022) that Memorial staff prepared for the Council’s Frontier Wars discussions in 2021 and 2022 was a reasonably balanced summary of Frontier Wars historiography – as far as Honest History could judge, in between the copious redactions in the version released to Honest History on 4 October 2022 under Freedom of Information.

Agenda Paper 178 had no doubt that the Frontier Wars qualified as wars. It also said this (page 10, our emphasis added):

As far as is known, the volunteer militia, artillery, and other units of the second half of the nineteenth century did not take part in frontier violence. Other forces raised in the colonies, however, did take part in frontier violence, and some were clearly military in nature. Below are five historical examples of colonial-raised forces that did take part in frontier violence.

(1) Macquarie’s use of “Associations”, New South Wales, 1816

(2) The Black Line, Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania), 1830

(3) Battle of Pinjarra, Western Australia, 1834

(4) Waterloo Creek massacre, New South Wales, 1838

(5) Native Police, Queensland, 1848–c.1910.

The paper contained further details in an Attachment (pages 24-29).

Agenda Paper 178 still waffled on the difference between ‘colonial-raised’ and ‘military’. It was, however, an advance on many previous statements from the Memorial, including Director Anderson’s claim to Rachel Perkins in April 2021 (The Australian Wars, episode 3, mark 56.00) that the Memorial’s historians ‘could find no evidence of forces, military forces raised in Australia, engaged in frontier violence, frontier conflicts’.

Surprisingly, that was still the Director’s position at Senate Estimates in November 2022, three months after he had cleared Agenda Paper 178 with that important information about colonial-raised forces, including military forces. This exchange occurred at Estimates on 8 November 2022 (page 31 of the Hansard):

Senator CANAVAN: … I do note, Mr Anderson, under the media releases section of your website, an article titled ‘Will the Australian War Memorial tell the story of colonial conflicts?’, published on 27 January 2014 [media release here. HH]. That article states:

… the Memorial has found no substantial evidence that home-grown military units, whether state colonial forces or post-Federation Australian military units, ever fought against the Indigenous population of this country.

Is that statement still the position of the Australian War Memorial?

Mr Anderson: That’s correct, Senator, with regard to military units, correct.

According to Memorial Deputy Director, retired Major General Brian Dawson, Agenda Paper 178 ‘was first submitted to the council’ in August 2021 (Estimates, 8 November 2022, p. 36). Without another FOI claim, we do not know whether the August 2021 version of Agenda Paper 178 also contained the information about colonial-raised forces, including military forces.

Whether the August 2021 version contained that information or not, the August 2022 version clearly did. It seems clear that the Director’s evidence on 8 November 2022 to Estimates did not reflect the advice he signed off to the Memorial Council in the August 2022 version. That is a cause for concern. It suggests the Memorial needs to take more care with history.

The Memorial’s historians contributed to Agenda Paper 178. They need support from other historians for the necessary work on the Frontier Wars. Outside the Memorial there are many historians and other experts, some of them Indigenous, who have researched and written, or have knowledge, on the Frontier Wars and First Nations history generally.

For example, The Australian Wars included contributions from Nick Brodie, Nicholas Clements, Len Collard, Valerie Cooms, Libby Connors, Rodney Dillon, Raymond Evans, Stephen Gapps, Sandy Hamilton, Cliff Harrigan, Grace Karskens, Greg Lehman, Denise Lovett-Murray, Tony McAvoy, Patrick Malone, Angus Murray, Michael Pickering, Jonathan Richards, Daryle Rigney, Lyndall Ryan, Henry Reynolds, Theresa Sainty, Patrick Smith, Peter Stanley, Shayne Williams and others. A Memorial which took seriously its commitments on the Frontier Wars would be consulting such people, too. It claims now that it will do so. It certainly needs to.

As to Indigenous non-historians, Kim Beazley and Memorial spokespeople have mentioned the Memorial’s Indigenous Advisory Group. The backgrounds of this group suggest that it is well suited to consulting about Indigenous people who have fought for the King or Queen but not so much for providing advice on the Frontier Wars. There have been recent hints from Memorial management and Council Chair Beazley that there will be wider consultation with Indigenous people. There very much needs to be.


 The Memorial Council should resolve (and direct Memorial management accordingly – as it has the power to do under the Memorial’s Act, sections 9 and 20) that the Memorial consult a wide range of historians (especially Indigenous historians with research and writing experience in Frontier Wars history) and a wide range of Indigenous community members, especially those with knowledge of Frontier Wars history. The Memorial’s Corporate Plan and National Collection Development Plan need to be amended accordingly.

ACTION 5: Ensure that the Memorial develop and focus on the theme of ‘Defending Country’, applicable both to First Australians and to uniformed Australian service people.

 The common theme of ‘Defending Country’ applies just as much to First Australians (Arrernte, Noongar, Wiradjuri, and others), defending Country on Country, as it does to uniformed Australians fighting wars overseas. Recognising and developing this theme is the key to the Memorial’s future as an honest Australian cultural institution.

‘Defending Country’ is what binds together First Nations warriors who fought to resist settler and military power, the First Nations women, children and old folk who died with their men or suffered massacres and poison and, on the other hand, the men and women in the country’s uniform (including Indigenous service people) sent overseas to fight for King and Empire, for Australia, or ‘to defend our values’, and then to die or to come back damaged in body, soul and mind. The theme can also take in the few hundred civilians who died in our wars other than the Frontier Wars.

‘Defending Country’ is not a new concept at the Memorial; it just needs to be brought front and centre. The Memorial’s long-running special exhibition For Country, for Nation traced the deeds of Indigenous warriors, in and out of uniform: ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a long standing tradition of fighting for Country, and continue to serve with honour among our military forces’. (The book of the same title.) The Memorial put together talking points in 2020-21 which replaced ‘fighting for Country’ with ‘defending Country’ and went on to say, ‘We are committed to telling their stories in the context of the Memorial’s charter and throughout conflicts’ (Estimates, 8 November 2022, page 33).

The ‘Defending Country’ theme needs to flow from the wording in the Memorial’s Act, through its Corporate Plan and National Collection Development Plan, right down to the curatorial decisions that decide what goes on display. This theme should set the tone for the whole Memorial, in its concrete and online presence.


 The Memorial Council should resolve (and direct Memorial management accordingly – as it has the power to do under the Memorial’s Act, sections 9 and 20) that the Memorial’s Corporate Plan, National Collection Development Plan and subsequent decisions about gallery content should incorporate and reflect the theme of Defending Country, at home and abroad, before and after 1788.

Conclusion: Why should Australians care about this?

 Because dishonest history about past wars can support disastrous decisions about future wars

 A country that venerates and perpetuates a sanitised, dishonest view of its own history – and that is what the War Memorial has been delivering for more than 80 years by its failure to properly recognise and commemorate the Australian Frontier Wars – can use that history to support military actions in the future. The myths and stories of past Anzacs sent overseas are used to support the deployment of their successors today – Prime Minister Abbott in 2015 described ADF personnel sent against Islamic State as ‘splendid sons of Anzacs’ – whether those deployments are wise or not.

Because we need an honest history, growing from our land.

 Indigenous activist and public servant, Charles Perkins, father of film-maker Rachel, felt Indigenous history could be the gift of First Nations people to their fellow Australians. ‘White people can inherit 40,000 or 60,000 years of culture, and all they have to do is reach out and ask for it.’ An honest, evidence-based history, growing from the land, those who have lived on it for many generations and those who have come to it since, can balance the heavily Anglo-Celtic, partly mythic, excessively Anzac-centred version of our history, a version that has become an anachronism.

By properly recognising and commemorating the Frontier Wars, the Memorial can gift some of this history to today’s and future Australians. All of us, non-Indigenous and Indigenous, will be entitled then to use the term ‘Our Country’.

Because proper recognition and commemoration of the Frontier Wars is an essential part of Truth-telling

 Current political debate around the Voice to Parliament will be followed by a referendum, legislation, and consideration of Treaty. ‘We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history’, says the Uluru Statement. Truth-telling about the Australian Frontier Wars is a key part of that process, and it is fitting that the Australian War Memorial should lead the way in telling that truth.

The authors

[1] Dr David Stephens is Editor of the Honest History website, Convener of Heritage Guardians, and co-editor with Alison Broinowski of The Honest History Book (2017). He has written many articles on Australian history.

[2] Professor Peter Stanley is an Honorary Professor at UNSW Canberra and author of more than 30 books on military and social history, including Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Murder, Mutiny and the Australian Imperial Force (2010), which was jointly awarded the 2011 Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian HistoryArmenia, Australia and the Great War (with Vicken Babkenian, 2016), and The Crying Years: Australia’s Great War (2017). He was Principal Historian at the Australian War Memorial and then inaugural head of the Research Centre at the National Museum of Australia.

[3] Noel Turnbull is a Vietnam veteran (104 Field Battery, 1968-69) with a 50-year career in public relations, politics, journalism, and academia. His books include How PR Works But Often Doesn’t and A History of Port Melbourne (with Nancy U’ren). He has been a member or Chair of many public bodies. With Bob Weis, he founded and developed the Truth and Integrity Project as a campaign vehicle and online access centre for organisations and individuals opposed to the Morrison government.