For decades the Australian War Memorial Council denied the need for the full recognition of Australia’s first wars – the Frontier Wars – despite the overwhelming evidence of actions which today would be regarded not only as war but also in many cases war crimes.
Now the Defending Country Memorial Project has launched a website and a campaign to rectify that glaring omission. The Defending Country Memorial Project website details the overwhelming evidence that the War Memorial is wrong – evidence in books, colonial records, official reports and oral histories.
In the 19th century governments and settlers were clear about their intentions – to wage war on Indigenous Australians. Time and time again they used the word war to describe their actions.
But the War Memorial Council would have us believe these were not real wars but events which might best be recorded in a few museums.
Part of the problems are the entrenched views of a Council which does not properly represent the views of Australia’s leading historians nor many, many veterans.
The Project evolved from Dr David Stephens’ Honest History project which has produced a series of significant contributions to understanding Anzackery, the militarisation of Australian history by politicians and others and the many problems of the War Memorial – from the contested rebuilding project through to the cosy club the War Memorial Council has become.
Honest History has also been an invaluable source of information about the books, articles and resources which enable Australians to understand how commemoration has become a political and not a community program.
During the WWI commemorations, for instance, Dr Stephens highlighted the enormous amount of money spent on WWI commemoration compared with that of other allied nations.
The total spending was more than $470 million of taxpayers money.
Indeed, Australia led the world in commemorative spending for World War I with $8889 allocated for each digger killed in the Great War compared to just $109 per British casualty and a mere $2 for each dead German soldier.
During the commemorations Dr Stephens said many people were amazed by the spending spree but were reluctant to criticise it. “Spending is important but commemoration is not the state religion,” he said.
Former army officer, Iraq veteran and author of Anzac’s Long Shadow James Brown was another critic of the spending saying said that in times of tight budgets every dollar spent on commemorating long dead soldiers was a dollar not spent on living soldiers with real issues today.
“We’re spending millions on monuments which catalogue every death in World War I yet until last year no one was tracking the number of returning modern veterans taking their own lives,” Mr Brown said.
At the time a spokesman for then Veterans Affairs Minister Michael Ronaldson justified the spending saying unlike the UK and Germany, Australia was a young nation without a history of conflict when war broke out.
…and that is the big lie of Australian history – a lie the Defending Country Project intends to replace with the truth about our longest war – the war against our First Nations people.
The new Defending Country website demolishes this big lie by bringing together in one accessible place both the critical information about Australia’s real history – not the sanitised version pushed by government commemorative programs – but the overwhelming evidence of the significance and extent of the Frontier Wars.
The website has been launched with a significant detailed analysis of how the War Memorial is trying to evade what a critical priority in commemorating all our country’s wars.
The Defending Country founders are: Dr David Stephens who has been Editor of the Honest History website since 2013, Convener of Heritage Guardians (opposed to the redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial), and co-editor with Alison Broinowski of The Honest History Book (2017). During the Vietnam War era he was a conscientious objector (to that war) and National Service Act defaulter.
Pamela Burton who is a Canberra lawyer and writer and has served on government boards and tribunals. She wrote From Moree to Mabo: the Mary Gaudron Story (2010), The Waterlow Killings (2012), A Foreign Affair (2016) and, with her sister, Dr Meredith Edwards, Persons of Interest: an Intimate Account of Cecily and John Burton (2022).
Dr Carolyn Holbrook is a senior lecturer in history at Deakin University, Melbourne, and Director of Australian Policy and History (aph.org.au). Her publications include Lessons from History: Leading Historians Tackle Australia’s Greatest Challenges (co-edited with Lyndon Megarrity and David Lowe, 2022), The Great War: Aftermath and Commemoration (co-edited with Keir Reeves, 2019), and Anzac: the Unauthorised Biography (2014).
Professor Peter Stanley is an Honorary Professor at UNSW Canberra and author of more than 45 books on military and social history. He was Principal Historian at the Australian War Memorial and then inaugural head of the Research Centre at the National Museum of Australia.
Noel Turnbull (Secretary) 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 and has an honorary doctorate from RMIT University. He developed, with film producer Bob Weis, the Truth and Integrity Project.
Defending Country’s Patrons are:
Professor Megan Davis is Co-chair of the Uluru Dialogue and was a leading campaigner for the YES case at the 2023 Voice Referendum. She is Pro Vice-Chancellor Society at UNSW Sydney, Balnaves Chair of Constitutional Law, a Professor of Law, and Director of the Indigenous Law Centre at UNSW Law. She is a Cobble Cobble woman of the Barunggam Nation and a renowned constitutional lawyer and public law expert, focusing on advocacy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Her recent books include: Everything You Need to Know about the Voice(with George Williams, 2023); Our Voices from the Heart (with PatriciaAnderson, 2023); Quarterly Essay 90: Voice of Reason (2023).
Professor Henry Reynolds of the University of Tasmania is Australia’s leading historian of the Frontier Wars. He began working in this field at Townsville University College in 1966 (James Cook University from 1970) and has continued to research, write, and publish over many years at UTas. He was Senior Australian of the Year for Tasmania in 2015 and is a National Living Treasure. His books include: Free People (1995, 2022); Forgotten War (2013, 2022); The Other Side of the Frontier (1981, 2006); This Whispering in Our Hearts Revisited (2018); Tongerlongeter (2021, with Nicholas Clements); Truth-Telling (2021); Why Weren’t We Told? (2000). He was a major contributor to the 2022 documentary, The Australian Wars, directed by Rachel Perkins.
Professor Clare Wright OAM is an award-winning historian, author and broadcaster who has worked in politics, academia, and the media. She is Professor of History and Professor of Public Engagement at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Her books include The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (2014, Stella Prize winner) and You Daughters of Freedom (2018), her TV credits include Utopia Girls (2012) and The War That Changed Us (2014). She hosts radio programs and podcasts, has been an adviser to governments and a judge of literary awards. Clare is a Member of the National Museum of Australia Council. Recently, she has been researching the Yirrkala Bark Petitions of 1963, key documents in First Nations history. Her book on the topic, the final instalment of her Democracy Trilogy, will be published in 2024. Her OAM (2019) was for services to literature and to historical research.