Getting the balance right between veterans’ welfare and Anzackery

There are growing signs that successive governments’ obsession with the commemoration of Anzac Day and World War One is finally getting some pushback – including from the former Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Peter Leahy.

In the last quarterly issue of the Department of Veterans Affairs newsletter –VetAffairs which is distributed to about 220,000 veterans – DVA included an article justifying commemorative spending by citing it as a percentage of the total DVA budget. The fact that it published the article was indicative of some unease and was obviously prompted by various complaints from veterans about the spending.

As usual the PR people stepped in and chose the most appropriate measure – for DVA anyway – of the commemorative budget as a percentage of total spending. The blog thought this was misleading and sent a letter off to VetAffairs which, if it is to be published, will be in the next issue. The blog’s argument – mentioned before in various blog posts and speeches about Anzackery – was that a more accurate comparison would be between Australia’s total spending and that of other countries. Australia is spending about $550 million on commemoration – $8,800 for every digger killed – while the UK is spending 50 million pounds which translates into $A109 per dead Tommy. The Germans are spending $2 per dead soldier. Australia has also tipped in $100 million for a centre in France and the Australian War Memorial is seeking $500 million for expansion work which – needless to say – still does not include redressing the scandalous omission of the Frontier Wars from the AWM’s history of Australian warfare.

There were about 60,000 Australian dead in WW1 – 14.5% of those who enlisted. There were 700,000 Brits killed although the percentage killed of those enlisted (11.5%) was lower than the Australian rate. In the Frontier Wars some 20,000 indigenous people were killed (murdered really) over many years with the last massacres amazingly in the 20th century. About 2,000 whites are believed to have been killed in the wars as well. It should be noted that Keith Windschuttle disputes the 20,000 number but then in his days as a Maoist he did miss the fact that the Maoist regime killed millions, so his approach to the numbers is perhaps unsurprising. We don’t know what the 1788 indigenous population was – one estimate is 315,000 although archaeologists have estimated that a population of 750,000 could have been sustained. The killings were also spread over more than a century so percentages are hard to estimate but it is impossible to ignore the need to recognise these wars in the national war memorial.

Unfortunately, the AWM Director, Brendan Nelson, not only resists the inclusion of Frontier Wars in the AWM, but is also a bit hazy about other Australian military history. At a Melbourne Town Hall debate about Anzac Day puffery some years ago he claimed that the diggers who died had died under the Australian flag. The blog couldn’t resist getting up and pointing out that this was nonsense even more inaccurate than Dr Nelson’s poster for schools about Simpson, his donkey and Australian values which conveniently ignored Simpson’s socialism, republicanism, false name and enlistment solely in a bid to get back to the UK.

But while all this is becoming better known, and some veterans are pushing back, the most significant recent intervention is by former Army Chief General Peter Leahy who says that while it is right to commemorate what happened in the first World War, there was a need “to strike the right balance between commemoration and looking after veterans from recent wars.”

Speaking to the ABC he said diverting funds from the Anzac Centenary Commemorative Grants towards veterans would help “ease the problems of suicide.” “There is still an enormous problem with suicides, with homelessness, with lives unfulfilled, problems with education and employment, family breakdowns and just people living in despair,” he said.

General Leahy remarked that the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull (who is opening the $100 million French centre next week), had said in 2016 that “the best way to honour the veterans of 1916 is to look after the veterans of 2016.” Leahy said the same applies for 1918 and 2018 and “there’s more to be done at home.”

The blog would add that the PM, of course, has said many things – for example on climate change – and then walked away from them. So perhaps little credence should be placed on anything he says other than his assertion that he wants to stay PM.