Defending Country Campaign

What you need to know about the Defending Country campaign

Read about our campaign. Main points:

  • The Defending Country campaign is intricately connected to the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. 
  • The elements of the Uluru Statement need to be—and are being—dealt with simultaneously.
  • The Defending Country campaign extends themes already in evidence at the War Memorial, but the Memorial needs encouragement to do much more.
  • The Australian (Frontier) Wars can be recognised and commemorated in many places and sites, not just the War Memorial.
  • The Defending Country campaign is not just about broadening the focus of the War Memorial.
Fee Plumley, #frontierwars ANZAC vigil, 24 April 2015 (Flickr, Creative Commons). The Anzac Vigil involved a walk down from Mount Ainslie to the War Memorial forecourt. Meanwhile, the Memorial was doing Anzac Day Eve night-time projections onto the façade.

The Defending Country campaign is intricately connected to the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs. This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to the common law from “time immemorial”, and according to science more than 60,000 years ago. (Uluru Statement from the Heart, 2017)

Our campaign is not isolated in the landscape of Australian politics and history. Rather, it is intricately connected to the Uluru Statement.

We strongly supported the Yes case in the Voice Referendum. Yet, we want to get beyond the words proposed for the Constitution and focus instead on the opportunity being offered to Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to say something important about our country—about Country.  

These important things are caught by words like ‘acknowledgement’ (that parts of our history have left deep scars on Australians), ‘owning’ (the fact of those scars, those effects), ‘recognition’ (of the unique place in Australia today of First Australians, the people who have carried those scars), and ‘Truth-telling’ (the truth will set us, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, free—from the concealments and lies of our past—or go a long way in that direction). The Voice Referendum campaign during 2023 disclosed a great need for Truth-telling: an Essential Research poll reported on 17 October that, while 8 per cent of those polled said they knew ‘a lot’ about Australia’s Indigenous history and 50 per cent ‘a fair amount’, only 24 per cent felt they knew more about that history as a result of the Referendum campaign.

Broadening the focus of the Australian War Memorial—to include proper recognition and commemoration of the Australian Frontier Wars—signifies that Australia is owning—confronting—parts of our history that need to be owned and confronted. Beyond that, though, broadening the focus of the Memorial is doing the right thing by Indigenous people and their ancestors and descendants.

Advocating for the Voice, Thomas Mayo and Kerry O’Brien wrote of ‘the deep injustice’ of ‘colonial dispossession’. Rectifying that injustice, they said, ‘comes down to a question about fairness and acceptance’. (The Voice to Parliament Handbook, 2023, pp. 20-21) Closing the Commemoration Gap at the Memorial will be an expression of fairness and acceptance, indeed of equality between deaths in uniform and First Nations deaths.

Broadening the focus of the Memorial is about ‘fairness’, giving equal weight to the service and sacrifice of Australians throughout our history, whether they fought for their own people or for the King or Queen; ‘acceptance’, first, that Indigenous casualties in the Australian (Frontier) Wars should be treated in the same way as non-Indigenous and Indigenous war casualties in Australia's overseas wars and, secondly, that Indigenous casualties in the Frontier Wars included a far larger proportion of non-combatants, women, children and old men, than Australians have been used to in our overseas wars.

Everywhere across Australia, great warriors like Pemulwuy and Jandamarra led resistance against the British. First Nations refused to acquiesce to dispossession and fought for their sovereign rights and their land. (Final Report of the Referendum Council, 2017, section 2.2)

The elements of the Uluru Statement need to be – and are being – dealt with simultaneously

The Defending Country campaign is one of many Uluru-related initiatives under way. There is already a legislated Voice in South Australia, Victoria has well-established processes for both Truth-telling and Treaty, and there are plans for Truth-telling in Queensland (ahead of Treaty) and Treaty and Truth-telling in the Northern Territory. (Summary of progress at October 2023. Summary of progress at February 2024.) Voice-Treaty-Truth is shorthand for necessary changes, not a roadmap.

Treaty and Truth-telling, of their nature, require a long run-up, because of the legal aspects of the first and the resistance that confronts the second. The familiar but false claims that greet statements about the Frontier Wars—‘they were just skirmishes’, ‘they weren’t real wars’, ‘they never happened’, ‘get over it’—even in the face of masses of evidence, will not be broken down easily.

Was the conflict war or something less than war? That’s the fundamental question. It was possible for Europeans to accept that there was conflict but not see it as war: it was too scattered, too small-scale, it didn’t have the dignity of war. (Henry Reynolds, The Australian Wars, episode 3, 2022)

The Defending Country campaign extends themes already in evidence at the War Memorial, but the Memorial needs encouragement to do much more

The campaign is not an attack on the Australian War Memorial. It extends themes the Memorial itself has used. ‘Defending Country’ is not a new concept at the Memorial; it just needs to be brought front and centre.

An important marker was the statement by the then Chair of the War Memorial Council, Dr Brendan Nelson, in September 2022 that the Memorial was committed to a ‘much broader, a much deeper depiction and presentation of the violence committed against Indigenous people, initially by British, then by pastoralists, then by police, and then by Aboriginal militia’. (It seems clear that this apparent change of heart was strongly influenced by the Memorial Council’s viewing of the Rachel Perkins documentary, The Australian Wars.)

Update 19 May 2024: Very useful backgrounder from September 2022 on The Australian Wars documentary, addresses many of the points made here.

During Dr Nelson’s years as Director of the Memorial (2012-19), he presided over the Memorial’s acquisitions of artworks depicting Frontier conflict, the For Country, For Nation art exhibition (which linked Indigenous warriors fighting for country with Indigenous service in uniform), the promotion of a John Schumann song about an Indigenous soldier who fought in uniform despite what had been done to his people, and the unveiling in the Memorial’s grounds of a sculpture ‘For Our Country’, commemorating Indigenous service in uniform.  

The Memorial has even used the actual term ‘Defending Country’. In 2020-21, the Memorial’s staff put together talking points for use at Senate Estimates hearings. The points included these words: ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a longstanding tradition of defending Country, and continue to serve with honour among our military forces. We are committed to telling their stories in the context of the Memorial's charter and throughout conflicts’ (Estimates Hansard, 8 November 2022, page 33; emphasis added).

The crucial point is how genuine the Memorial is in its commitment to properly recognising and commemorating the Frontier Wars. The new Chair of the Council, Kim Beazley, over several months refined his remarks about the Frontier Wars to reach a commitment to ‘substantial’ portrayal, but there are obvious questions about what that word ‘substantial’ means. How substantial is substantial?

Adding to these uncertainties is the unwillingness of Memorial management at present to allow for more than a token increase in space in the redeveloped Memorial to deal with the Frontier Wars – 410 square metres in May 2023, compared with 385 square metres in the pre-redevelopment Memorial. Moreover, that space is—as in the ‘old’ Memorial—to include not only the Frontier Wars but also the Australian contingents sent between 1860 and 1902 to the New Zealand Wars, the Sudan, the Boxer Rebellion in China, and the Boer War in South Africa.

Much more on this can be found on the Honest History webpage. This document summarises that material. There seems to be a serious split on the Memorial Council, with the Memorial’s management caught somewhere in the middle.

The Memorial management’s plans are (as of February 2024) breathtaking in their lack of understanding of and empathy with the history. Obviously, there is more to war—any war—than the numbers killed, but those four small wars of Empire between them killed around 600 Australians, most of them in South Africa. (According to the Australian War Memorial’s website, the Boer War of 1899-1902 killed about 600 Australians. Elsewhere around that time, during 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.) The Frontier Wars, on the other hand, led to the deaths of somewhere between 20 000 (the figure the Memorial admits to) and 100 000 First Australians, and perhaps 2500 settler-invaders, police, and military.

Exact numbers are impossible to ascertain but, looking at Queensland alone, there has been extensive research on the role of the paramilitary Native Police and their white officers, working from a network of camps—with individual camps in place for a few months to up to 44 years—across Queensland from 1849 to 1904. Episode 3 of The Australian Wars includes a discussion between director, Rachel Perkins, and historical archaeologist, Dr Heather Burke:

Perkins: How many people potentially died at the hands of the Native Police, based on the records you’ve found?
Burke: We will probably never, ever know what that final number was but if you use the number of Native Police camps and their duration, and then some estimates for how many patrols might have radiated from each camp, how many people might have been “dispersed” on each patrol, with 150 camps, you’re looking at something like 72 000 people.

David Marr writes that archival work over the years, despite missing records, has seen estimates of the number killed by the Queensland Native Police rise ‘to more than 40,000. The figure is neither precise nor final. Work continues in the archives.’ (David Marr, Killing for Country, 2023, p. 405)

Black people killing black people. It’s age-old and it has always worked. (Damein Bell, Gunditjmara, The Australian Wars, episode 3, 2022)
We will never know how many died at the hands of the Native Police. The core records of the force have disappeared, presumed destroyed. (David Marr, Killing for Country, 2023, p. 405)

The Australian (Frontier) Wars can be recognised and commemorated in many places and sites, not just the War Memorial

Properly recognising and commemorating the Frontier Wars is not a matter of either/or—either doing it at the Memorial or somewhere else, say, the National Museum of Australia or the proposed Ngurra Complex, planned for Canberra. The Frontier Wars should be featured at both those places, as well as at the Memorial, at shrines and memorials throughout Australia, at the National Archives and the National Library and their state equivalents.

In the same way, deaths of Australians in uniform are remembered in avenues of honour, plaques, museums, shrines, the Archives, the Library, and war cemeteries around the world. We rightly commemorate these deaths; we need to treat Frontier Wars deaths in the same way.

One of Kim Beazley’s signal services as Memorial Council Chair since December 2022 has been his insistence that the Frontier Wars need to be depicted and commemorated in many places—like those we list above. He should be applauded for that as well as for his insistence that the stories are not just about massacres of First Australians people but about their resistance against settler-invaders and uniformed contingents.

Kim Beazley has said many times that First Australians fighters need to be given ‘the dignity of resistance’. There are some in the commemorations arena who do not share his view and he will need support to ensure success.

In April 2023, Defending Country’s Peter Stanley, David Stephens and Noel Turnbull published two long articles proposing an Action Plan to get matters moving. There is a summary here and an updated version here.

The Action Plan has five parts:

  • amend the Australian War Memorial Act 1980 to explicitly require the Memorial to deal with the Frontier Wars (rather than leave the Memorial to interpret the current Act);
  • delay allocating space for the Frontier Wars until decisions have been made about gallery content;
  • provide a designated Frontier Wars gallery rather than co-locating the Frontier Wars with colonial expeditionary forces;
  • consult a wide range of historians (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) and Indigenous people (not just the Memorial’s narrowly based Indigenous Advisory Group); and
  • develop the theme of ‘Defending Country’, which is applicable both to First Australians people defending Country on their Country and uniformed Australian service people sent overseas to fight.

Our FAQs are also relevant.

People for decades would have been living in fear, of horses appearing at dawn and killing everybody, because that’s what happened and that type of treatment of our ancestors has left huge open wounds for a lot of people and in the cases where those wounds have healed there’s an incredible amount of scarring. (Tony McAvoy SC, Wirdi, The Australian Wars, episode 3, 2022)

The Defending Country campaign is not just about broadening the focus of the War Memorial

The Defending Country campaign has broader implications for the nature of Australian commemoration. In our FAQs, we say this:

Anzac Day could remain as it has been traditionally, marking uniformed service in our overseas wars, with the Frontier Wars commemorated on other days.
Alternatively, Anzac Day could be broadened out to commemorate those killed in and affected by all our wars, including the Frontier Wars. That is the implication of the term ‘Defending Country’, which is applicable equally to the Frontier Wars and to our overseas wars in uniform.
How Anzac Day is treated at the War Memorial, our premier commemorative institution, obviously affects how Anzac Day is treated at other shrines and throughout the country. The Defending Country theme implies a new approach to commemoration everywhere in Australia.
This is not about doing away with Anzac Day but about broadening its focus to recognise the complete spread of our history as we have come to know it.
Similar considerations apply to other commemorative days, particularly Remembrance Day.

Australia officially marks many days to do with war: Anzac Day, Bombing of Darwin Day, Victory in Europe Day, Korean Veterans’ Day, Victory in the Pacific Day, Vietnam Veterans’ Day, Malaya and Borneo Veterans’ Day, Merchant Navy Day, Battle for Australia Day, Remembrance Day, National Peacekeepers’ Day.

Why not then have days to commemorate the massacres at Appin 1816, Cape Grim 1828, Convincing Ground 1833-34, Pinjarra 1834, Waterloo (Slaughterhouse) Creek 1838, Myall Creek 1838, Murdering Gully 1839, Rufus River 1841, Wonnerup 1841, Waterloo Bay 1849, East Ballina 1854, Cullin-La-Ringo 1861, Medway Ranges 1861, The Leap (Mount Mandarana) 1867, Barrow (Skull) Creek 1874, Selwyn Range 1879, Panton River 1888, Diamantina River 1888, Mistake Creek 1890, Gan Gan 1911, Bedford Downs 1924, Forrest River (Oombulgurri) 1926 or Coniston 1928, or any of the hundreds of other incidents recorded?

The days could be marked nationally or locally, as appropriate. As for examples of Kim Beazley’s ‘resistance’, why not commemorate the Bathurst War 1824, the Black War in Tasmania 1828-32, the Battle of Broken River 1838, the Eumeralla Wars 1840-60, the Battle of One Tree Hill 1843, Cloncurry (Battle Mountain) area 1878-84, the Kimberley Killing Times 1890-1926, and other instances.

Some of these days are already marked by Indigenous people and a limited number of non-Indigenous Australians. But most non-Indigenous Australians have never heard of the events these days commemorate. That is a national shame.

Aboriginal people are—I wouldn’t say resentful—I would say burning with a desire for justice and if you have been treated unjustly, if there is this great injustice that hangs over your own life and over the lives of generations of people before you, you will naturally feel unwilling to grant the modern day state an honourable place—you simply won’t want to while this great injustice underlies all relationships. (Professor Marcia Langton, Yiman and Bidjara, The Australian Wars, episode 3, 2022)
The Coniston Massacre at Yurrkuru, a waterhole east of Yuendumu, NT, was actually a series of killings between August and October 1928 which led to as many as 170 deaths of Indigenous Australians, though the official toll was only 31. The policeman most responsible, Constable WG Murray, boasted of killing but escaped punishment. The illustration is from the cover of the magazine Walkabout in September 1936 (Roy Dunstan/Wikipedia/public domain). It shows Gwoya Tjungurrayi, a Warlpiri-Anmatyerre man and a survivor of the massacre. A version of the photograph appeared on an Australian postage stamp in 1950, the first depiction of an Indigenous Australian on a postage stamp.
Updated 6 March 2024