'Our War Memorial needs to show courage on Frontier Wars', by David Stephens (Pearls and Irritations, 16 December 2023).
'Media release: The Australian War Memorial must show courage on Frontier Wars' (Defending Country, 11 December 2023);
Steve Evans, 'Government welcomes greater Frontier Wars coverage at War Memorial', Canberra Times, 12 December 2023 (mostly an interview with Veterans' Affairs Minister Keogh, who seems badly briefed on progress at the Memorial and provides no evidence of 'greater [Frontier Wars] coverage').
A summary of the Action Plan:
ACTION 1: Amend the Memorial’s Act to mandate coverage of the Frontier Wars. This would make it harder for the Memorial to misuse its corporate planning process and interpretations of its current Act (Australian War Memorial Act 1980), while giving it a buffer against conservative forces trying to prevent it depicting the Frontier Wars.
ACTION 2: Defer any allocations of floor space at the Memorial until decisions have been made about content. It will be 2025 or 2026 before curators start deciding what exhibits go into the area set aside for the Frontier Wars. Yet the space available – 410sqm – has already been set and it is only 25sqm more than ‘Pre-1914 conflicts’ occupied before the current redevelopment program at the Memorial.
ACTION 3: Ensure that the Frontier Wars have designated, separate gallery space. Under current plans, the Frontier Wars will be covered in a Pre-1914 gallery, along with Australian contingents to overseas wars 1845-1902. The Frontier Wars (20 000-100 000 First Nations people killed) will share 198sqm (of the 410sqm total) with the men sent to fight for Queen Victoria against Māori in New Zealand 1845-62 (no members of Australian colonial contingents died) and the 1885 New South Wales contingent to the Sudan (nine members died of illness, none in the fighting). That shared 198 sqm is just 1.1 per cent of the Memorial's total gallery space after the current redevelopment is completed.
ACTION 4: Ensure that the Memorial consults external historians and First Nations people. There are many historians available, including First Nations people. Meanwhile, the Memorial’s Indigenous Advisory Group is not well suited to advising on the Frontier Wars, as distinct from Indigenous service in the King’s or Queen’s uniform.
ACTION 5: Ensure that the Memorial expresses the theme of ‘Defending Country’. ‘Defending Country’ applies just as much to First Nations Australians (Arrernte, Noongar, Wiradjuri, and others), defending Country on Country as it does to uniformed Australians fighting our overseas wars.
ACTION 1: Amend the Memorial’s Act to mandate coverage of the Frontier Wars
- The Parliament should amend section 3 of the Australian War Memorial Act 1980 to make ‘Australian military history’ include the history of ‘wars and warlike operations after 1788 within Australia and involving Indigenous Australians, including the events leading up to, and the aftermath of, such wars and warlike operations’.
- The Parliament should amend section 5 of the Act to make the functions of the Memorial include maintaining and developing the Memorial ‘as a national memorial of Australians who have died … (iii) as a result of any war or warlike operations after 1788 within Australia and involving Indigenous Australians’.
It is not sufficient to rely on legal interpretations of the Act. The Memorial has said two interpretations, 20 years apart, allow it to depict frontier conflict (page 25). These interpretations address different words: the 1992-93 interpretation found frontier conflict came within the definition of ‘Australian military history’ in section 3 of the Act; the 2013 interpretation relied on the Memorial’s capacity under section 6 ‘to do all things necessary or convenient to be done for or in connection with the performance of its functions’. Having two interpretations gives the Memorial unnecessary ‘wriggle room’.
The Memorial already has form for using its corporate plans to narrow the words of the Act.
“Australian military history” [section 3 of the Act says] means the history of:
(a) wars and warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service, including the events leading up to, and the aftermath of, such wars and warlike operations; and
(b) the Defence Force. (Emphasis added.)
Successive refinements of a Mission statement – between 2018-19 and 2021-25 it read ‘Leading remembrance and understanding of Australia’s wartime experience’– got the Memorial into microscopic examination of what Australians have done during ‘wars and warlike operations’. The 2022-26 and 2023-27 corporate plans then dropped the Mission statement, while retaining an even narrower ‘Purpose’: ‘To commemorate the sacrifice of those Australians who have died in war or on operational service and those who have served our nation in times of conflict’. That is well short of ‘Australian military history’, as defined in the Act.
The Memorial’s new Strategic Plan 2023-2028, published in April 2023, reinforces the need to pin the Memorial down on ‘Australian military history’. This document includes four ‘Strategic Pillars’, the first of which is ‘Commemorate, reflect and understand Australian experiences of war and service’. Under that are four dot points: the third reads, ‘Advancing the public’s understanding of military history and its connection to the present’ and the fourth reads, ‘Expanding and deepening our collection, gallery displays, research and online content relating to Australia’s frontier violence’ (emphasis added).
Including the words ‘frontier violence’ in the strategic plan is an advance; they do not appear at all in the current corporate plan (2023-2027, 2023-24 update). On the other hand, ‘military history’ does not include ‘frontier violence’ and ‘frontier violence’ lacks a ‘connection to the present’. So much for intergenerational trauma for First Nations Australians.
Simultaneously, however, the Memorial has restricted its interest to cases where First Nations victims of frontier violence have gone on to serve in the King’s or Queen’s uniform. ‘What we seek to do’, Memorial Director Anderson told Rachel Perkins, director of The Australian Wars, in 2021 (episode 3, Mark 57.00), ‘is to tell the story of frontier violence in the way in which it affected the men and the women who joined the Australian Imperial Forces and went away’.
In other words, despite members of their family being massacred or poisoned, or shot while resisting settler attacks, did they still loyally join the colours? Two years later, Memorial management and some members of its governing Council were still taking this line and reinforcing it with a preference for other national institutions than the Memorial to tell ‘the full story’ of the Frontier Wars.
ACTION 2: Defer any allocations of floor space until decisions have been made about content
- 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 any space allocations for the Frontier Wars be rescinded until after future gallery contents have been considered in the light of amended legislation (Action 1 above) and a revised Corporate Plan and National Collection Development Plan (NCDP).
The Memorial’s corporate plans and NCDP have been deficient as guides to curatorial decisions. As noted above, the latest corporate plan (2023-2027, 2023-24 update) contains in its 24 pages not one reference to ‘Frontier Wars’, ‘frontier violence’ or ‘First Nations’. The NCDP, last updated in October 2019, sets out the Memorial’s priorities for adding to the National Collection. It contains just one sentence on collecting material about frontier violence, the very last sentence in a 12-page document.
While the Corporate Plan and NCDP lag, the Memorial is making decisions about space. Its current plans allocate just 410 square metres to ‘Pre-1914 conflicts’, including not just the Frontier Wars, but also Australian contingents sent between 1845 and 1902 to the New Zealand wars, the Sudan, the Boxer Rebellion in China, and the Boer War in South Africa.
That 410 square metres is just 25 square metres more than the 385 square metres (the Memorial’s figure) given to colonial conflicts in the pre-redevelopment Memorial. Looked at another way, and again using the Memorial’s own figures, 410 square metres is just 2.3 per cent of total gallery space in the Memorial after redevelopment. And remember there are those four other small overseas wars to be squeezed into that space beside the Frontier Wars (more in ACTION 3 below).
The Memorial’s planning had progressed so far by August 2022 that it had even marked out a section of 198 square metres of the 410 to deal with frontier conflicts, and the New Zealand wars, and the Sudan – not because there was any connection between these events but because it was convenient to put them together. That shared 198 square metres is just 1.1 per cent of total gallery space after redevelopment, again, using the Memorial’s own figures.
When the Memorial’s curators in 2025 or 2026 begin their work on pre-1914 content, they will be handed that 198 square metres and told to fill it with exhibits on the Frontier Wars (where somewhere between 20 000 and 100 000 Australian men, women and children died in massacres, resistance, and other violence), and New Zealand (where not one member of the Australian colonial contingents died) and the Sudan (where nine Australian soldiers died of illness). In this cultural institution, architects and project managers may rule, but a sense of proportion goes out the window.
ACTION 3: Ensure that the Frontier Wars have designated, separate gallery space
- The Memorial Council should resolve (and direct Memorial management accordingly) that the Frontier Wars are to be presented in a separate, designated Australian Frontier Wars gallery, and that this requires rescinding any previous space allocations that assumed co-location of the Frontier Wars with pre-1914 expeditionary forces.
- The Memorial’s Corporate Plan should be revised to reflect this.
Australia’s expeditionary forces 1845-1902 to New Zealand, the Sudan, China (Boxer Rebellion) and South Africa (Boer War) between them lost a little over 600 men killed, almost all of them in South Africa. It is ludicrous to compare those four events with the Frontier Wars, where First Nations deaths were between 20 000 (the figure the Memorial admits to) and 100 000. It is crass for the Memorial to lump the Frontier Wars – Australia’s most important war, according to historian and Defending Country Patron Henry Reynolds – in with these other events, simply because they occurred at about the same time.
The old colonial conflicts gallery at the Memorial (opened 1985) covered those four wars, as well as British soldiers in colonial Australia. The gallery referred to ‘Aboriginal resistance’ and included a small, uncaptioned image of the Slaughterhouse Creek Massacre of 1838. The Memorial is on track to repeat this travesty for the whole Frontier Wars, not just one massacre. And there will be just an extra 25 square metres to do it in (Action 2 above).
ACTION 4: Ensure that the Memorial consults external historians and First Nations people
- The Memorial Council should resolve (and direct Memorial management accordingly) that the Memorial consult external historians, especially Indigenous historians who have researched and written about the Frontier Wars, and Indigenous community members with knowledge of Frontier Wars history.
- The Memorial’s Corporate Plan and National Collection Development Plan should be revised to reflect this.
Outside the Memorial there are many historians and other experts, some of them Indigenous, who have knowledge on the Frontier Wars and First Nations history. The SBS/NITV documentary, The Australian Wars, included contributions from such people.
The Memorial has appointed an 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.
ACTION 5: Ensure that the Memorial expresses the theme of ‘Defending Country’
- The Memorial Council should resolve (and direct Memorial management accordingly) that the Memorial’s Corporate Plan, National Collection Development Plan, and decisions about gallery content should incorporate and reflect the theme of Defending Country, at home and abroad, before and after 1788.
The theme ‘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. It is the key to the Memorial’s future as an honest Australian cultural institution, one that squarely confronts all of our ‘Australian military history’.
‘Defending Country’ binds together First Nations warriors who fought to resist settler and military power, the women, children, and old folk who died with their men or suffered massacres and poison and, on the other hand, the men and women (including Indigenous service people) wearing the country’s uniform and sent overseas to fight for King and Empire, for Australia, or ‘to defend our values’.
1 December 2023
Contact: Dr David Stephens; email@example.com
This post summarises an earlier and longer version by David Stephens, Peter Stanley and Noel Turnbull on the Honest History website. Related material on the Defending Country site: What you need to know about the Defending Country campaign; Frequently Asked Questions; Why the Australian Frontier Wars are important; What has the Australian War Memorial got to do with the Australian Frontier Wars (Peter Stanley); Frontier Wars retreat at the War Memorial; New Light and New Tricks: Latest on the Australian War Memorial and the Frontier Wars (David Stephens).