8 March 2024: A version of this post appeared in the Canberra Times today, under the title 'How we remember war affects us all. Council selection should reflect that'.

Above picture: onlookers line the front entrance of the Australian War Memorial at the ceremony for the building's opening in 1941; AWM credit.

Change in public administration comes slowly but there seems to be a change brewing at the Australian War Memorial. The responsible Minister, Matt Keogh, put out a media release in the dying minutes of summer. Canberra Times story. Key points:

  • there will be a call for Expressions of Interest for new members of the War Memorial Council;
  • there will be consideration of individuals’ knowledge and experience and the balance of skills across the Council;
  • in the interim, the government will extend the appointments of five term-expired members till 30 June.

The potential for a bulk change of Council members had been obvious: five vacancies between the beginning of February and Anzac Day was an opportunity to fundamentally change the balance of the Council, replacing some Coalition-connected or long-serving members and the RSL national president with some new faces. The method for filling the vacancies – in one hit and after advertising – was not anticipated. (Sophie Scamps MP’s Private Member’s Bill last year provided for public advertising for positions on public bodies.)

What cannot change (without amending the Memorial’s legislation) is the role of the Governor-General, on advice from the Minister, in appointing members. The Minister will have to sift through the Expressions of Interest and decide who to recommend to Yarralumla.

The significance of filling the five vacancies in this way is obvious, too. In January, we asked whether the Council would be ‘stumbling block or facilitator’ to the proper recognition and commemoration of the Frontier Wars. Yesterday’s online Canberra Times article was headed ‘Govt opens way to greater Frontier Wars recognition at War Memorial’.

With the Council apparently divided on the Frontier Wars, one could speculate about the politics behind the Minister’s move. We won’t. Instead, we commend the Minister and Council Chair Kim Beazley for this initiative. We urge interested and qualified people to apply.

What follows is based on an article posted on the Honest History website in 2016. It is good to see the Minister and the Memorial catching up – at last.

Positions in the mass armies, air forces and navies of the past were filled by recruitment drives boosted by patriotic advertising. Positions on the War Memorial Council, the body which determines how these men and women are remembered, should also be filled by advertising and application. Some ex officio military positions might be retained (though they might not be filled as at present by the three service chiefs), but the other positions should be filled after public advertisement, taking account of the advice of the Chair of the Council and perhaps the Director of the Memorial.  

The members thus appointed might have a background in, for example, ethnic and First Nations bodies, Legacy, the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, the Red Cross, the RSL, and Soldier On. They could be historians, archivists, or experts in museum management. Or they could just be ordinary Australians.

There might even be some elected positions. An institution which claims to tell its nation’s story should surely be open to having some Council members democratically elected by, from and for the nation.

Australians enlisted for our major wars in great numbers. Some of them became officers. A handful of them became senior officers. Decades on, too much of the control of our national war memorial has devolved to the senior officer cadre and a supporting cast of ‘the great and the good’, particularly those with links to the Conservative side of politics. The people should take back this role.

The remembrance of war – and, more importantly, the prospect of peace – are too important to be left to those who have made a profession out of military activity or a hobby out of military history. These matters affect all of us and our future, not just those who try to keep the Anzac flame burning in pretty much the same way as it has for the last century.

The War Memorial Council as now composed is an anachronism. It stands in the way of significant change in how we commemorate war, especially the Frontier Wars, and hope for a peaceful future.

A Council more representative of Australian experience of war, including the Frontier Wars – and of Australians – would help the Memorial tell a story not just of daring and death in uniform but of the widespread and lasting effects of war on individuals, families (including First Nations families) and communities.

A story not just of what Australians have done in war but of what war has done to Australia and Australians, including First Australians, and what it should never do again. That would be good.


Mar 2, 2024

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