Honest History – and now Defending Country – has long had an interest in the Frontier Wars, as have other observers, most recently David Marr in Killing for Country. Marr shows that, for more than a century, white settlers, politicians, and military officers were very clear about the Indigenous resistance they confronted: they called it – time and time again – war.
Today, the Australian War Memorial Council denies that reality, sometimes in secret, to evade the need to properly recognise and commemorate the Frontier Wars at the Memorial. The record of Council Minutes – finally revealed after months of secrecy – demonstrates how the story has been tweaked and twisted.
Recent answers to Questions on Notice put by Senators at the May 2023 hearings of the Estimates Committee reveal much about the Memorial and are the main source for this post. The Honest History website also has a post on the subject.
The post below for Defending Country focusses on just one aspect: how the 19 August 2022 meeting of the War Memorial Council reveals the Memorial’s approach to its work – and to all of us. It is not an edifying picture.
Brendan Nelson’s off-the-cuff remark of 29 September 2022 – and the spin that followed
On 29 September 2022, the Memorial Council Chair, Brendan Nelson, hosted a media event about some geothermal heating that had become part of the Memorial’s $550m redevelopment project. During the press conference, Nelson said this about the Memorial’s plans for the Frontier Wars:
The council has made the decision that we will have a much broader, much deeper depiction and presentation of the violence committed against Aboriginal people, initially by British, then by pastoralists, then by police and by Aboriginal militia. That will be part of the new galleries. (Emphasis added)
Some observers felt that Nelson’s words marked a big change in the Memorial’s approach to the Frontier Wars. ‘It is the beginning of something seismic and defining for Australia's national identity and our understanding of conflict both here and overseas’, Patricia Karvelas of the ABC wrote. ‘It's the beginning of a new chapter for Australia.’
Almost immediately, however, the spinmeisters got to work. Most notably, Memorial Council member and RSL National President, Major General Greg Melick (Ret’d), spoke out to The Australian’s Cameron Stewart. ‘The whole thing has been stuffed up, mainly by the press’, Melick said. ‘Brendan Nelson didn’t say we were having major new galleries on the frontier wars. He said we will probably do a wider and deeper treatment of it.’ The full story of the Frontier Wars should be told at the National Museum and the new Ngurra Precinct being established to showcase First Nations history.
Opposition Veterans’ Affairs spokesman, Barnaby Joyce, and Sky News commentator, Peta Credlin, were also opposed to any change of focus at the Memorial. ‘The fundamental element’, said Joyce, ‘is that the War Memorial was built in sacred recognition of wars that Australians fought as a nation, unified against an external foe’. Joyce found a sympathetic ear in Sky’s Andrew Bolt. Retired Vietnam War Colonel Peter O’Brien collected 11 000 signatures on a petition against change at the Memorial.
Meanwhile, Nelson, still the incumbent Council Chair, was visiting New York in his day job as a senior Boeing executive. Under pressure from Cameron Stewart – and possibly from Melick, Joyce and others – Nelson now conceded that the Memorial’s frontier conflict presentation ‘will be of modest dimensions’, ‘proportionate, sensitive and modest’. The responsibility to tell the ‘full story’ of that conflict, according to Nelson, like Melick, was one for the National Museum and Ngurra.
(By August 2022, the Memorial had received advice from AIATSIS that Ngurra would not portray Frontier Wars though this fact was redacted from material released under FOI in October 2022. Despite this, Ngurra still popped up from time to time as an alternative, for example, from Melick in June 2023. There’s commentary on that in the post on Honest History.)
Honest History’s comprehensive spin roundup took the coverage up to 28 November 2022:
The people who welcomed what looked like a change in direction at the Memorial have the right to feel dudded [Honest History said]. The “new” Memorial will look much like the old one …. [W]e need the Memorial to come clean about what, behind closed doors, it has decided and why. We need nothing less than full disclosure, with no redactions, of all Council discussions on the Frontier Wars.
On 30 November, Council Chair Nelson’s term concluded; on 1 December the term began of the new Chair, Kim Beazley, former Leader of the Opposition, federal Minister, Ambassador to the United States, and Governor of Western Australia.
Options and recommendation considered by the Memorial Council meeting, 19 August 2022
A redacted version of the Frontier Wars Agenda Paper for this meeting came to Honest History under a Freedom of Information claim of October 2022. A full, unredacted version did not became available until late September 2023. So, for nearly 12 months the public did not know what advice had been put to the Council, let alone the actual terms of the decision of 19 August. Did the decision say, ‘much broader, much deeper’ (early Nelson) or ‘of modest dimensions’ (later Nelson) or something else altogether?
The Agenda Paper was authored by Memorial Assistant Director Dawson (with contributions from members of the Memorial’s military history, gallery development, art, and records sections) and signed off by Director Anderson. It contained these options and a recommendation – with a couple of significant changes from the 2021 version of the paper.[i]
Options for the scope of the new Pre First World War galleries regarding frontier wars
There are several options for Council to consider with respect to the scope of the new Pre First World War galleries regarding frontier wars as follows:
(1) Allow the Gallery Development process to take its course which is likely to result in the inclusion of stories of frontier wars in the new Pre First World War galleries.
(2) Limit discussion of frontier wars in the new Pre First World War galleries to acknowledgement that they occurred, and communicate that the Memorial is not the place for these stories to be told and that they should be told at the National Museum of Australia.
(3) There is no mention of frontier wars in the Memorial’s galleries which is likely to result in significant and enduring criticism of the Memorial when the galleries open in 2028.
It is recommended that Council allow the Gallery Development process to take its course which is likely to result in the inclusion of stories of frontier wars in the new Pre First World War galleries. [That is, go for option 1.]
Although Kim Beazley’s terms as Council member and Chair began on 1 December, his induction into both jobs did not commence until early February 2023. From late January, however, he was on the radio, TV, and newspaper circuit, spruiking his vision for the Memorial: 20 January 2023; 7 February 2023; 19 April 2023.
We do not know if the (unredacted) wording of the August decision was part of the new Chair’s briefing. Whether it was or wasn’t, his views were clear: the Memorial’s treatment of the Frontier Wars should be ‘substantial’ and in a ‘special section’, it should give First Nations ‘the dignity of resistance’ (depict incidents where First Nations people fought back, as well where they were massacred), but it should leave room for a role for other institutions as well as the Memorial.
Then there was Senator Canavan, Nationals, Queensland, a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, who had previously closely questioned Memorial Director Anderson on the Memorial’s intentions regarding the Frontier Wars. Someone seems to have slipped the Senator the Memorial Council’s confirmed Minutes of its August 2022 meetings and he quoted from them at Estimates on 31 May 2023. (He requested the draft Minutes as well and the Memorial undertook to provide them, which it duly did in AO597, its answer to the Senator’s question on notice.)
Senator Canavan laid stress on the link between being a victim of Frontier Wars and later service in uniform, and on the role of other institutions:
The minutes from council meeting 178 stated that it was agreed that frontier violence perpetrated by Aboriginal Australians will continue to be presented in new pre-1914 galleries in a broader and deeper depiction. The minutes say: “Wherever possible, it would relate to an informed subsequent Indigenous military service to Australia, providing a context for that service.” …
The minutes further state that the gallery for the so-called frontier wars will “inform visitors of the significant institutions whose charter it is to tell the full story of frontier violence”.
Minutes of the Memorial Council meeting, 19 August 2022
Extracts of these Minutes, draft and confirmed, are now available, more than 12 months after the Memorial denied Honest History’s FOI request for them. The key paragraphs are below:
Extract of original draft minutes
12. Frontier Violence
Council members discussed Frontier Violence and agreed that a further option for the scope of the new Pre First World War galleries regarding Frontier Wars is required. This outcome falls between options (1) and (2) and Council will be kept informed during the gallery development process.
It was agreed that Frontier Violence perpetrated against Aboriginal Australians would, as in the colonial galleries previously, be presented in the new galleries. It would be larger in scope, wherever possible relate to subsequent Indigenous service to Australia and remind visitors of the other significant institutions that tell the story.
Extract of confirmed minutes
12. Frontier Violence
It was agreed that Frontier Violence perpetrated against Aboriginal Australians would, as in the previous Colonial Galleries, continue to be presented in the new Pre-1914 galleries.
It would provide a broader and deeper depiction and presentation of the violence perpetrated against Indigenous Australians.
Wherever possible it would relate to and inform, subsequent Indigenous military service to Australia, providing a context for that service.
The gallery will inform visitors of the significant institutions whose charter it is to tell the full story of Frontier Violence.
The gallery will be developed in full consultation with the Council throughout its development.
Some comments are necessary:
(a) The confirmed Minutes leave out the evidence of the fine-tuning between options 1 and 2 – which produced what was effectively option 1.5, the most that the Council was prepared to concede.
(b) The confirmed Minutes strengthen the frontier conflict exposure/later uniformed service link and the stress on alternative institutions. These were the two main pillars in the Council’s resistance to real change. Paul Daley once referred to Indigenous service in uniform as the ‘fig leaf’ concealing the Memorial’s lack of action on Frontier Wars. The Memorial has done admirable work on identifying Indigenous service people, including some who denied or hid that they were Indigenous. Now, it needs to show the same devotion to telling the stories of First Nations men and women in the Frontier Wars.
(c) The confirmed Minutes substitute ‘broader and deeper’ for ‘larger in scope’, thus reinstating the key words from Chair Nelson’s off-the-cuff remarks on 29 September. Nelson chaired the November Council meeting, his farewell appearance; perhaps he insisted on those words or perhaps their inclusion was a parting gesture to him.
(d) The confirmed Minutes have the alternative institutions telling ‘the full story’, not just ‘the story’. So, the Memorial was prepared to do its little bit, while referring folks elsewhere.
(e) The confirmed Minutes retain the link between presentation in the new and old galleries, with frontier conflict still lumped in with those old Imperial expeditions to New Zealand, the Sudan, South Africa (Boer War) and China (Boxer Rebellion). The focus is to be chronological – ‘Pre 1914’ – not according to significance for the development of Australia. Other parts of the paperwork make clear that the amount of space allocated is pretty much as before, also.
So, at each point apart from (c), the Council made minimal changes to the status quo. It was trying to confine the Memorial to depicting men and women who had gone on from being frontier violence victims to serving in the King’s or Queen’s uniform. Meanwhile, places like the National Museum would tackle ‘the full story’.
This was sophistry, timidity, and King Canute trying to hold back the tide of history. It was at once tricksy and a stumbling retreat from Nelson’s off-the-cuff remark on 29 September 2022 – ‘much broader, much deeper depiction and presentation’. We have no idea when and between whom the negotiation occurred to produce the changes between the draft and confirmed versions, though we can make some guesses: perhaps the negotiation was in full swing around 29 September, when Nelson made his off-the-cuff remarks at the geothermal presser. (Senator Canavan had noticed that the Agenda for the 10 November 2022 Council meeting foreshadowed the need to amend the August 2022 Minutes on Item 12 Frontier violence.)
The changed game: public statements from Anderson and Melick after 31 May
Senator Canavan’s intervention at Estimates on 31 May allowed – or even required – Memorial Director Anderson to go back to the terms of the August 2022 decision, though in public he did not say this was what he was doing. (Council decisions are normally private, not for public exposure.)
At this point, the late Private William Punch, Wiradjuri man, infant survivor of the Bland River massacre, wounded in battle and died of illness, 1917, took centre stage. In Director Anderson’s response to Senator Canavan on 31 May, in Acting Director Patterson’s letter to Honest History on 4 July, and elsewhere, the Memorial used the Punch example. His story, ‘not only speaks’, said the Director in Estimates, ‘to the fact of frontier violence but also speaks to the fact that there are those subjected to it who then went on to serve in the Australian Defence Force’. So, the Frontier Wars is conflated with Indigenous service in uniform; the story has been reframed.
Responding to the Director’s use of Private Punch, Honest History said this on 16 June:
That is no advance on what the Director told Rachel Perkins in 2021: “What we seek to do 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” (The Australian Wars, episode 3, mark 57.00).
[Punch is] one of about three dozen individuals or small groups accorded a place on [one of three] interactive devices [in the Great War gallery], which offer visitors the choice of exploring captions to images. They each get a small photo (perhaps 10×15 cm) and 75-100 words of text. As you see, it acknowledges that Punch was the survivor of a massacre. That’s it: one line in a gallery which displays hundreds of images and objects accompanied by thousands of words.
William Punch’s death, like any death in war, was a tragedy, but is the Memorial asking too much of him and others like him? (In recent months, the Memorial has publicised Indigenous soldiers in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Boer War.) Going back to Chair Beazley’s words in the early weeks of his tenure, is ‘substantial’, a ‘special section’, ‘the dignity of resistance’ really to be manifested as a room full of William Punchs and their descendants, transformed from being victimised by or resisting settler-invaders to fighting alongside them in the King’s uniform? And all of this in what’s left from 198 square metres, once the Memorial has also depicted in that space the Australian contingents sent to the New Zealand wars 1845-72 (no fatalities), the New South Wales contingent to the Sudan 1885 (nine died of disease, three wounded)? And all of it next to a sign saying, ‘For more of this, head over to the National Museum of Australia’?
And then there was General Melick. Canavan’s intervention also allowed Melick to put further spin on the August decision. In early June 2023, Melick, speaking on behalf of the RSL, said the Memorial’s displays should be confined to those who fought ‘in Australian uniforms’. The Frontier Wars should be dealt with at the National Museum or the new Ngurra precinct. So, Ngurra still featured as an alternative, nearly 12 months after AIATSIS told the Memorial it was not an option. That was careless, if not downright deceitful. (More on this.)
Some observers naively assumed that Nelson’s ‘much broader, much deeper’ remark of September 2022 accurately represented the Council decision a month earlier, and that Melick’s words about the need for uniforms cut across this and were a breach of the Council’s corporate responsibility, for which he should resign. The members of the nascent Defending Country Memorial Project Inc. wrote to Council Chair Beazley on 21 June 2023, calling for Melick’s resignation from the Council.
The answer from Chair Beazley came in an unsigned letter dated 10 July 2023. Council membership was a matter for government and Council members were entitled to their individual views. ‘What matters is what Council decides and Council has decided there should be recognition in the redeveloped galleries of frontier wars.’
Even at this point, when Estimates Hansard for 31 May 2023 contained the evidence that Senator Canavan (and possibly others outside the Memorial) had seen the full, correct and highly qualified terms of the August decision, the Chair was content to promulgate that bland and incomplete version of what had been decided. It took another ten weeks for the actual terms of the August decision to land quietly in Hansard with the disclosure of the draft and confirmed Minutes.
How did Chair Beazley’s 10 July letter match what he had been saying earlier in the year? There was nothing here about ‘substantial’, ‘special section’, or ‘the dignity of resistance’. There was certainly recognition that Council members could have different views but, when the confirmed August 2022 decision was finally released, with all its burbling and word-mincing, it rather looked as if Melick’s uniforms and Director Anderson’s Private Punch story were closer to that decision’s spirit than were Beazley’s remarks as the newly arrived Council Chair. Months on, it would be great to hear from the Chair – and in public – that this is not the case. Absent that, we are still entitled to feel, as Honest History did nearly 12 months ago, that we have been dudded.
So, the events surrounding the disclosure of those August 2022 Minutes seem to make clear that the old White, Anglo-Celtic, ‘service and sacrifice’, RSL proxy, Anzac Legend, Memorial still prevails. The dimensions of the battle to bring about proper recognition and commemoration of the Frontier Wars at the Memorial are at last becoming clear.
As noted above, in early October 2022 Honest History made an FOI claim for the Minutes of the August 2022 Council decision, but the claim was refused. How different would the debate in the last 13 months have been had that access been allowed? The relationship – the disconnect – between the Council decision and the public statements of various people certainly would have been clearer.
For example, there were people like Honest History who asked, ‘will the Memorial only recognise and commemorate the Frontier Wars to the extent that they can be linked to later uniformed service?’ They could have been referred to the words of the August decision and told, ‘Yeah, that’s about the size of it. Oh, and we’ll fob you off to the National Memorial (and Ngurra, though it isn’t there yet and doesn’t want it anyway)’. A bit limp, but at least honest.
It seems that the Memorial came clean with the wording of the draft and confirmed Minutes (as well as with the unredacted version of the crucial Agenda Paper and other documents) only after its hand was forced by Senator Canavan at Estimates on 31 May 2023 – and then not for more than three months. We suspect Senator Canavan – and Barnaby Joyce and Peta Credlin and even perhaps Colonel Peter O’Brien – would have been fine with those confirmed Minutes. We are not.
14 November 2023 Updated