• Leo D'Angelo Fisher

The $500 million redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial is an insult to veterans:

Money spent on creating a khaki Disneyland can be better spent on veteran health and welfare


By Leo D’Angelo Fisher

It can at times seem a fine line between commemorating and glorifying the deeds of war. Australian diggers have always been conscious of this delicate distinction.

Through the decades – and particularly during the recent resurgence of Anzac Day as a national day of observance – veterans have insisted that memorialising Australia’s participation in theatres of war, and remembering those who have died in the service of their country, is about sombre reflection not boastful bravado.

As a nation we eschew the overwrought “thank you for your service” nonsense of the United States but Australians embrace Anzac Day and Armistice (Remembrance) Day to pay tribute to the valour and sacrifice of service men and women.

On those occasions, without fail, the old diggers stress one thing: these days are not about glorifying war. They are about recalling fallen mates, anonymous comrades and family members. They are about imploring new generations: Never again.

Which is why most veterans are aghast at the plans of the federal government to spend $498.2 million on the expansion of the world famous Australian War Memorial (AWM).

The AWM is going into theme-park mode despite near universal objections to the plans, unveiled by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in 2018.

The proposed expansion – the centrepiece of Brendan Nelson’s time as AWM director (2012-19) – will transform the AWM from sombre and dignified to loud and proud. And critics be damned.

Nelson is weepy and effusive when it comes to eulogising the valour and heroism of Australian service men and women, he is devoted to Simpson and his donkey and he is fiercely intolerant of allegations of war crimes by Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) soldiers in Afghanistan currently being investigated by the Brereton inquiry, infamously noting that “war is a messy business”.

But as AWM boss the Digger’s Mate was deaf to criticism that the proposed $500 million project was excessive and antithetical to the historical purpose and tenor of the memorial itself (opened in 1941), and to the values and spirit of the Anzac legend the memorial is supposed to represent.

The massive redevelopment would almost double the area open to visitors to 10,000 square metres and would include constructing a new southern entrance, demolishing and rebuilding the historic Anzac Hall and creating a glass area to house large objects such as an F/A18 Hornet, reconnaissance aircraft and armoured vehicles…and of course a café or two.

At what cost – literally and figuratively?

In 2018, Brendan Nelson explained the thinking behind the memorial super-revamp:

“In crowded [AWM] galleries, the stories of Australian military service from the Boer War through to the First and Second World Wars, Korea and Vietnam are all largely told. Yet, the service of 70,000 young Australians in the Middle East Area of operations of the past two decades currently covers only 2% of available space,” he said.

“The opportunity and the responsibility our nation now has is to proudly tell the stories of what has been done in recent years in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Solomon Islands and East Timor and in peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.”

The logic is sound. But at what cost – literally and figuratively? The memorial’s heritage value is incalculable but apparently also expendable. The proposed redevelopment will change the memorial forever. And the estimated cost of the nine-year project must inevitably be taken as a bare minimum.

A commitment of half-a-billion dollars on what was and remains a discretionary expenditure was less than fiscally responsible in 2018, when the Morrison government was in full denial about Australia’s faltering economy; during a budget-busting pandemic any responsible government would have determined that now is not the time for such a grandiose project.

Coalition governments believe themselves to have a natural affinity with and respect for Australia’s military that Labor does not – a contention that has no basis in fact but is an abiding mythology of Australian politics, particularly in times of real, imagined or contrived threats to national security. On 1 July, when Scott Morrison launched his government’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update – presented in the context of the sovereign threat posed by China, a simmering enmity blatantly fanned by Morrison himself – it was the tried and true trope writ large: Australia is under threat and only the Coalition will ensure that the ADF has everything it needs to overcome that threat.

The hawkish Morrison government, and the prime minister in particular, professes a great ardour for the ADF. Not progressing with the AWM redevelopment, or even postponing it, is an optic to be avoided at all costs: Labor might scrimp and save when it comes to honouring Australia’s warriors, but never the Coalition.

$500 million that won’t be spent on veterans

But turning the AWM into a theme park only honours the grandiosity of the Morrison government.

If the budget impact of the AWM redevelopment outlay in the midst of COVID-19 and over the course of the “post” COVID-19 decade does not cause the Morrison government pause, then the question of whether this is the best use of public money in such challenging times should. Even if we stick to the government’s narrative that it’s all about honouring service men and women, then they would be better honoured by investing in veterans' health and welfare.

Morrison maintains that the redevelopment of the AWM "is not at the expense of resources being available for veterans". It is absurd to suggest that money spent on the AWM will not have a bearing on the amount of money spent on veterans' health and welfare; $500 million spent on turning the AWM into a khaki Disneyland is $500 million that will not be spent on veterans’ housing and accommodation, mental wellbeing, suicide prevention, injury compensation and support services.

In July, the parliamentary standing committee on public works held a public hearing to “scrutinise a proposal from the Australian War Memorial to conduct a $498 million development project at the War Memorial in Canberra”.

One of the most scathing submissions was from an 82-strong powerhouse that included two former AWM directors, a former AWM deputy director, former secretaries of federal government departments, former ambassadors and a who’s who of academics and historians.

The signatories described the proposed redevelopment as “grandiose” and “totally inappropriate” and argued that the expense “cannot be justified”. The eminent Australians returned to a familiar objection: “The money would be better spent on direct benefits to veterans and their families and on other national institutions.”

Australia has historically taken a dignified and respectful approach to honouring our war dead, which is why simple statues of solitary diggers in thousands of towns and suburbs around Australia can be so deeply moving and almost spiritual.

Simple ideals overtaken by vulgarity

Somewhere along the line the simple ideals that for generations have guided our commemoration of service men and women have been overtaken by a vulgarity and insensitivity that mock the honeyed declarations of gratitude to diggers past and present.

Brendan Nelson has been a polarising figure throughout his public life, whether as federal president of the Australian Medical Association, born-again Liberal MP, Howard government minister (including Defence minister), short-lived Liberal leader or his controversial tenure as AWM chief. As part of his quest to “modernise” the War Memorial, Nelson staunchly defended and encouraged the role of arms manufacturers to sponsor the memorial.

In 2019, while still director of the AWM, Nelson was obliged to register with the new Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme because of his membership of the Australian advisory board of French arms manufacturer Thales, a position held while he vigorously defended the right of arms manufacturers, including Thales, to sponsor the memorial.

In that audacious logic peculiar to politicians Nelson insisted that there was no conflict of interest because he donated his fee as a member of Thales’ advisory board to the memorial.

Corporate sponsorships at the War Memorial did not start with Nelson, but they thrived under him. The AWM lists Boeing, Thales, Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems among its “corporate partners”. Now, with the AWM’s sponsorship agreement with BAE about to expire – the arms manufacturer lends its name to the BAE Systems Theatre – the AWM is under pressure to not renew the agreement.

The president of the Medical Association for Prevention of War, Dr Sue Wareham, is among those who consider the partnership with BAE a conflict of interest that “commercialises the memory of our war dead”.

“When our troops go to war they need to be equipped, but the companies that do so already have their rewards, measured in tens of billions of dollars,” Wareham told The Guardian.

“Our war veterans however pay with their lives. To conflate the two is deeply offensive. There is no place for vested interests in a war memorial.”

The AWM has lost sight of its reason for being

Nelson’s sanguine disposition regarding conflicts of interest extended to life post-AWM. In January, Nelson was unblushing when Boeing announced his appointment as president of Boeing Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific. No wonder the AWM lost its way under Nelson.

The ease with which Nelson can rationalise conflicts of interest, whether his own or the AWM’s, demonstrates how one can solemnly profess a set of values while systematically undermining them. The AWM’s insistence on persevering with Nelson’s unloved and unwanted $500 million extravagance reveals an institution that has lost sight of its reason for being. The AWM is more interested in becoming a tourist attraction and marketing man Scott Morrison wouldn’t have it any other way.

A prime minister who believes that government is essentially about marketing sees the AWM’s expansion plans as being “on message” and “on brand”.

Quite apart from his personal backing for the extravagant project, Brendan Nelson recently headed the hastily convened prime ministerial taskforce that provided Morrison with a face-saving recommendation to overturn his previous refusal to recommend World War II sailor Teddy Sheean for a posthumous VC. Meanwhile, Perth billionaire Kerry Stokes, an ardent supporter of the AWM expansion, has had his term as War Memorial chairman extended by 12 months. The fix is in.

While veterans are ostensibly at the heart of plans to redevelop the AWM, they have had little or no say in the final outcome.

The proposed mega-War Memorial theme park is grotesque and irresponsible; it literally short-changes veterans and exposes the hubris and hypocrisy of those who claim to be acting in solemn tribute to Australian serving men and women.

But if the project must go ahead perhaps we should be thinking of a new name for this overwrought reimagining of a much loved Australian institution. “Nelson’s Folly” comes to mind, but we shouldn’t discount “Morrison’s Monstrosity”.

Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a regular columnist and Editor-at-Large at Australian Veteran News.

Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

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