By Amy McQuire, October 20, 2013, Tracker Magazine.
NATIONAL: The recently installed director of the Australian War Memorial has knocked back calls for the institution to acknowledge the Frontier Wars, stating it is “not the institution to be doing it”.
That’s despite claiming the Australian War Memorial is the “soul of the nation”, and central to our understanding of history, in his first address as director.
Dr Brendan Nelson made the comments earlier this month in a speech at the National Press Club in Canberra. In the speech, the former Coalition leader and Howard government Defense minister outlined his plans for the AWM during his five-year tenure.
That would include a “Roll of Honour Soundscape” project to commemorate the World War I centenary and a $32 million redevelopment of World War I galleries.
Dr Nelson also reaffirmed his commitment to recognising Australian soldiers who fought in the Afghanistan war with a new exhibition unveiled last month.
“In terms of the Australian War Memorial, it is about our past, it is about our history, but more importantly, it’s actually about our future,” Dr Nelson said.
“A people that neither knows and nor, more importantly, understands its history, in my view, is dangerous.”
But despite this, Dr Nelson was steadfast in his defence of recognising the Frontier Wars.
The wars are the series of battles fought by Aboriginal nations against pastoral settlers encroaching on their traditional lands. In his new book Forgotten Wars, noted historian Henry Reynolds described the series of frontier battles as “warfare” and said that it was something Australia could no longer ignore.
There have been continual calls for the AWM to recognise the wars amongst internal debate about how the Australian War Memorial Act should be interpreted.
Currently, the memorial is set up as a corporation to “commemorate the sacrifice of those Australians who have died in war. Its mission is to assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society.”
But the belief that Aboriginal tribes did not make an open declaration of war was used by conservatives to argue the Frontier Wars did not deserve a place in the war memorial.
As far back as 1998 then Prime Minister John Howard said “If you want to be legalistic about it, the state of war didn’t exist. Now, I think the Australian War Memorial is to honour Aboriginal Australians and other Australians who died defending Australia.”
There is currently no proper exhibition to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who risked their lives defending a country that did not recognise them as citizens until 1967, and actively discriminated against them despite their sacrifice.
But that’s another story.
Historians and Aboriginal Australians want to see the history recognised – as the first people who fought to defend and die for this land against a foreign invader.
And it was something the Australian War Memorial did investigate in 1999, as reported by the 7:30 Report program in 2009.
At the time, ABC journalist Matt Peacock reported that the investigation “left the question open”.
“..(it) concluded there was little doubt that the frontier conflicts were a war or war-like operations, and although the British Army units used against Aborigines were not raised in Australia, the quasi-military police forces involved were. It concluded that if the war memorial wanted to interpret its Act in that way, it was legally free to do so.”
But the war memorial is still baulking at it.
Dr Nelson told reporters this month that whilst the history of the frontier wars had to be told, it should not be told at the war memorial.
“The Australian War Memorial is not in my very strong view the institution to tell that story,” Dr Nelson said.
“The Australian War Memorial, as I say, is about Australians going overseas in peace operations and in war in our name as Australians.
“The institution that is best to tell those stories, in my view, is the National Museum of Australia and perhaps some of the state-based institutions who are most likely to have whatever artefacts or relics that exist from this period in our history.
“I think those who argue for the story to be told are absolutely right, absolutely right. But I strongly believe the Australian War Memorial is not the institution that’s doing it.”
Former war memorial deputy director Michael McKernan recently told The Guardian Australia that this had been the memorial’s response from the 1980s onwards.
“It seems to me that that is like saying that you’ve been put in charge of putting forth the story of Australia at war but that that particularly part of the story is too confronting or too uncomfortable – too hard, for whatever reason,” Mr McKernan told the Guardian.
Dr Nelson alluded to this at the National Press Club, telling another journalist who asked about paid parking around the war memorial that he “thought frontier wars was a tough question”.
For an institution that is the “soul of the nation”, one wonders where the wars waged by our Aboriginal nations, who lost land, lives, culture, history, language and ceremony fits into this national soul-searching.