The Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, often tells us that in the Memorial can be found ‘the soul of the nation’. The Prime Minister said the same thing, just the other day. Accepting for the moment that this characterisation is correct, why is it that eight of the 13 members of the Memorial’s Council are serving or retired senior officers (Lieutenant Colonel/equivalent or above)? Does our national soul, if such it is, need that much military brass? Does a body containing that much brass make a particular sound? Should the Council look more like the rest of us?
The Anzac legend is one of instinctive volunteer soldiers flocking to the colours from farm and factory, serving their time with derring-do and the occasional reluctant salute, preferring to serve in the ranks with mates rather than being promoted to officer level, putting up with ‘donkey generals’, then returning home afterwards to resume their lives – unless, of course, they had been killed. Yet, the current Memorial Council includes ex officio the Heads of Army (Lieutenant General Rick Burr AO DSC MVO), Navy (Vice Admiral Michael Noonan AO RAN) and Air Force (Air Marshal Leo Davies AO CSC), plus retired Rear Admiral Ken Doolan AO RAN, reserves Major General Greg Melick AO RFD FANZCN SC, two retired Colonels (James McMahon DSC DSM and Susan Neuhaus CSC) and a retired Wing Commander (Sharon Bown). That’s a lot of brass.
There is also on the Council a retired Corporal and Victoria Cross winner, Daniel Keighran VC. Rounding out the 13 are three senior business people (the Chairman, Kerry Stokes AC, Margaret Jackson AC and Josephine Stone AM) and a retired journalist and military historian (Les Carlyon AC).
The Council members have some interesting connections, too. Sharon Bown worked as an aide-de-camp in Dr Nelson’s office when he was Minister for Defence. Ms Stone is the wife of Shane Stone, who was Country Liberal Party Chief Minister of the Northern Territory from 1995 to 1999. James McMahon (reappointed to the Council this week) has been since 2017 the Chief Operating Officer of one of Mr Stokes’s companies, Australian Capital Equity. Another of Mr Stokes’s employees is Ben Roberts-Smith VC, whom Director Nelson has vigorously supported in the current controversy regarding an inquiry into war crimes allegedly committed in Afghanistan.
The average age of the Council is somewhere in the mid to late 50s; Mr Stokes is 78, Admiral Doolan 79, Mr Carlyon 76. Nine out of the Council’s 13 members are men. The Council usually meets four times a year. The Director of the Memorial is not a member of the Council.
The present author did an analysis of the War Memorial Council in 2016. (Although some of the personnel have changed since then, the characteristics of the Council have not.) The article compared the composition of the Council with that of equivalent bodies in Australia and overseas. It made these key points:
- ‘[M]ilitary officers, senior ones in particular, are the custodians of a legacy, encapsulated as “the Anzac tradition” or a similar formulation, which perpetuates a particular view of military service. It is not surprising that these men – almost all of them have been men – would use their positions on the Memorial Council to promote a corporate ethos which suffuses the past and present of our defence forces – and serves their future, given that how the Memorial presents military history will influence defence recruitment.’
- ‘[A] detached observer looking at the current Council membership (or, for that matter, its membership at any time over the last 75 years), without knowing who it belonged to, might take it to be the Board of a Naval, Army and Air Force Club rather than of a national war memorial, albeit a club that was doing its best to be welcoming to female members and the younger generation and to keep up its links with military history buffs, particularly philanthropic ones.’ [Chairman Stokes’s hobby is acquiring Victoria Crosses, which he then presents to the Memorial.]
- ‘The majority of the Council looks nothing like Australia then [in the time of Charles Bean, a key figure in the early days of the Memorial] – or now. The Anzac tradition carried by the military members, the selective legacy of Bean, the sentimental version of remembrance favoured by the Council’s authors and aficionados, and the ambitions of the Memorial’s senior management will tend to reinforce each other. There is a grave risk that the contestability which should characterise a nation’s history will stop at the door of the Memorial’s Council room.’
- ‘A reform that an incoming government should consider would be to amend the Australian War Memorial Act to allow for Council vacancies to be filled through public advertisement. Positions in the mass armies, air forces and navies of the past were filled by recruitment drives boosted by patriotic advertising; positions on the body which determines how these men and women are remembered could also be filled by advertising and application.’
- ‘The War Memorial Council as presently composed is an anachronism. It stands in the way of significant change in the way we commemorate war and hope for a peaceful future. A Council which was more representative of the range of Australian experience of war – and of Australians – would help the Memorial tell a more rounded story, a story not just of daring and death in uniform but of the widespread and lasting effects of war on individuals, families (especially women and children) and communities, the story not just of what Australians have done in war but of what war has done to Australia and Australians – and what it should never do again.’
David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website (honesthistory.net.au) where this article appeared originally. He is co-editor with Alison Broinowski of The Honest History Book (NewSouth 2017).