The Australian War Memorial (AWM) crouches sphinx-like at the foot of Canberra’s Mount Ainslie. It records the names of the 102,000 men and women who have died in our wars since the Sudan in 1885. It is a memorial, a museum and a research centre. Charles Bean, our pre-eminent war historian, wrote of the AWM in 1948: "Here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they loved; and here we guard the record which they themselves made." Hard to top as a place to commemorate our war dead, you would have thought.
The Memorials Development Committee (MDC) disagrees. The Committee claims the AWM does not commemorate the 98 per cent of the fallen who died in World Wars I and II, declaring on their website, "the unfortunate fact is, although there are monuments to the Vietnam and Korea conflicts, the [AWM and Anzac Parade] precinct does not provide memorials to the two major conflicts that had the greatest impact on the nation".
To fill the gap, the Committee wants to build two 20-metre monoliths on the shore of Lake Burley Griffin, across Parkes Way from the end of Anzac Parade. The site has been reserved and implementation moved on through the National Capital Authority, the Commonwealth authority responsible for aspects of Canberra’s planning, and the Canberra National Memorials Committee, nominally chaired by the prime minister of the day and including parliamentarians from both sides of the house and the secretaries of the Departments of Regional Australia and Veterans’ Affairs.
The MDC’s patrons include the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, and her predecessor, retired Major General Mike Jeffery. The project was supported by the Howard government and by the former prime minister, Kevin Rudd. It will cost around $21 million, to be raised privately — aside from the $200,000 seed money provided in 2007 by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The aim is to complete the project by 2015, in time for the centenary of Gallipoli.
So who is the MDC — and where is the money coming from? All nine committee members are retired military officers. While only sketchy details about members’ current employment are provided on the MDC website, member and retired Air Marshal Doug Riding is listed as an adviser to BAE Systems Australia, "Australia’s largest defence company". Other members have logistics, project management and consulting résumés. Contacts in these sectors could well help the MDC raise the money it needs.
On the evidence provided by the website, the Committee’s fundraising strategies are unclear. It says its first priority is "Australian and international companies interested in making significant financial contributions" although it will not disclose details of donors or supporters without their consent.
A steady stream of letters to the Canberra Times over two years has overwhelming opposed the lakeside memorials. The possibility that the MDC may be targeting the defence industry for funds is just one issue for opponents, who include friends of the AWM, pacifists, town planners — and people who object to faulty process.
The MDC lacks support among the retired brass. Even the RSL is split. One opponent is retired General Peter Gration, a former Chief of the Defence Force. Retired Air Marshal David Evans, formerly head of the RAAF and chair of the National Capital Authority (1997-2003), is also forthrightly opposed, saying the proposed memorials are "surplus to requirements" and they detract from the status of the AWM. He is "a bit outraged" that his successors at the NCA let the proposal through.
At the other end of the spectrum, Dr Sue Wareham of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War argues that "our commemoration of warfare risks … overshadowing all the contributions to human wellbeing that Australia has made in other spheres of life". Then there are the landscape architects and planners, among them Rosemarie Willett of the Walter Burley Griffin Society, who says the lakeside memorials will "upstage the Australian War Memorial … despoil a remarkable landscape vista", and take up space on the lakeshore intended for recreational use.
The fundraising issue may turn out to be the clincher, as the MDC’s reports to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission show that the Committee raised just $6162 from donations in 2008-09 and $155,020 in 2009-10. Nevertheless, whether the memorials are built or not depends now on the Canberra National Memorials Committee (CNMC) under Simon Crean and the Commonwealth Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, overseen by Minister Tony Burke.
The National Capital Authority (NCA) is clearly in the pro-memorials camp. The Authority’s 2007 recommendation to the CNMC for reservation of the memorials’ site contains just one sentence. At a public forum held on 23 March at Canberra’s Albert Hall to discuss the memorials, the NCA admitted there was "nothing in the records … about the rationale" for the reservation decision but the Authority actually wrote the guidelines for the design competition (2008) and its recent annual reports record its continuing co-operation with the MDC.
The NCA’s key players today are its current chair, Professor Don Aitkin, Peter Core, a former departmental secretary, and Gary Rake, the CEO. At a later forum held on 11 April, they admitted that the processes followed by their predecessors on the Authority were not necessarily best practice — but they insist that the decisions made were valid. (You can watch the video of that forum here.) The NCA makes its decisions on such matters subject to a "mandatory" guideline that precludes a new commemorative proposal duplicating the theme of an existing commemorative site. That said, the NCA has interpreted this wording as not ruling out the lakeside memorials.
At both forums, Rake and Aitkin made it clear that they were reluctant for the NCA to now pit itself against the CNMC, given the CNMC’s previous decisions. Before a Senate Committee last year, Rake described the CNMC as a "heavy hitting" committee. This is somewhat disingenuous, given that the CNMC’s quorum is only three members and that records obtained under Freedom of Information by Brett Odgers under the auspices of the Lake Memorial Forum show that the heaviest hitters (senior ministers and shadow ministers) have been conspicuous by their absence from relevant CNMC meetings.
For example, the meeting of November 2008, which approved the design of the memorials, was attended by just three people, all from the Attorney-General’s portfolio (which then covered both the NCA and the CNMC): the Minister for Home Affairs Bob Debus, departmental secretary Rob Cornall and the NCA’s then CEO Annabelle Pegrum, appointed as a temporary member to cover the absence of other members (and to make up quorum).
The MDC will shortly put its case to Tony Burke’s department for approval under heritage protection legislation. The Committee is believed to be lobbying the Department heavily. The Department could approve the proposal or declare it a "controlled action", effectively subjecting it to either a Public Environment Report or an Environmental Impact Statement. Meanwhile, the opponents are doing their own lobbying, particularly of Minister Crean.
Is the lakeside memorials saga a fix? Or is it simply a case of focused bureaucrats and appointees manipulating an outdated and ill-attended CNMC? Or both? In any event, the 102,000 dead souls must wonder what on earth is going on.
Correction: The meeting of November 2008, which approved the design of
the memorials, was actually attended by the Minister for Home
Affairs Bob Debus, Attorney-General’s Department secretary Roger
Wilkins and Veterans’ Affairs department secretary Ian Campbell. (The
Attorney-General’s portfolio at that time covered both the CNMC and the
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