The $498 million expansion of the Australian War Memorial cannot be justified and the money should be spent on veterans and their families, and other national institutions, according to a submission signed by 82 prominent people to a parliamentary inquiry into the project.
The submission from the Heritage Guardians says the extension will destroy the Memorial’s character and criticises the ”excessive veneration” of the Anzac story.
Among the signatories are historians, former senior bureaucrats, including Tony Blunn and former Defence secretary Paul Barrett, journalists and authors such as Tom Keanelly and Don Watson, and former senior memorial figures including former director Steve Gower. Some have made separate submissions.
”The Memorial should be revered, but Australia has many stories,” the submission says. “Excessive veneration of the Anzac story denies the richness of our history, as presented in our many cultural institutions.”
It says those other institutions have suffered more damage from efficiency dividends than the Memorial, which has been treated generously by successive governments.
It takes issue with the notion that the memorial needs more space to display recent conflicts and to heal veterans.
”Responsibility for veterans’ welfare belongs not with the Memorial but with Defence and Veterans’ Affairs. The Memorial’s ambition to provide a ‘therapeutic milieu’ for veterans trivialises the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and suggests that memorials can play such a role – a claim for which there is scant evidence,” the submission says.
It says much of the extension will be taken up with a grandiose foyer and space to display military hardware, at the same time destroying the Memorial’s character, affecting its heritage status, and requiring the demolition of the award-winning Anzac Hall.
Displaying decommissioned planes and helicopters do little to promote an understanding of Australia’s wars, while providing a tourist attraction, the submission says.
It urges the Memorial to make hard decisions about what it displays or not as do other institutions, rather than pushing for more space.
It also criticises the planned ”direct feed” of current Defence activities as totally inappropriate in a war memorial.
The submission notes the project’s fast-tracking, with a minimum of public consultation and lack of transparency ahead of necessary approvals.
In a separate submission, former director Steve Gower calls the proposal ”ill-developed” and ”inadequately advised”, and proposes a less costly alternative.
He also expresses alarm at the way some have claimed the Anzac story as the principal Australian narrative above all others.
”This is no more than an emotional and jingoistic misrepresentation to justify huge sums of money to ‘safeguard the future’ and undertake ‘generational change’,” he says.
The former director says Anzac Hall should be retained, the atrium or glazed space scrapped and that there be no column removal and related major excavations in and around the Memorial’s Main Building.
Mr Gower says institutions cannot keep expanding forever and warns against all conflict being treated equally, stressing that the world wars remain at the core the memorial’s mission.
He also argues there must be sufficient justification to display military hardware, pointing to planes that did not see much war action, not simply because they are no longer in service.
He suggests that all non-gallery functions be moved to an extended Bean building so the resulting space, estimated to be 3000 square metres, can be utilised.
Architect Richard Johnson’s 4,000 square metre design for a new display space should be revived and could be located where the Memorial’s preferred option has a carpark on the north-west of the site.
He says the new storage building at Mitchell could be used for large objects, such as most aircraft and other big items, and a previous Canberra Airport suggestion should be assessed.
This approach would be much more cost-effective and acceptable to the community, he says.