Tony Abbott is the wrong choice for the Council of the Australian War Memorial, but not just because his appointment would be “jobs for the boys.”
More important are the attitudes Abbott would bring to the Council. He is also a leading member of the Anzackery “club,” spruiking an overblown, sentimental version of the Anzac legend.
We need to do commemoration differently. Abbott would deliver more of the same sentiment that has characterised that place under the six-year stewardship of Director Brendan Nelson. Of course, war is important in Australian history, but that is not so much because of what Australians have done in war, but what war has done to Australia and Australians. The War Memorial is good on how well we fight but not on matters, like why we fought our wars and whether they were worth it.
The Memorial could also say more about the effects of wars on people who are not white Australians. That could include the Indigenous casualties of the Frontier Wars, plus the men, women and children bombed in German and Japanese cities in 1943-45, where civilian deaths far exceeded Australian service deaths in all our overseas wars.
Broadening the Memorial’s focus would be helped by fundamental changes to its Council. On the current Council there are eight current or former members of the Australian Defence Force, including the heads of the three services ex officio, a Major General in the Army Reserve who is also National President of the RSL, two retired colonels, a retired wing commander, and a retired corporal, who has a Victoria Cross.
There is also a business tycoon with a military history hobby (Chairman Kerry Stokes), two businesswomen, and a serviceman’s widow. As a military history buff, Abbott would fit in well.
Appointing Abbott would also follow an established pattern. One Council member was aide-de-camp to Director Nelson when he was Defence Minister, another is Chief Operating Officer of Stokes’ private company, another is married to a former Federal President of the Liberal Party.
A country whose forces in the major wars were representative of the whole nation has a very narrowly-based group running its premier commemorative institution. I have suggested elsewhere that the present Council looks like the governing body of an ex-service club and that future vacancies should be filled through public advertising to produce a different mix.
Abbott, if appointed to the Council, would be just one of 13 members. But Chairman Stokes’ term expires in August next year. Might we see Abbott take Stokes’ place?
Even before that, Nelson’s term as Director expires on 31 December this year. Might Abbott succeed him?
A board or council member becoming chief executive is not unprecedented: David Hill moved from chair of the ABC in 1987 to become managing director.
If Abbott were to join the Council or take Nelson’s job, the latter’s grandiose expansion plans (if they go ahead) could hardly be in better hands. The Memorial would look even more like the commemorative arm of an increasingly militarised state, its broad spaces filled with decommissioned military equipment, its visitors able to watch direct video feeds from the Defence Department, its ceremonial occasions marked by florid speeches, its excesses tolerated, even encouraged.
Nelson has paved the way for Abbott, another failed politician, to oversee an institution which has been able to largely ignore criticism. Abbott would love that.
David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website (honesthistory.net.au) and coordinator of Heritage Guardians, a community campaign against the proposed $498m extensions to the Australian War Memorial.