The Greens have thrown a potential hand grenade into the ACT Labor camp ahead of the Federal election with a policy announcement opposing the massive expansion of the Australian War Memorial and supporting the redirection of the $498 million cost to other national institutions.
Labor backs the AWM expansion, which has been under fire from a range of groups and has become a sore point in the national capital where the other national institutions have suffered regular funding cuts through the efficiency dividend program.
80 prominent Australians ranging from author Thomas Keneally to former Department of Defence secretary Paul Barrett, and even the Australian War Memorial’s former director Brendon Kelson have come out against the proposal, which over the next nine years will double the size of the 77-year-old institution’s visitor areas and includes demolishing Anzac Hall.
The Greens believe they have a good chance of taking the new central seat of Canberra and knocking Liberal Senator Zed Seselja out of the Senate, and the War Memorial issue will likely play well for them in the ACT and wedge Labor.
The policy announced today by federal Greens leader Richard di Natale with candidate for Canberra Tim Hollo, Senate hopeful Penny Kyburz, and former leader Christine Milne, would see the $178m earmarked for the expansion currently in the forward estimates redirected in reverse cuts to all national cultural institutions and boost their funding, as well as a National Institutions Council established to determine funding.
The Greens also advocate an end to arms manufacturer sponsorship at the War Memorial; commemorating the Frontier Wars, and recognising and funding the Tent Embassy as a national institution.
Mr Hollo acknowledged the policy would be a key point of difference with Labor in Canberra but said it wasn’t just political opportunism, it was about doing what was right.
“What I’ve found in the past few months talking to people around the Canberra community about this idea is that this position is one that the community at large will support,” he said.
He rejected the notion that even if the Government was defeated, Labor’s support for the project meant the Greens’ ideas were going nowhere.
“What the Greens do very effectively is to put ideas on the agenda and work hard over time to try to get them adopted and very often that works,” he said. “This is one of those that is absolutely achievable over time.”
He denied the Greens were disrespecting veterans, saying the most powerful memorials around the world were those that were extremely simple.
“I absolutely respect those who have given so much for the country and so do the Greens at large but you don’t do that necessarily by splashing around huge amounts of resources,” he said.
Respect wasn’t about building another massive room filled with helicopters and other military hardware, he said.
Mr Hollo said favouring one institution over all the others was disrespecting all the other Australians whose stories needed to be told.
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He said that while the War Memorial was proposing to tear down an award-winning building in good condition, other institutions, that were starved of funds, needed maintenance, such as the National Gallery of Australia with its leaky roof.
“They simply cannot do their jobs, meanwhile one institution which has a ‘new’ building in the best condition of all is being given such a vast sum of money to rebuild, and it’s simply not an appropriate balance to be struck there,” he said.
The proposed National Institutions Council, comprising representatives from each institution, would take a cooperative approach to identify spending priorities and recommending appropriate funding to government.
This approach would create economies of scale and reduce the cost of work, for example, digitisation programs that make collections accessible to all Australians and the rest of the world.
Mr Hollo said the War Memorial needed to stop taking money from arms manufacturers and that needed to be embedded in its charter, saying there was much disquiet in the community about the issue.
“Talk about respecting or not respecting our veterans, the Memorial is a place of contemplation and commemoration, it’s not a space for the commercialisation of war in any way whatsoever,” he said.
On the Frontier Wars, the Greens were proposing a memorial in the precinct along Anzac parade, not necessarily in the War Memorial itself.
“Building a memorial and recognising and funding the Tent Embassy are a small part of working genuinely with Indigenous people, in full knowledge of our past, towards a future together,” he said.
Senator Di Natale said the Government’s priorities were all wrong.
“The Liberal Government’s planned a half-billion-dollar expansion to showcase military hardware is deeply inappropriate,” he said.
Ms Milne, who battled cuts to the national institutions when in the Senate, said it was time to abolish the annual efficiency dividends and fund the cultural institutions properly.
Dr Kyburz said the institutions were the cornerstones of the nation’s cultural life.
“Researchers like me rely on them for our work, and we all rely on them to safeguard our national heritage and bring the world’s cultures to Canberra. It’s unforgivable that they have been starved of funds for a decade and more while the War Memorial is the beneficiary of an unnecessary cash splash,” she said.