Groups opposed to the $500 million redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial have slammed the decision to approve the project, saying it was a done deal that ignored expert evidence.
”The fix was in,” was how Heritage Guardians convener David Stephens described Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s decision, which came with 29 conditions.
The Australian Institute of Architects, which had campaigned vigorously against the project and the destruction of the award-winning Anzac Hall to make way for an expanded memorial, was bitterly disappointed.
Act Chapter President Shannon Battisson said the decision reflected a comprehensive failure to listen to the advice of experts and the wishes of the community alike.
“Approving the destruction of Anzac Hall, when the site’s Heritage Management Plan expressly requires its conservation, is one of the most appalling examples of disregarding heritage protections and rubber-stamping a major public project in recent memory,” she said.
“This is the wanton destruction of a much-loved public space and all the talent, effort and treasured memories – not to mention taxpayer dollars – that went into it.”
Mr Stephens said the project had been characterised by dodgy processes and hyperbole, but the outcome was inevitable for political reasons.
”It’s essentially been pretty much a done deal for two years and it’s had this consultation window dressing along the way,” he said.
”We’ve tried to show people the flaws in the project, the faults and the inadequate arguments but political battles aren’t always won by the best arguments.”
The Guardians would examine the decision closely but it appeared the conditions were mostly trivial.
Mr Stephens said that despite the result, the Guardians had at least been able to put a lot on the record about why they thought the project was wrong, ill-advised and not supported by the evidence.
He said the Labor Opposition had been missing in action but ”once you throw the Anzac cloak over an argument, it’s very hard for an Opposition to argue against something the government is strong on”.
The Memorial was starting to look more like a military museum than a place of commemoration, Mr Stephens said.
”The new space is bigger than the MCG – 2.5 hectares – and a lot of that will be filled with retired military equipment and kit, helicopters and Hornet jets and so on, which are kind of interesting but it’s more toys for the boys than anything to do with commemoration,” he said.
Mr Stephens said this was not surprising given that the Memorial council is heavy with current and ex-military officers ”and doesn’t look at all like the widely representative voluntary forces that have been typically fighting for Australia for over 100 years”.
He said that after the Australian Heritage Council had came out against the project in its submission to the Memorial there had been hopes it would press the issue with the Minister who would take notice, but that had come to nought.
The Heritage Guardians’ submission to the parliamentary inquiry said the expansion would destroy the Memorial’s character and criticised the ”excessive veneration” of the Anzac story.
It was signed by 82 prominent Australians including former Defence secretary Paul Barrett, and former Memorial director Steve Gower.
The conditions include measures to protect heritage areas during construction such as a heritage buffer zone, ensuring the new areas fit with the existing buildings, and that any Indigenous sites are identified and preserved.
The project needs to clear two more hurdles, including the National Capital Authority, but it is expected to be waved through.