The Shameful Capitulation of AWM’s Brendan Nelson

Peter O’Brien

On October 4, I sent a letter to Dr Brendan Nelson protesting his intention to expand the depiction in the Australian War Memorial of violence committed against Aboriginal people. On  October 20 I received a reply from Matt Anderson, the Memorial’s director, to the effect that:

the Memorial is committed to sharing, honouring and acknowledging First Nation’s stories now and in the future.  It is a place for all people to reflect upon and understand the Australian experience of war.

A polite ‘up yours’ in other words.

So, I wrote another letter to Nelson in response.  I had intended to do him the courtesy of giving him a chance to reply before I made my letter public.  However, over the weekend Nelson effectively gave me his answer via an article by Cameron Stewart in the Weekend Australian.   So, I no longer feel constrained about going public.  Here is the text of my letter:

Dear Dr Nelson,

Earlier this month I wrote to you concerning your statement that the War Memorial would have a

much broader, a much deeper depiction and presentation of the violence committed against Indigenous people, initially by British, then by pastoralists, then by police, and then by Aboriginal militia.

I pointed out that this proposal is contrary to the charter of the Australian War Memorial as expressed in the Australian War Memorial Act of 1980.

In response, I received a letter, presumably at your direction, from the Director of the Memorial, Mr Matt Anderson, explaining that for many years the Memorial had displayed details of pre-Federation conflicts such as in Sudan, New Zealand, China and South Africa, but that it had also contained ‘a small number of works depicting frontier violence’ and ‘62 artworks … relating to frontier conflict’.  He said the Memorial ‘is committed to sharing, honouring and acknowledging First Nation’s stories now and in the future.  It is a place for all people to reflect upon and understand the Australian experience of war’.

‘Frontier conflict’ means two different things.  The first, and uncontroversial meaning, is that there were violent clashes between colonists and Aborigines over many years resulting in a significant number of Aboriginal deaths.  The authority most quoted on this subject is the University of Newcastle Massacre Map, maintained under the direction of Professor Lyndall Ryan.  Scores of historians have, over a number of years, scoured the historical record to dredge up every last Aboriginal death they could find. They have documented 416 incidents which reportedly resulted in the death of some 11,000 Aborigines.  Objective historians such as Keith Windschuttle and Michael Connor have raised serious questions over many of the entries on the Map and the total of 11,000 deaths is contested.  We can argue about the exact number of deaths but if you study the Massacre Map it is obvious that the vast majority of these incidents occurred as reprisals for killing settlers or their stock and that they were conducted by private individuals.  They are no less reprehensible for that, and they should be known and understood. 

But they were offences against British law and the law of the colonial governments. They were not military operations and were certainly not sanctioned by the colonial governments. They have no relevance to the defence of Australia.  In the few occasions where colonial military troops did become involved, it was in the nature of what we now call ‘aid to the civil power’.  These were essentially policing actions.  To put it in today’s terms, if a terrorist took over a café and held innocent people hostage, and the police believed they did not have the skill or resources to resolve the situation, they could ask for the help of military special forces, such as the SAS.  If that happened, the SAS troops would not be regarded as being on ‘active service’.  They would be acting in support of the civil power. 

The second interpretation of ‘frontier conflict’ is what has become known as the Colonial Wars, and it is the prospect of having this myth enshrined into the AWM that has got the Aboriginal activists so excited. In your correspondence with Aboriginal activist Graeme Dunstan, he said to you:

I remember saying to you years ago that we Anzac advocates for recognition of the Frontier Wars by the Australian War Memorial are knocking on a door, and we intend to keep on knocking till the door opens.

Our message to you and the directors of the Australian War Memorial is to open up to the Frontier Wars. To admit them.

Recognition of the Frontier Wars is the gateway to reconciliation.

At that time, Mr Nelson, you pushed back on this divisive rhetoric, and rightly so. Now it seems the door is finally open. But what is the provenance of these ‘Frontier Wars’? Activist historian, Henry Reynolds, in a recent article in the Canberra Times wrote:

A new generation of historical research has provided powerful confirmation of the extent and duration of the ‘killing times’, particularly during the conquest of north Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century.  The work of Lyndall Ryan and her team at the University of Newcastle has mapped massacre sites all over the continent.

Extensive new research, concerning the Native Mounted Police, has raised the possibility the Aboriginal death toll may have been well over 60,000.  This would push the casualties in the frontier wars to a figure rivalling the total loss of Australian lives in the First World War.

Reynold’s reference to Ryan’s work implies that this is his source for the figure of 60,000 deaths.  He provides no other source.  As I noted above, Professor Ryan and her team identified only 11,000 deaths.  How is it possible, then, that this legion of researchers could have overlooked 50,000 deaths?  The short answer is that they didn’t.  The figure is totally implausible.  Some might argue that, because the Massacre Map only records massacres of six or more people, that would explain the discrepancy.  For that to be the case, there would have to be many hundreds of smaller scale incidents spread across the entire continent and over a century and a half of settlement.  That sounds unlikely and, in any case, does not sound like a concerted and coordinated military campaign.

There were no frontier wars in the sense of a military conflict with organised Aboriginal forces defending their land against invasion.  This myth has been devised to overturn accepted history that this land was annexed according to international law of the time and peacefully settled.  This is not a ‘truth telling’ exercise.  It is a political ploy designed to overturn the fundamental basis of this nation – to delegitimize it.  As such – as a political device – it has no place in the Memorial.

Where will it end?  Reynolds himself gives us an idea:

The most significant symbolic act would be placing a tomb for the unknown warrior next to the grave of the unknown soldier.  Those who fought for empire would be at rest with those who fought against the empire.

Is that something you would support?  Would you see it as contributing to ‘reconciliation’? If not, how would you propose to stop it once this door has been opened?

In your dealings with Mr Dunstan you made significant concessions to his demands.  You know from that experience that what you might envisage as a healing gesture will not be the end of the matter.  If this initiative proceeds as far as the activists will inevitably demand, then, at best, the Memorial Council will have given its imprimatur to what is a highly contested version of history, and, at worst, it will have perpetrated a monstrous fraud on a sacred institution and on the people of Australia.

I have launched an online petition, “Hands Off the Australian War Memorial”, which at the time of writing has garnered 7,000 signatures in just under two weeks with no media publicity whatsoever.  That will give you some idea of the depth of public opposition to this proposal.

In 2018 I wrote to you to express my admiration of your understanding of the military ethos and your work at the Memorial.  You personally acknowledged my letter.  I beg that this time you will do me the same courtesy.

Yours Sincerely
Peter O’Brien

MY ANSWER, in the form of Nelson’s words quoted in The Australian article, was:

Nelson, a former AWM director who will leave the council in November, is frustrated that his comments have triggered such a strong reaction from all sides. He denies that the expansion of frontier violence exhibits will undermine the AWM’s central purpose.

“As we have had for well over a decade, in the new galleries we will professionally and sensitively present the story of frontier violence perpetrated against Aboriginal Australians to set the context for their service to and suffering for Australia,” he tells Inquirer from Washington DC.

“It will be of modest dimensions. It will also complement the full story of the relationship between the First Australians and Europeans that is the responsibility of the National Museum of Australia. I also look forward to the Ngurra facility to present much of this sad history in the axis on the other side of the lake.”

But Nelson says the Memorial also needs to adapt to changing public expectations even if it is not the primary institution which should be telling the story of frontier violence.

“While we remain true to Charles Bean’s vision for the Memorial in a world he could not possibly have imagined, there is a growing expectation from a new generation of Australians that this is a part of our story and an important one to be found, in part, at the AWM,” he said.

“Australia has changed and is changing but the expectations of a new generation of Australians is that the Memorial will present some of this, and that’s essentially what we’ve decided to do.

“In the end I believe this is the right thing to do but it will be proportionate, sensitive and modest, because the main place for telling the story is the National Museum of Australia.”

Nelson has unleashed a hornet’s nest.  Let me remind you what he originally said:

The council has made a decision that we will have a much broader, a much deeper depiction and presentation of the violence committed against Indigenous people, initially by British, then by pastoralists, then by police, then by Aboriginal militia.

So, this is not about frontier violence as such.  It is not about violence perpetrated by Aborigines upon settlers, or the often horrendous and widespread violence they visited upon each other.  It is really about the morality of colonisation. It is about Aborigines as victims of colonisation. That is a question well beyond the charter of the War Memorial, which I detailed here.

Nelson now tells us that, rather than being a ‘much broader, much deeper depiction’, it will ‘only be of modest dimensions’.  Having got the activists all excited to begin with, he’s now got them off-side by offering what they describe as ‘tokenism’. And, by their own lights, they’re right about that. Having been offered the banquet, they will not now settle for takeaway.

Nelson’s contention that these presentations are designed to ‘set the context for their service to and suffering for Australia’ is nothing more than a piece of cheap rhetoric.  It’s effectively saying, ‘how good are these Aboriginal veterans who served after everything we did to them!’  That their service and sacrifice was somehow more noble. As if they were not really Australian citizens at all. That sounds pretty patronizing to me.

It is not the Council’s prerogative to adapt to what they see as ‘changing public expectations’.  As long as ‘adapting’ means changing the AWM charter, that is Parliament’s role.  And it ill behoves experienced managers to be gulled into believing that the squeaky wheel represents public expectations at large.

The War Memorial is, by its very nature, a conservative institution – and I don’t mean that in a political sense.  It is not a theme park catering to the latest fads.  Its purpose is to honour the memory of those who gave their lives in the defence of this nation and its values.  Its museum must contribute to that aim and nothing more.  The inclusion of frontier conflict couched in terms of ‘violence to Aboriginal people’ – designed to delegitimize or denigrate the origins of the nation – cuts directly against that purpose.

I call on all like-minded members of Parliament to insist that the Council adhere to the Memorial’s charter, even to the extent of removing all such depictions that currently exist.

editor’s note: For background on Mr Dunstan and his movement, visit this site and read an account from 2018 which, apart from mentioning fauxboriginal grifter Bruce Pascoe’s involvement in the campaign, also records Nelson’s now lapsed opposition and how ‘we are winning the media on our campaign to remember the Frontier Wars as part of national Anzac Day commemorations’.

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Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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