Minister defends Abbott's wasteful war museum boondoggle

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The proposed Sir John Monash Centre addition at Villers-Bretonneux in France by Cox Architecture. (Image courtesy Cox Architecture)

After copping criticism about the $100 million war museum in France (including from the prime minister's own son-in-law), the Turnbull government is blaming everyone but itself for proceeding with another of Abbott's wasteful Captain's Picks. Dr David Stephens from Honest History reports.

ANZAC CENTENARY minister, Stuart Robert, has wielded what is probably his first official silver spade in turning the first sod of the whizzo Monash museum (Interpretive Centre) to be constructed at Villers-Bretonneux in time for a slap-up opening ceremony on Anzac Day 2018.

The centre is to cost $A100 million, including $A88 million of Defence money.

The minister defended the cost of the centre against criticism by Honest History (quoted in the online piece though not in the Canberra Times hard copy of 20 January) and others. He blamed civil engineering issues and high French labour costs. Maybe. Honest History wonders whether some canny official in the mairie in Villers-Bretonneux or Amiens worked some clever legalese into an agreement such that Australia could not get out of the deal, regardless of misgivings which were said to be around in Canberra.

The minister should release the text of any such agreement, as well as the costings of the project, which were shown to the Public Works Committee (PWC) of the Australian Parliament (as it rubber-stamped the boondoggle) but were not made public.

Here’s the really interesting bit, though, and it’s about those costings. On the cost drivers, the minister said

‘the main reason for the cost was the engineering challenge, to dig into the hill so as not to overshadow the existing memorial, and not disturb the cemetery next to it’ [emphasis added].

On the other hand, there is what a senior official from the Minister’s department, Major General Dave Chalmers, told the PWC on 26 June last year. This is our summary:

[The PWC asked] whether half-burying the centre (to avoid detracting from sight-lines to the existing memorial) added significantly to costs. The answer … was essentially that, while digging the centre into the ground made the project a bit more expensive, a more important driver was the desire to build a high-quality … centre and one that would attract visitors. As General Chalmers said at one point, in response to questions which noted that other countries’ commemorative projects on the Western Front had been cheaper, “you get what you pay for”.

Specifically on digging into the hill, General Chalmers said this to the PWC:

‘In terms of cost drivers—in the closed session we can go through costs in more detail—there is a cost associated of course with excavating, but it is not a significant cost‘ [emphasis added].

This is not what the minister said this week. According to General Chalmers, the main reason for the centre being expensive was not the digging but ‘the quality of multimedia interpretive product that we have’. (In Honest History’s analysis of the project we listed around a dozen adjectives – from "immersive" to "state-of-the-art" – used by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to describe the planned contents of the Monash centre; we settled on "whizzo" as a shorthand descriptor.)

It’s not French diggers of holes who are driving the Monash centre costs up but Aussie builders of grandiose monuments. Honest History sticks to its view of August last year:

‘We find it difficult to treat this project as anything other than a massively self-indulgent and boastful boondoggle, replete with meaningless puffery and rash assumptions’. 

If the minister has another view, he should make public both the deal struck with the French and the detailed costings of the project.

The awarding of the construction contract was “announced” in a ministerial press release two days before Christmas (while nobody was listening). Honest History’s extensive analysis of this project links from here or search our site under ‘Monash’.

Embarrassingly for the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull’s own son-in-law, James Brown, a former Australian Army Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and author of ‘Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of our National Obsession’ strongly opposed the project, as reported by Ian McPhedran for News Corp:

Former army officer, Iraq veteran and author of “Anzac’s Long Shadow” James Brown said that in times of tight budgets every dollar spent on commemorating long dead soldiers was a dollar not spent on living soldiers with real issues today.

“We’re spending millions on monuments which catalogue every death in World War I yet until last year no one was tracking the number of returning modern veterans taking their own lives.

“There are direct opportunity costs: $88m from the defence budget spent on a museum in France is $88m not going towards weapons training or personnel costs”.

He said that since his book was published he had been overwhelmed by how many serving defence personnel and veterans shared the view that somehow they’ve been overlooked by the Anzac centenary frenzy.

French Coverage

The Amiens newspaper Courrier Picard has been following events closely, anticipating Minister Robert’s visit and reporting on the sod-turning event (including a little video of arriving guests). Minister Robert was accompanied by his French counterpart, M. Todeschini. Courrier Picard‘s Delphine Richard reported that the centre when completed is expected to welcome ‘tens of thousands of tourists’ and noted that the same Australia which had fought the Germans in 1918 was today making ‘an unprecedented financial effort for Villers-Bretonneux’, 56 million euro, indeed.

Minister Robert said that, as a former Australian soldier, he was

‘proud to be the one to whom has been entrusted the remembrance of our veterans’.

(Minister Robert served in the Australian Army for 12 years until 2000.) Both ministers talked about the strong relationship between Australia and France.

Author's note:  Boondoggle: 'A project that is considered a useless waste of both time and money, yet is often continued due to extraneous policy or political motivations.'

You can follow Honest History on Twitter @honesthistory1.

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