Politics Opinion

War Memorial's ignorance of Frontier Wars must end

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The Australian War Memorial (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Australian War Memorial fails to recognise conflicts between First Nations people and colonists within our own country, writes Dr David Stephens.

SINCE THE Australian War Memorial opened in Canberra in 1941, it has focused on recognising and commemorating the service and sacrifice of Australians who fought in our overseas wars, ever since a few dozen volunteers went to New Zealand in the 1840s to help Queen Victoria’s soldiers pacify the Māori.

Over recent decades, though, there have been calls for the Memorial to also cover First Nations people – men, women and children – who died between 1788 and at least 1928 in what has been called “frontier conflict”, “frontier violence”, and “the Frontier Wars”, but which should really be designated “the Australian Wars” because the conflict involved Australians, in Australia, defending Australia. It was our most important war, says its leading historian, Professor Henry Reynolds.

The Memorial is governed by a council of 13 members, with Kim Beazley, former Leader of the Opposition, Minister, Governor and Ambassador, as chair since December 2022. Recently, the responsible Minister, Matt Keogh, announced three new members of the Council.

Who is on and who is off the Council?

New are Lorraine Hatton, Indigenous army veteran; Warren Snowdon, former Minister for Veterans’ Affairs; and Karen Bird, advocate for service people damaged by war.

They replace Josephine Stone, spouse of a former senior Liberal politician and official; Rhondda Vanzella, former Liberal Party functionary and “most loyal confidant” of Brendan Nelson (former director and council chair at the Memorial); and James McMahon, former senior employee of Kerry Stokes, media mogul and former chair of the council.

Read more on the pre-change Council here.

What do the new members offer?

Lorraine Hatton, Quandamooka Elder and Indigenous Elder for the Australian Army, has done important work to recognise First Nations people wearing Australian uniforms. This work should lead naturally to recognition of First Nations men, women and children who fought and died, not in uniform, but defending Country, on Country, in the Australian Wars.

Warren Snowdon championed Indigenous causes as a member of the Australian Parliament for 32 years for Northern Territory seats.

When he retired in 2022, he said:

“I remain appalled at the failure of successive governments to come to terms with our First Peoples and accord them the recognition and the justice that is their due...”

Recognition and justice certainly apply to the Australian Wars.

Dr Karen Bird spoke at the Memorial in February this year:

War and Service can and does have consequences.


The human toll is all around us, in front of our eyes; this struggle is recognised but it remains ongoing.

While Dr Bird addressed the effects of military service on veterans and their families, her remarks also apply to the intergenerational effects of frontier deaths. Her closing quote was from Voltaire: “To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.”

What about the continuing Council members?

Council chair Kim Beazley began his term arguing that the Memorial should have a ‘substantial’ area, a ‘special section’, for the Australian Wars, depicting not just massacres of First Nations people but ‘the dignity of [their] resistance’.

On the other hand, member Tony Abbott is a rusted-on enthusiast for the traditional Anzac story – blokes going overseas to fight for King/Queen and Country – and member General Greg Melick, national president of the RSL, says the Memorial should depict and commemorate only people who have worn military uniforms.

As for members Sharon Bown, Susan Neuhaus, Daniel Keighran and Glenn Keys, we have found nothing about the Australian Wars on the public record from them, nor from the ex officio military members, Air Marshal Stephen Chappell, Vice Admiral Mark Hammond and Lieutenant General Simon Stuart. Is this a chance for them to break new ground?

What should the Council do next?

Chair Beazley’s three concepts – substantial, separate, dignity of resistance – provide a basis for action, but he was lumbered with a prevaricating decision made by the Council before he became chair.

That decision of 19 August 2022 contained two important limitations on the Memorial's future coverage of frontier conflict:

‘Wherever possible, [frontier conflict] would relate to and inform, subsequent Indigenous military service to Australia, providing a context for that service. The gallery will inform visitors of the significant institutions whose charter it is to tell the full story of Frontier Violence.’

That decision led the Memorial to, first, identify and make much of frontier violence victims who went on to fight in the King’s uniform – Private William Punch (wounded 1917, died of illness) became the pioneer exemplar – and, secondly, to point to the National Museum and the proposed Ngurra Commemorative Precinct as better places for depicting the Australian Wars.

That equivocal decision still applies, although it was kept secret for 12 months. You can read more on this tortured process here.

The Council must rescind the decision of 19 August 2022 and instead decide clearly in favour of proper recognition and commemoration, that decision then to be reflected in changes to the Memorial’s redevelopment plans. (Under current plans, just 1.1 per cent of post-redevelopment gallery space will be devoted to the Australian Wars and that space will be shared with contingents sent to the New Zealand Wars 1845-72 and the Sudan 1885.)

Can the refreshed Council deliver a new approach?

This depends on the willingness of Council members supporting change to hold to their position and not be sidetracked into deceptive compromises like that of 19 August 2022.

Traditionally, the Council comes to decisions by consensus rather than voting, but consensus requires firm direction. That seems to have been absent in 2022; the now public record provides the evidence.

What can the Council do better?

Minister Keogh’s media release nails it:

‘The new appointments will bring a fresh perspective to the Council and ensure the Memorial continues to adapt and reach contemporary audiences.’

Chair Beazley had said in April 2023 that having the Australian Wars dealt with at the Memorial would be “an important part of truth-telling for the country as a whole”.

As Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney said in 2022 that the Labor Government was committed to truth-telling about Australian colonial history “and a failure to see that reflected in [the Memorial] would be jarringly out of step with this new phase of national reckoning”. The defeat of the Voice Referendum does not reduce the need for truth-telling; it magnifies that need.

What can the rest of us do?

We can write to Hon. Kim Beazley AC, Chair of Council, Australian War Memorial (copy to Hon. Matt Keogh MP, Minister for Veterans' Affairs) supporting the Memorial’s proper recognition and commemoration of the Australian Wars through a new and clear decision replacing the mealy-mouthed waffle of August 2022.

Why bother?

A nation which embraces the concept of Defending Country, a nation that does not distinguish, according to the identity of the enemy, the worth of “service and sacrifice” to defend Country, is a different nation from what went before. That is the kind of Australia that could grow from real change at the Australian War Memorial.

Having the Memorial properly “own” the Australian (Frontier) Wars would go a long way towards closing the Commemoration Gap, which is as wide as any other gap affecting First Australians. What we commemorate as a nation shows what we regard as important.

Failing to properly recognise and commemorate the Australian Wars at our Australian War Memorial shows we do not regard them as important.

Dr David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and a member of the Defending Country Memorial Project, campaigning for the Australian War Memorial to properly recognise and commemorate the Australian Frontier Wars.

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