Director of the Australian War Memorial (AWM), Brendan Nelson has suggested that the AWM should have a contemporary exhibit for navy personnel which would include having something dealing with boat turnbacks during Operation Sovereign Borders. However, he then added that the AWM was “not about to have an exhibition on border protection”1.
The AWM’s function is defined by its legislation, the Australian War Memorial Act 1980. This states that it must maintain a national memorial of Australians who have died ‘as a result of any war or warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service’, and it must also disseminate information relating to Australian military history, including that of forces raised in Australia before Federation. After previous requests to include the frontier wars, the AWM stated that under the act, the definition of its role does not include internal conflicts between indigenous populations and the colonial powers of the day. That is their interpretation of the act, but that is a very narrow interpretation2. The act does not specify whether the conflicts must be on home soil or overseas and does not specify whether the ‘enemy’ should be a nation state or not. Greens leader, Richard Di Natale said this boat turnback proposal “diminishes all those Australians who have served and died in war.” Headded: “By equating the personal sacrifice of the Anzacs with this government’s heartless treatment of innocent people seeking asylum, this proposal seeks to politicise Australia’s armed forces for political gain”1. It is difficult to disagree with that.
When, in a Senate Estimates hearing, Nelson was asked about the frontier wars during which many thousands of Aboriginals were killed, he stated that there was no ‘declared war’ between Aboriginals and settlers on the frontier. This was a furphy, as the only time Australia declared war was during the Second World War. The frontier wars were conducted against Aboriginals by the police, militia and landholders.
As renowned historian Henry Reynolds said in his book ‘Forgotten War’: “Many observers thought what was unfolding on the vast frontiers was a form of warfare. They said so many times over.” When the AWM was first conceived it was to commemorate the First World war, and initial suggestions that the Boer War should be included were knocked back3. That war is now included.
Given the outcry over this ham-fisted attempt to seemingly enter the ‘culture wars’, as it has been portrayed, Brendan Nelson stated that the AWM is “completely apolitical. This is an institution that is free of party politics”4. This coming from a person who is a former leader of the Liberal Party while it was in Opposition. Boat turnback is a Liberal policy under the secretive ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’. In addition, the frontier wars are definitely not part of the Liberal Party’s white blindfold version of ‘history’.
If the AWM is to be, and appear to be, apolitical, then maybe it should not have a director who is a former politician and that its directorship should not be used as one of the ‘jobs for the boys’.