Inside Story

Conspicuous commemoration

Drawing on newly released FOI documents, David Stephens examines a case of over-building in Canberra

David Stephens 22 May 2011 2697 words

Geoff Pryor

EVERY civilisation likes to build. The Egyptians left us the pyramids, the Greeks the Parthenon, the Chinese the Imperial Tombs. We all like our legacies to be solid, tangible.

In Australia, we build war memorials. Our largest is the Australian War Memorial, on the slopes of Mount Ainslie in Canberra. The Memorial was to commemorate the dead from the first world war but its charter was extended in 1941 to cover the second world war as well. In 1952 it became a memorial to each and all of Australia’s wars.

Despite the status of the Australian War Memorial, some retired military officers decided, in around 2003, that Canberra lacked memorials to the two world wars. To remedy this deficiency, they established the Memorials Development Committee, or MDC.

Eight years later, there is considerable alarm among people concerned about Canberra’s national symbolic architecture that the memorials project has advanced through the system without proper scrutiny. The need for new memorials to the world wars has not been proven. The statutory decision-maker has let down the Australian parliament and the people it is supposed to be serving. The planning authority, in its eagerness to deliver for the MDC, has cut corners, avoided issues and manipulated the decision-maker. The authority’s current representatives have obfuscated and stonewalled.

The MDC first went to the National Capital Authority, or NCA, which is responsible for aspects of Canberra’s planning and development. Documents obtained under Freedom of Information show that, on 7 July 2005, the MDC’s chairman, Mike Buick, and his deputy, Clive Badelow, met NCA chief executive, Annabelle Pegrum, to put the case for memorials to be built “in the ACT Anzac Parade precinct.” Later that day Colonel Buick wrote to Ms Pegrum at her suggestion to “formally request NCA support for the allocation of an appropriate site(s).”

Later that month, an NCA meeting “supported the proposal for the memorials … subject to the proponents seeking the support of Government and funding being identified.” The authority wanted sites to be identified on either side of the Rond Terraces at the end of Anzac Parade, astride Walter Burley Griffin’s “Land Axis,” on the shore of Lake Burley Griffin.

Above: The Memorials Development Committee’s mock up of the proposed memorials.

On 1 March 2007, the Canberra National Memorials Committee (referred to throughout this article as “the committee,” but also known by its abbreviation CNMC), the statutory decision-maker, approved a site on the Rond Terraces and reserved it until 30 June 2010. The federal territories minister, Jim Lloyd, made the necessary determination under the National Memorials Ordinance 1928. On 16 August, the committee endorsed the “design intent” of the memorials and agreed to a two-stage design competition.

On 18 February 2008, the governor-general, Michael Jeffery, and the veterans’ affairs minister, Alan Griffin, launched the competition. The competition jury reported in April and August 2008 and chose as the winner design CID 1666, by architect Richard Kirk. (The committee looked at the final three designs at a meeting in May.) The memorials were to comprise two twenty-metre granite monoliths on either side of a plaza containing the names of dead soldiers from individual towns, etched extracts from war diaries and other commemorative material.

On 24 November 2008, the committee endorsed the winning design and Prime Minister Rudd announced the winner on 26 February 2009. On 15 March 2010, the committee extended the site reservation to 31 December 2013.

The memorials’ projected cost today is around $25 million. Fundraising is the responsibility of the MDC, apart from $200,000 seed money from the then veterans’ affairs minister, Bruce Billson, in 2007 and a further $50,000 from the Rudd government in 2008. The MDC allows the identity of its donors to remain secret, if the donors so wish.

Apart from fundraising, two steps now remain before the memorials can be built: approval from the environment minister, Tony Burke, under heritage legislation and then works approval by the NCA. The latter is assured, provided there is no heritage issue or some unacceptable impact on the National Capital Plan. The MDC expects to put its case to Mr Burke’s department early in June.

The record shows that the NCA at first cooperated eagerly with the MDC. Only nineteen days elapsed between the MDC–Pegrum meeting and the authority’s supportive decision in July 2005. Surprisingly, there followed a break of twenty months before the matter went to the committee in March 2007. The papers provided do not disclose the reasons for this delay or what work the NCA did on the memorials proposal during this time.

The papers do show the NCA and MDC representatives cooperating closely after the August 2007 committee meeting. This relationship, however, had shaky foundations. First, the previous meeting of the committee in March had been called by the responsible minister, Mr Lloyd, on the recommendation of the NCA, rather than by Mike Taylor, secretary of the Department of Transport and Regional Services, Mr Lloyd’s department, as required by the National Memorials Ordinance. More importantly, while the ordinance says the committee deals with “the location or character” of memorials, the meeting’s decisions were clear on “location” (Rond Terraces) but ambiguous on “character” (roughly translated as design, purpose and rationale).

The NCA had only asked the committee to decide on “location,” which it duly did. Member Mike Taylor then got the other members (Minister Lloyd, Annabelle Pegrum and Chris Evans, opposition leader in the Senate) to agree that the memorials’ “design intent … be brought before the committee for consideration prior to any design competition being conducted.” Prodded by Mr Taylor, the committee agreed that the ordinance was clear that the parliament, through the committee, “be considered the main decision making body in matters regarding National Memorials.”

The committee’s decision implicitly rebuked the NCA. Mike Taylor’s briefing for the meeting also reminded him that his department was “leading a project to review the [National Memorials] Ordinance and correct committee decisions from previous years that may be invalid because they did not comply with the ordinance’s procedures.” (When responsibility for the committee moved to the attorney-general early in 2008, the secretariat function shifted from the NCA to the Attorney-General’s Department. In April 2011, the NCA decided to recommend to the Hawke review of the authority that the secretariat function be returned to the authority.)

Despite the committee’s formal reassertion of its role it effectively left the determination of the memorials’ “character” to middle-level officers in the NCA and the MDC while relegating itself to a rubber-stamp role. The committee had the power to reject the authority’s recommendation about location or ask for further work to be done. It could have made site approval dependent on its consideration of “character.” It did none of these things.

Left to themselves, the NCA officers and the MDC in effect defined “character” as “design intent” plus “commemorative purpose.” They came back to the committee at its August 2007 meeting with a one-page document (mostly drafted by the MDC) explaining what these terms meant. The “commemorative purpose” was, in summary, “to honour the sacrifice of more than 100,000 Australians who died in World War I and World War II.” Under “design intent,” the memorials were to “be of sufficient size and stature to contribute positively to the character and significance of… Walter Burley Griffin’s ‘Land Axis’.” The committee endorsed the one-pager.

The August meeting epitomised what was wrong with the committee in practice. In approximately ten minutes, one minister (Jim Lloyd) and two public servants (Mike Taylor and Annabelle Pegrum, the latter deciding on something that she had overseen as NCA chief executive) settled the “character” of the lakeside memorials. This was a long way from the committee set up in 1927–28 on a bipartisan basis because of the “historic interest” in the nomenclature and memorials of Canberra.

Under the ordinance the committee has nine members: the prime minister as chair; the responsible minister; the leader of the government in the Senate; the leaders of the opposition in the House and the Senate; the secretary of the responsible department; an officer appointed by the responsible minister; and two other members appointed by the governor-general from among ACT residents. (These last two positions have never been filled.) If all members attend, parliamentarians have a majority.

In practice, however, parliamentarians were mostly absent from meetings between 2005 and 2010. Business was left to officials and the minister. In four out of five relevant meetings only a bare quorum (three members) attended. The November 2008 meeting had been postponed twice because of lack of a quorum and only happened when veterans’ affairs secretary, Ian Campbell, took his place as the “officer appointed by the minister,” replacing Ms Pegrum, who had left the NCA.

Parliamentarians were never a majority. Only once, at the March 2007 meeting, did two parliamentarians (Evans and Lloyd) attend. This was also the only “bipartisan” meeting, with one parliamentarian from each side present. No prime minister attended any of the meetings, although Prime Minister Howard sent a “no objection” comment to the March 2007 meeting.

On 15 March 2010, the committee “unanimously” – three members present: home affairs minister, Brendan O’Connor; Ian Campbell; Attorney-General’s Department secretary, Roger Wilkins – agreed that the ordinance should be amended to allow for some decisions to be taken out of session by correspondence. While the amendments have not yet been made it is clear that the committee was going from rubber stamp to post box.

It was not until its November 2008 meeting that the committee finally agreed to “approve the character of the proposed World War I and World War II Memorials to be the character set out in design ‘CID 1666’ and that the location of the Memorials will be the Rond Terraces [emphasis added].” Home affairs minister, Bob Debus, made a determination in the same terms, formally tidying up the loose ends from the March 2007 meeting – loose ends that had not prevented the NCA, the MDC, a governor-general, two prime ministers and two ministers for veterans’ affairs progressing the project in the meantime.

A proper and timely analysis of “character” would have examined the rationale for the memorials. The record suggests this was never done. The MDC’s assertion that there was no memorial to the two world wars was accepted without question. There were occasional asides about the need to “complement” the Australian War Memorial – although there were rather more comments on whether and how far the lakeside memorials would impact on Walter Burley Griffin’s land axis and vista – but no analysis of the MDC’s central claim.

The NCA side-stepped its own Guidelines for Commemorative Works in the National Capital (2002), which includes a “mandatory” criterion that “[a] commemorative proposal must not duplicate the themes or subject matter of an existing commemorative site.” The authority’s brief to minister Lloyd for the committee meeting of March 2007 said that the lakeside memorials proposal “is consistent with the criteria contained within the commemorative guidelines.” It is not clear from this if the authority accepted the MDC’s argument that the new memorials would do something that the Australian War Memorial was not doing or if it just fell back on the argument (which it has used since) that it was not possible to have “mandatory” criteria within “guidelines.”

(The Guidelines say that the mandatory criteria “must be satisfied,” which sounds rather insistent. Another view might be that “guidelines,” not “mandatory,” is the incongruous word.)

Current NCA chief executive, Gary Rake, said at a 23 March 2011 forum at Canberra’s Albert Hall that his search of the authority’s files on the memorials “doesn’t give me a great insight into the analysis of the issues or the decisions that were made… There is nothing in the records to guide me about the rationale.” At another forum on 13 April, Mr Rake repeated that he could not find in the records an analysis of the memorials proposal against the NCA’s Guidelines.

THE lack of an analysis “paper trail” is puzzling. Given the indelible mark that the memorials will leave on the Canberra landscape, it is disturbing that not even a footprint remains to explain the journey from 2005 to 2011.

Proper analysis might have turned up the second reading speech of minister W.S. Kent Hughes in 1952, when the Australian War Memorial’s charter was extended to make it “a memorial not only to the Australian servicemen who gave their lives in the 1914–18 war… but also to those Australian servicemen who were killed in the 1939–45 war and all other Australians who have given their lives on active service [emphasis added].” The Australian War Memorial was to be both a memorial for each world war and for all wars – not a difficult concept to grasp.

Anyone visiting the Memorial cannot but note the overwhelming stress on the two world wars, the thousands of diaries, the eight large galleries, the chiselled names of more than twenty theatres of the first and second world wars, from Gallipoli to Bougainville, the Somme to Borneo, and, most of all, the Roll of Honour listing 102,000 names under the headings “1914–18” and “1939–45.” The message is clear to those who are prepared to see it.

Misconceptions are not confined to the MDC, however. Gary Rake described the Canberra National Memorials Committee at the 23 March forum as comprising “primarily parliamentarians.” Before the parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital on 17 November 2010, he listed the memorials committee’s “full membership” but said nothing about who actually attended its meetings. He also said the committee was “bipartisan,” “heavy hitting” and “a representation of the most senior levels of our elected representatives.” This is true only in the most formal sense; the important point is who actually turns up.

Current NCA chair, Professor Don Aitkin, told the April forum that the committee is a “very heavy committee.” He also said that “the NCA decision to recommend [the memorials] to the National Memorials Committee was done perfectly validly in the rules of the time.” The memorials proposal was still a “valid proposal,” although the authority was “not representing the proponents.”

In similar vein, NCA member, Shelley Penn, said at the forum that the current members of the authority were “not advocates” for the proposed memorials. There was clearly a fine line between the support the authority had given in 2005, the implementation work it had done since, and the advocacy it was not providing in 2011.

This article has been about process. Arguments against the memorials have been canvassed elsewhere. There is one further point to be made: while war memorials commemorate the dead, they also perpetuate the people who build them and whose names also appear on them. This has a downside when it also involves the casual despoiling of our national capital by officials and appointees (and politicians, when they turn up) making unsound and perfunctory decisions to progress the misconceived agenda of a shadowy interest group.

We come back to the building impulse. The poet Shelley nailed it. In his Ozymandias, “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” stand abandoned. On the broken pedestal are the words, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Must we mere citizens despair that these vainglorious and unnecessary memorials are to be erected at the heart of Canberra, driven as much by a desire for conspicuous commemoration as by respect for the dead? •