Commemorators-in-Chief: How Politicians Appropriated Anzac Commemoration

Last week the Commonwealth announced that it would be spending $498 million over nine years to redevelop the Australian War Memorial. The renovation will increase the exhibition space by more than 80 per cent and provide room for military hardware like Chinook helicopters and jet fighters from recent conflicts. Announcing the project, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said of the War Memorial: ‘It is sacred to us all. It transcends politics, it transcends all of us‘.

The War Memorial funding followed an announcement by Scott Morrison at the closing ceremony of the Invictus Games that the government would issue an Australian Veterans’ Card and an Australian Veterans’ Lapel Pin, in an echo of practice in the United States and Canada. The card and lapel pin would, according to the prime minister ‘enable businesses to show their appreciation by offering special discounts and offers for our veterans’. In what proved to be a grave miscalculation of Australian mores, Virgin Australia promptly declared that it would offer priority boarding to veterans, and a public announcement of thanks on board flights. The airline backed away in the face of widespread disdain for the proposal among the veteran community. Former army lieutenant colonel Cate McGregor summed up a common view when she described the gesture as “’faux-American bollocks … Spend more on suicide prevention and health support’”.

The Morrison government’s enthusiasm for veterans comes on the back of Australia’s world-beating expenditure on commemoration of the First World War centenary. Our estimated expenditure of $552 million compares to the United Kingdom’s $109 million, France’s $52 million, Germany’s $6 million, Canada’s $31 million and New Zealand’s $140 million. Approximately $100 million of the Australian expenditure funded the construction of the Sir John Monash Centre at Villers Bretonneux, near Paris: a ‘cutting-edge multimedia centre [that] reveals the Australian Western Front experience through a series of interactive media installations and immersive experiences’.

As Australians consider the merits of the government’s extraordinary largesse towards the Australian War Memorial, it is important to remember that such patronage is not inevitable—that Australian political leaders have not always been such enthusiastic barrackers for Anzac. In the decades after the First World War, Anzac commemoration was managed primarily by the powerful Returned and Services League (RSL). Political leaders attended commemorative services and released statements valorising the bravery and sacrifice of the Anzacs, but they were not front-line commemorators. 

As the RSL declined in influence and Anzac became entangled in the generational conflict and anti-war protests of the 1960s and 1970s, politicians were happy to step even further back from the Anzac limelight. Malcolm Fraser, prime minister between 1975-1983, told me in 2012: ‘In my time as prime minister if I’d gone to Anzac Cove for Anzac Day, people would have said “What on earth is Fraser doing?”‘

It was not until the Hawke government began to notice in the mid-1980s that popular sentiment towards the Anzac legend was shifting that the prime minister jumped on the commemorative bandwagon. The turning point was the ‘emotional outpouring’ of the public in response to the Vietnam veterans’ Welcome Home Parade in Sydney in 1987. Kim Beazley, who was then Defence Minister, told me in 2012:

There was a feeling that [the Vietnam veterans] had been very harshly handled as a result of the controversy surrounding the war and that political dispute had been unfairly imposed on the fighting men and women. Honouring them gave the government a sense of the scale of these sorts of enterprises which, again, contributed to a willingness to go big on the 75th anniversary of the landing.

The beginning of the love affair between politicians and Anzac can be dated to 1990, when Bob Hawke went with a group of old diggers to Gallipoli for the 75thanniversary of the landing. The trip was a major logistical exercise. Fifty two old diggers went, aged between 92 and 104 years old. The ‘pilgrimage’, as it became known, was a popular and political success. Press reports remarked upon the revival of Anzac Day and its superiority over Australia Day as the national day of celebration.

There was one hiccup in the budding romance between politicians and Anzac—the prime ministership of Paul Keating. Keating did not share Hawke’s regard for Gallipoli as the birthplace of Australian nationhood, though Hawke maintains that he never shared those views with him. On his first Anzac Day as prime minister, Keating went to Kokoda, where he made a speech implying that the Second World War was more important for Australia than the First:

The Australians who served here in Papua New Guinea fought and died … died in defence of Australia, and the civilisation and values which had grown up there. That is why it might be said that…the battles in Papua New Guinea were the most important ever fought.

Veterans’ groups were up in arms at what they perceived as an attempt to rank the value of martial sacrifice. The journalist and political historian Paul Kelly called Keating’s speech ‘the most contentious Anzac Day speech ever given by an Australian prime minister’.

John Howard had looked on at Keating’s attempts to diminish Gallipoli with mounting contempt—both his father and grandfather served in the First World War. Upon his election as prime minister in 1996, Howard restored Gallipoli to its place of pre-eminence in the Anzac legend. Howard’s attachment to Gallipoli was in step with his attachment to Australia’s British roots and his monarchism, just as Keating’s disdain was in keeping with his Irish heritage and republicanism. Howard visited Gallipoli twice, in 2000 and 2005, and was highly adept at merging the Anzac legend within his conservative, nationalist policy agenda.

Keating left then prime minister Kevin Rudd in an awkward position in 2008 when he revealed the depth of his disdain for Gallipoli. Keating told an audience in Sydney:

I have never been to Gallipoli and never will … Gallipoli was shocking for us…[yet] we still go on as though the nation was born again, or even, was redeemed there. An utter and complete nonsense.

As prime minister, Kevin Rudd had sought to simultaneously champion Gallipoli and elevate the Pacific battles of the Second World War. Rudd ‘tried to have a bet each way’, Keating told me when I interviewed him in 2013. Rudd could not distance himself from Keating quickly enough in 2008. In response to Keating’s derision of Gallipoli, Rudd told the media: ‘Paul is completely wrong on that, completely and utterly, absolutely 100 per cent wrong’.

Julia Gillard was an Anzac enthusiast when she became prime minister in 2010. She went to Gallipoli in 2012, claiming it was a journey she had wanted to make ‘all my life’, though I suspect it was a journey conceived with an eye to basking in Anzac’s reflected glory. Gillard’s successor, Tony Abbott, was particularly interested in promoting understanding of the Australian victories in France in 1918. The $100 million Sir John Monash Centre, which opened at Villers-Bretonneux in April this year, was an expensive expression of that interest.

Malcolm Turnbull toned down Abbott’s eulogising rhetoric about the Anzacs and emphasised the experience of contemporary service men and women and veterans. Turnbull was perhaps influenced by his son-in-law, James Brown, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has been highly critical of the centenary commemorations, describing them as ‘a discordant, lengthy and exhorbitant festival for the dead’. Brown, now head of the New South Wales RSL, has called for the $498 million for the War Memorial to be matched by funding for veterans’ services: ‘We had 85 veteran suicides last year, we need to get that number down’.

Scott Morrison’s recent announcements indicate a less subtle approach to Anzac commemoration than his predecessor. Morrison appears to display more of a willingness than Turnbull to extract populist pay dirt from the most powerful brand in the nation. The Labor opposition has signalled its support for the $498 million Australian War Memorial project—only a politician as crazy-brave as Paul Keating would dare to cast aspersions on Gallipoli or seek to tinker with the Anzac legend.

An understanding of the history of political involvement in Anzac commemoration affords perspective on the recent commitment of such an extraordinary amount of taxpayer money to the War Memorial. With increasing intensity since Hawke’s 75th anniversary pilgrimage in 1990, the Anzac legend has become a political byword for patriotism. Contemporary veterans are being drawn into the highly politicised and often cynical commemorative net, in a way that conjures the American tendency to valorise its armed services. This is a concerning development.

The response of veterans to the $498 million for the War Memorial and Virgin Australia’s fumbling of the priority boarding issue suggest that their needs are not always front of mind for politicians and commercial interests. The best judges of veterans’ needs are not those who are blinded and conflicted by the popular and commercial allure of Anzac. The best judges are, as ever, the returned men and women themselves. Let’s see how the government responds to James Brown’s call for the $498 million for the Australian War Memorial to be matched by funding for veterans’ services.

 

Carolyn Holbrook is an Alfred Deakin Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the Contemporary Histories Research Group at Deakin University and the Director of Australian Policy and History. She published Anzac: The Unauthorised Biography, a history of how Australians have remembered the Great War, in 2014. She is working on a policy decision-making history of post-World War Two Australia with James Walter and a history of attitudes to the Australian federation since 1901.

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