by Peter Dean,
Dr Peter Dean is a Senior Fellow in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific
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Executive summary

  • In March 2011, the National Commission on the Centenary of Anzac handed over its report to government. The centre piece of its recommendations is a new centre for the study of peace and conflict at ANU.
  • In the lead-up to Ancaz Day 2011, the idea for this new centre received strong criticism by the ‘Editor at Large’ of The Australian Paul Kelly, who argued that this proposal is both ‘ideological… political tokenism’ and a ‘travesty’.
  • Yet, despite Kelly’s views and some inherent problems with the mission of this new centre, it remains an exceptionally important and worthwhile initiative. If set up with the proper funding and governance structures, it has the potential to make a major contribution to the community and remain true to the Commission’s aim to honour the memory of the 1st AIF by turning ‘our thoughts on how we might reduce the risk that future Australians will have to endure what they endured’.

In March 2011, the National Commission on the Centenary of Anzac handed over its report to government. At the centre piece of this report were two initiatives based around education: the first was a proposal for the ‘development of a suite of education-related projects, which are accessible to all Australians’; and the other was for The Anzac Centre for the Study of Peace, Conflict and War (The Anzac Centre), which would focus ‘on the study of the nature of social conflicts, causes of violence and definitions of peace, as well as research into new structures for resolving conflicts’.

The National Commission’s report also detailed ‘program[s] for the refurbishment and enhancement of memorials, cenotaphs, honour rolls… a Hands of Friendship component to be incorporated into the Dawn Service at Gallipoli in 2015’ and the re-enactment of the departure of the 1st AIF from Albany in Western Australia. These all are important initiatives. Nonetheless, as the report states the ‘Commission received its highest number of submissions in relation to the Education theme… more than 350 ideas were submitted… [making it] a key link’. Education initiatives also are the leading element of nine proposals in the report and its prominent position at the head of the recommendations underlines its importance.

There are two major elements to the proposed education program. The first are those aimed at school resources and a publicly accessible national travelling exhibition. The school-based programs have a solid platform on which to build. The emphasis here is on the programs and the Department of Veterans Affairs, Australian War Memorial (AWM) and other bodies have served this area well. It is acknowledged that this element is more about the enhancement of the current curriculum, such as developing ‘new resources and publications’ through to the existing Saluting their Service program and support for the new National History Curriculum.

The other and most significant new ‘big ticket’ proposal is The Anzac Centre. This is a well thought out proposal and a welcome addition to the education field. If funded it will provide balance to the education portfolio, given that nothing previously has been dedicated to the tertiary sector. Anzac has had a major role in education at the primary and secondary levels for a number of years. The focus here has been on the Gallipoli campaigns, the role of war in shaping national identity and the ‘spirit’ of Anzac. Finally, we now we have an attempt at a dedicated initiative in the tertiary sector. This project, however, is not without some controversy.

In broad terms the National Commission’s report has received little media attention apart from Western Australia where the proposed re-enactment of the departure of the 1st AIF in Albany received blanket coverage in News Limited publications. The first real criticism of the report, however, has come from one of the nation’s leading political journalists Paul Kelly, ‘Editor at large’ of The Australian. He has chosen to raise warning flags about the Commission and the centre piece of his concerns is the proposedAnzac Centre. To be fair, his colleague Mark Day noted previously that the Centre was one of the two elements of the report that is controversial but he did not provide any rationale as to why – it was left up to Kelly to lead the charge on the Saturday before Anzac Day.

A bitter disappointment

Kelly generally sees the Commission’s report as a ‘bitter disappointment’ and saves his strongest criticism for The Anzac Centre, which, he argues, is ‘ideological… political tokenism’ and a ‘travesty’. These all are strong words and they lead up to a conclusion that such a Centre will only produce ‘views historically alienated from the Anzac story’. The question remains though: what, exactly, are these ‘views’? As Kelly acknowledges, Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds demonstrated last Anzac Day that the legend is a contested space. Perhaps Kelly means ‘views’ that are alienated from mainstream political ideas of nationalism in this country? One might wonder if his attack on the remit for this Centre is based on the idea that he believes his view represents that of the rational political mainstream against some form of ‘political tokenism’ that, he seems to believe, will result in academics based in the Centre from the left-leaning intelligentsia sitting in their ivory towers pontificating around some esoteric ideas. Certainly Kelly makes this clear through this assessment of Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Yet, Kelly does not need to look too far to see how such a government-supported Centre can work. Sydney University also is home to the United States Studies Centre (USSC) created after the commitment of a $25 million dollar endowment by the Howard Government in 2006. Governed by a Board of Directors and supported by a Council of Advisors, its academic and outreach programs have gone from strength to strength. Like the vision for The Anzac Centre, the USSC provides courses at the undergraduate, postgraduate and research levels, as well as grants and fellowships. What reason is there to think that, with such a successful model already in place, The Anzac Centre would delve into the depths of alienation from the community that it is designed to support and study? Strong governance structures should prevent such a Centre from becoming the bastion or vehicle for any particular ideological viewpoint.

Perhaps the concerns here are that the notion of ‘Anzac’ is more laden with political machinations, on both sides of the political mainstream, than a Centre to study the United States of America. Yet, while Hawke and Keating delved into the politicisation of Anzac, Howard made it an art form. Anzac is not just the domain of federal politicians. Bob Carr in NSW ran his education policy platform at one state election around the pledge to ensure that all NSW school children learnt about Simpson and his Donkey. Kevin Rudd captured the idea of the politicisation of Anzac as part of his image profile before becoming Prime Minister (PM) by walking the Kokoda Trail. It has been rather refreshing, then, that the current PM Julia Gillard does not seem as interested in driving the nation in one direction or the other in regards to Anzac, although the use of it as a political tool has not been lost on her. This was clearly demonstrated by her $3.3 million commitment earlier in the year to a Study Centre at the US Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Despite this move, one of the more positive aspects of this Anzac Day was the fact that Gillard was out of the country on 25 April, but not at Gallipoli. Rather, she chose to attend commemorating services on the Korean peninsular in honour of one of our more overlooked conflicts.


Beyond ideology and politics one must also question what Paul Kelly means by ‘alienation’ – particularly in relation to our history and academia. While berating Lake’s and Reynolds’ interpretation of Anzac in 2010, he rightly argues for the importance of this type of criticism but clearly does not want to see such an approach coming from an Anzac Centre. So, then, who is writing the history of ‘Anzac’ that does not alienate ‘people’? Is he giving the nod to the never-ending list of members of his own profession who turn their hand to military history? Are Peter Fitzsimmons, Paul Ham, Patrick Lindsay, Peter Thompson and Roland Perry (et al.) the custodians of this tradition?

These histories, along with government, the Returned Services League (RSL) and other official apparatuses of the Anzac tradition are the ones that have helped to create the situation in which, as Kelly states, Anzac ‘now carries too many expectations’ amongst the populace. Many of the populist historical tomes on Australian military history, as well as the newfound plethora of television documentaries, provide unending, and uncritical, praise of the Anzacs matched with lopsided and often uninformed critical assessments of their commanders, be they British (the perennial favourites for denigration), the Americans or our own high command. They have helped to create the notion of all Anzacs as some form of ‘super’ soldier (or air force or navy personnel). These books swamp the studies based on critical analysis of our history that provide for a more balanced perspective of our military past. This more balanced approach can be found by looking at the studies of authors such as Peter Stanley or Ashley Ekins and their work on discipline amongst the First World War ‘Diggers’, without writing off their behaviour as nothing more than a bit or larrikinism. Craig Stockings’ excellent work on the battle of Bardia and John Coates’ study of the 9th Division at Lae and Finschhafen provide critical reasoning to Australian success on the battlefield, while works such as that undertaken by Garth Pratten on the Malayan campaign provide some much needed perspective on how our military can and does get it wrong.

Such critical studies lead to a much healthier understanding of our defence history and help to ensure that analysis is not replaced by myth making, particularly in relation to the operations of our defence forces. Yet, at times, these studies can struggle to influence the more populist writing. To provide just one example, Roland Perry’s biography of General Sir John Monash, The Outsider Who Won a War, is not only completely misleading in its title it also ignores an exceptionally large body of serious critical studies of the First World War that have been written over the last thirty years. The result is a book that, as one reviewer noted, ‘trusts almost entirely Monash’s self-interested and/or myopic accounts of his own performance and significance’. It clings to simplistic and outdated historical views of the war and pushes the illogical idea that Monash instructed the incompetent British commanders on how to win the war. Being well written does not make up for these major problems of analysis, nor the fact that Perry fails to engage with major aspects of both primary and secondary evidence on Monash and the war. What is even more disappointing is that the Judges’ Report for this winning title in the 2004 National Literary Award for The Fellowship of Australian Writers noted that Perry’s book was ‘very detailed and painstakingly researched’!

The Perry example does not mean that populist writing does not hold an important place in our history. Like all forms of history it produces both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ products. On the more positive side these histories often provide major contributions to oral history, they often take the dense academic studies and make them more accessible to the public and some of them can be fine examples of the historical craft. More often than not, though, they rely (if they chose to) on studies that are produced by professionals in institutions like that which would populate the proposed Anzac Centre. As Peter Fitzsimmons has noted, he relies heavily on professional historians and that his own studies ‘owe their exacting works a great debt’. In the acknowledgements of his book Kokoda he states: ‘I am not a historian and this is not a history book’. At other times he has described himself as a ‘Storian’ – that is a story teller, not a historian. Yet many more members of the public will read his ‘history’ than they will Dudley McCarthy’s Official History volume, South–West Pacific Area – First Year: Kokoda to Wau or any of the large number of excellence academic studies of these battles and their commanders. What we need is high quality works at both ends of the spectrum, popular and academic. The balance between these two will make our military history and the Anzac Legend both accessible and scholarly.

Money and a mission

Paul Kelly is right to assert that the ‘centre’s mission should be rewritten before considerations’. The reasons that we both believe in this sentiment, however, most likely differ. Kelly does not go on to specify what its focus should be other than his vague notion about it not being ‘historically alienated from the Anzac story’. This alienation takes on an interesting stance – certainly the diggers of the 1st AIF would not feel estranged from the idea of a Centre for the study of peace and conflict, even if many of the contemporary carriers of the more nationalist elements of Anzac may.

The Anzac Centre for the Study of Peace, Conflict and War would help contribute to an essential element of Anzac and our national story, one that is often overlooked in our obsession with the battles that our soldiers fought.The most venerable aspect is that it strives to remain true to the hopes of the First World War Diggers for peace. As the report notes:

The most bitter disappointment for the original Anzacs was that their war was not, in fact, the ‘war to end all wars’. The best way we can honour their memory is to focus our thoughts on how we might reduce the risk that future Australians will have to endure what they endured.

We must praise the Committee that this sentiment drove one of their major initiatives and, unlike the many of the events that it recommends, it will have a lasting impact well beyond the centenary anniversary celebrations. It also will serve the community at large; even more so with the government currently focused on increasing the percentage of the population with a tertiary education, and along with a focus on community outreach, the work of this Centre should seem far from remote to the mainstream populace.

Such a Centre will allow not just an investigation of military history but also of peace keeping and peace enforcement. As the establishment of the Official History of Australian Peacekeeping and Post-Cold War Operations has demonstrated, this is an important element of the operations of the Australian defence force since 1945 and it will continue to be so into the future. One of the only major conferences on this theme, ‘Force for Good 60 Years for Australian Peacekeeping’ organised by the Australian War Memorial and the official history team in 2007, recognised the overdue need for a Centre to investigate, record and study such areas, especially as such topics have a broader remit that goes beyond the military to include the Federal Police, emergency services, aid organisations et cetera as part of a whole-of-government approach to peace keeping and enforcement.

One of the other key elements that the Centre also would be able to address is the issue of gender, conflict and war. Gender issues in the ADF were recently highlighted by the incident at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA). This was followed soon after by the announcement of the expansion of women in combat roles. These events only serve to highlight the need to better integrate the roles that women have played in relation to both our military history and the Anzac legend. One major problem is that women’s roles in the military in conflict in Australia have been under reported and it is a subject not readily understood by the community. As Dr Georgia Lysaght noted recently in the Sydney Morning Herald:

The brutal reality is women already occupy formal and informal positions on the front line – they do today and have done so throughout the ages. While the contribution of women as medics and nurses in war has been largely recognised, their involvement in violent conflict outside that sphere is little understood.

The central idea of this Centre would bridge a gap in the study of war and conflict in Australia and the recommendation of this Centre to sit in ANU is logical given the location to archival material, defence establishments, commonwealth agencies and the AWM are located in Canberra. This Centre also would complement the work of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre that already is housed at ANU. If, however, such a Centre is to exist then it needs to be set up in such a way that it avoids the pitfalls of research competition amongst the tertiary sector. It must not be the ‘property’ of ANU; rather it should serve as its custodian and The Anzac Centre should be a national resource. This can be achieved by its having a focus on collaborative research with academics from institutions around the country (and internationally) and offering a significant number of short term onsite fellowships (2-3 years) for staff to work at the Centre and for its doctoral program to have a focus on supervision teams that include academics from outside ANU and the immediate Centre staff. If properly funded by government it also should put in place a competitive grants program.

Yet, there is one element in the Commission’s Anzac Centre plan that seems illogical. Despite the Centre having ‘War’ (The Anzac Centre for the Study of Peace, Conflict and War) in its title the mission seems to be directed away from the study of our military history by the strange argument that this is well covered by the AWM. Here the Commission failed to realise two fundamental points. First, it should not be beholden to one institution to provide the intellectual input into any important area of study. Second, and most importantly, the AWM is not, fundamentally, a place for the study of military history. The AWM has multiple functions and its roles as the national commemorative area, as an archive and as a museum hold precedence over its focus on the traditional study of military history. This is due to the overall mission of the AWM and the fact that it has struggled in recent times to meet all of its functions while, like the rest of the public service, conforming to budget cuts and efficiency dividends. There was some relief provided in 2011, but the additional funding that it has received this year only goes some way to restoring the Memorial’s financial situation in real terms.

As was reported in the press earlier this year, General Peter Cosgrove, Chairman of the AWM Council, had told the Rudd Government that ‘crippling financial short falls meant that the Memorial was discussing the possibility of closing one day a week or of charging for admission or for parking’. As it stands corporate sponsorship already has made its way to the Memorial – and one can only shudder at the thought that constant underfunding by government in this major public institution could one day force it down the path of reliance on corporate sponsorship. Such a scenario could well mean that we would have to refer to this national institution as the ANZ Bank, BHP or Telstra Australian War Memorial!

It is not a shock to anyone who has dealings with the AWM that budgets have been cut and one of the major results (among many) is that the numbers in the military history section have declined. The 2011 funding boost is specially targeted, with $1.7 million to go to the First World War galleries, although this was well short of the $25 million the memorial says it requires to do the job properly. Director Steve Gower noted in the AWM’s press release the rest of the new funds are a ‘welcome boost to the Memorial’s ongoing education and commemorative activities as well as extensive public programs and exhibitions’. Peter Cosgrove noted that the funds will allow ‘planning, redevelopment projects, commemorative events and exhibition programs, including the refurbishment of the First World War galleries as well as ANZAC and Remembrance Day commemoration’ to go ahead. Nowhere was there evidence that any of the money was ear marked for the study of Australia’s military history in general and the publication of new books based on original research. Instead the Memorial is mainly supporting this endeavour through its annual military history conference, summer internship program, its awards for doctoral level research and the publication of texts linked to the annual conference or exhibitions. The focus remains on providing ‘outstanding galleries and educational programs along with its unique status as the commemorative heart of Australia’.

This has been reflected in the steady decline in the number of staff in the military history section of the Memorial. Over the last decade a number of staff left the section and due to budget cuts often they have not been replaced. The academic journal has, sadly, slipped into abeyance, and it looks like it will not return, all victims of the requirement for the Memorial to make cut backs. The excellent historians in this section do their best to cover as much as possible but a shortage of funding means a shortage of historians to provide the full suite of services. (One also must wonder here if the funding given to the AWM will be forthcoming for other long suffering cultural institutions like the National Gallery, the National Maritime Museum, the National Library and National Archive.)

The other important fact is that the AWM is not an educational institution in the same manner as a university. It does not offer degrees and does not have research students of its own and nor does it have a research grants scheme. The assertions by the National Commission that military history is adequately coved by the AWM are simply not the case (a consequence of not having a professional military historian amongst their ranks or a historical advisory committee). The remit for this new Centre should be true to its name – and although it should not be its dominant focus there should be, alongside ‘peace and conflict studies’, the opportunity for the Centre to devote some of its time and resources to study the history of this country’s involvement in ‘war’. This will help provide for a well-rounded group of national institutions and education bodies involved in this crucial element of our history.

The lack of government funds for our national military history outside of the school sector, however, is not just a problem for the AWM. As Professor David Horner, the current Official Historian of Australian Peacekeeping and Post-Cold War Operations, noted at the launch of the first volume of the history: ‘[Governments] have been slow, and in some cases unwilling to fund basic research … yet they have been willing to devote many millions to memorials around the world’. Credit must be given to the AWM and ANU for finding the money to fund this project, but as Horner notes this was achieved with little direct support from government.

Horner is right to criticise the government for its lack of support for official histories. This lack of commitment is a major failing and for the very same reasons it might mean that the proposed Anzac Centre may not get off the ground. Let’s hope this is not the case, but Paul Kelly’s foray into this debate and his recommendation that to cut this idea would be an easy and surefire way to save funds certainly does not help. It will only serve to marshal focus to those in politics, and in the community, who have a false contention that anything associated with a university smacks of elitism, abstract ideology or irrelevance to mainstream society.

On one level we should hold out for some hope of adequate government funding for The Anzac Centre and the other education programs recommended by the Commission. We have a government, after all, that has been committed to an ‘education revolution’ and a prime minister who moved into the top job from the education ministerial portfolio. But the major problem with the current Labor federal government is that rhetoric in education often seems more important than action and what action there is seems to be more focused on technology and structural changes and initiatives at the primary and secondary level of education. Higher Education, on so many levels, has not been well served by the Rudd and Gillard governments.

Added to this policy reality is the economic imperative. The global financial crisis, floods, fires and other natural disasters and the political ramifications if the Government fails to make a quick return to a surplus means that any new initiative will struggle financially. Let’s hope that, as the Centenary Anniversary of Anzac still is four years away, there is enough time for economic priorities to include the proper funding of this initiative, and that there is enough political will not to short-change the public either on this important educational initiative or the memory of the Diggers who returned from the Great War firmly believing that their great sacrifice had been made, above all else, for peace.

Selected Further Reading and Documentation

Report of the National Commission on the Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary,

Paul Kelly, ‘The next Anzac century’, The Australian, April 23, 2011

Georgia Lysaght, ‘Women are no strangers to front-line fighting’, Sydney Morning Herald, May 5, 2011

Tim Leslie, ‘Gillard pledges extra millions for War Memorial’, ABC online, March 3

Citation: Peter Dean, Education and the Centenary of Anzac. Australian Policy and History. May 2011.


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