Canberra national war cemetery plan scuttled

Canberra national war cemetery plan scuttled

The latest proposal for a national war cemetery in Canberra looks to have been scuttled by the demise of Tony Abbott's prime ministership, with the RSL confirming no progress has been made on the plan.

In October 2013, Mr Abbott gave a new boost the proposal to create a cemetery for fallen soldiers in the capital, modelled in part on Virginia's landmark Arlington National Cemetery, outside Washington DC.

A model for Canberra: a funeral in Arlington National Cemetery, outside Washington DC.

A model for Canberra: a funeral in Arlington National Cemetery, outside Washington DC.

Mr Abbott flagged the idea of "Australia's Arlington" in a speech to a Legacy conference, along with an Australian funded war museum and interpretative centre on the Western Front, as part of plans to commemorate this year's Anzac centenary with a "lasting legacy".

The Canberra proposal could have seen grave sites for men and women killed in action, Victoria Cross winners, former governors-general and former prime ministers. Mr Abbott proposed significant soldiers could be interred in the new cemetery.


He later announced plans for a new $100-million war museum at the Australian memorial in Villers-Bretonneux, France to be known as the Sir John Monash Centre and telling the story of the Anzacs on the Somme. The centre is due to open in 2018 and received funding in the government's controversial 2014 budget.

The Canberra proposal has been discussed by the RSL, veterans groups and parliamentarians over decades, and would require approval by the National Memorials Committee, which is chaired by the Prime Minister and includes the Opposition Leader and senior bureaucrats.

RSL national president Rear-Admiral Ken Doolan said no significant progress had been made and most members had not agreed with the proposal in recent years.

"As we made clear at the time, the RSL has not sought this and is not seeking it," Admiral Doolan said.

"Our national executive took the decision that we would just monitor developments; we're not pushing for it."

In 2011 members of the league's Victorian branch put forward a similar idea, which was later deferred by the national executive. Mr Abbott's proposal was met with strong opposition from some veterans, because it would require relatives of war dead to travel to Canberra to visit grave sites. The need to reinter some graves also drew criticism.

A site for the proposed cemetery was never specified. Land near the corner of Anzac Avenue and Constitution Avenue had been considered suitable, but is being developed for new housing.

Arlington National Cemetery is home to 400,000 graves and covers more than 250 hectares. Elected officials, including US presidents, who have served in the armed forces can be buried at Arlington, as well as some spouses and children of war dead.

Last year, federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten became the latest politician to call for an Australian war cemetery in Canberra.

Mr Shorten used an Anzac Day opinion piece to propose the Australian War Cemetery as a partner of the Australian War Memorial.

"In the future, I hope Canberra can also have a place where the widows and parents and children and remembering descendants of our service personnel can come in quiet, and stand for a while among the ghosts and tell a brave, lost loved one, there in the shadows, of a graduation, a wedding, a family reunion or a new grandchild," Mr Shorten said.

"I believe such a place would enrich the fabric of our national memory. It would be a place of pilgrimage on our own, Australian soil."

The idea has been debated in Federal Parliament since the 1920s. In the 1980s, a heroes cemetery was proposed for the slopes of Mount Ainslie, but the idea was abandoned.

A 1960s plan for a cemetery in Canberra's west was criticised by the ACT's first federal MP Jim Fraser, who said a national cemetery could be inaccessible for family members.

"I feel no surge of enthusiasm for the establishment of a national cemetery in Canberra," he told Parliament in October 1967.

Tom McIlroy is a political reporter for The Australian Financial Review in the federal press gallery at Parliament House.

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