The redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial has again attracted criticism in the last few days as the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works has considered this significant development.
Many Canberrans write to me about this project and I share many of the concerns that they raise. As evidenced by the committee hearings, the process and consultation has been far from ideal. There are also questions about how it will change the character of the memorial, and whether it is a respectful commemoration of the sacrifice and horror or war.
A key concern that people raise, both with me and in the submissions to the committee, is whether this is the best use of this significant amount of money. Many ideas have been put forward for alternative uses for the $498 million over 10 years allocated to this project, including for COVID-19 recovery, services for veterans, museums or memorials in other locations across the country, a PTSD research facility, commemorating the Frontier Wars, and the most commonly raised idea - funding our other national institutions which are struggling with successive funding cuts and staffing caps.
As someone who has worked in the public service on budgets over many years, I know that if we call on the Morrison government not to fund the redevelopment, the $498 million allocated to this project will just go back into the pot and be unlikely to go to any of these alternative ideas, and least of all to Canberra. As the federal representative of most of the national institutions, I also don't want to see them pitted one against the other - we need more funding for national institutions, and we must not fall into the trap this government has set of cultural institutions fighting for scraps. These national institutions preserve and tell our Australian stories and deserve significantly more funding and attention from Scott Morrison and his Cabinet.
What is also clear to me in this process is that once again the voices of Canberrans are being dismissed. In the committee hearing AWM chair Kerry Stokes dismissed critical views saying "it was only after the final designs came out that special-interest groups seemed to gather their momentum - and most of those are in Canberra". Submissions in opposition to the redevelopment include those signed by a former chief of the Defence Force, two former AWM directors, a previous secretary of Defence, several military historians, an Anglican bishop, senior public sector leaders, academics, several diplomats, journalists and most importantly, veterans. It surprises me that Mr Stokes views these people as 'special interests' when it comes to the commemoration and history of Australians at war. Rather than being dismissed their views should be considered expert and the AWM leadership should be seeking engagement and true consultation with them. The Australian War Memorial belongs to the nation, but it has a special place in our city and in the heart of Canberrans and we need to be heard in this process.
The other thing I am truly concerned about is the Canberra economy during Australia's first recession in 30 years. There is no denying that half a billion dollars will act as a significant economic driver and job creator. This project has already begun, with the construction of a multi-storey carpark to facilitate the work of the large number of workers required for the build. It is employing people and millions of dollars are already being spent here in the ACT. The AWM is Canberra's most visited tourist attraction and our tourism sector needs all the help it can get as we rebuild after COVID-19 and last summer's bushfires. I am in favour of stimulatory spending by governments during this pandemic, not austerity, as it is the only way we can avoid forcing Australians into poverty.
Clearly, the most important way that we as a nation can honour the sacrifices made by those who have served in war is to ensure that veterans have access to the support and services they need, including to address the high rates of suicide, PTSD and homelessness among those who have served our country. The NSW RSL has called on the government to match funding for this development with spending on veterans' welfare services and clearly there is a need for more to be done in this area.
The ways that we commemorate the sacrifices made by Australians in war, and honestly tell their stories, matters to all Australians. Canberrans care deeply about these issues and our city's place as the nation's capital and listening to our views needs to be an important part of this process.
- Alicia Payne is the Federal Member for Canberra, the electorate where the Australian War Memorial is located.