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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee
Australian War Memorial

Australian War Memorial


CHAIR: Dr Nelson, good evening. It is good to see you. I congratulate you on being the ACT's nominee for Australian of the Year.

Dr Nelson : Thank you very much, Chair, but—just to correct you—I am on the short list of four. The other three are far more worthy than me.

CHAIR: You are only on the short list. I am premature. I noted your comment the other night in which you acknowledged the role of all of your associates should you be successful or even in the fact that you have been short-listed. That is fantastic. I start the questioning by asking whether you can confirm that the Australian War Memorial has commissioned an independent history of the postwar health issues associated with the Vietnam War. Could you briefly explain that independent commissioning?

Dr Nelson : If I were to be very brief I would simply say, 'Yes'—and yes, we have. We have done so from our own resources. We have engaged a historian, Dr Peter Yule from the University of Melbourne. He did a scoping study for us to look at the issues, which included consultation with Vietnam veterans. The reason we are doing this is not to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War at all, but when those men and women returned from Vietnam they came back to a society that carried certain prejudices in relation to the war. There was a royal commission into the use of herbicides in Vietnam and there was some pejorative language that was used in relation to these veterans and their advocates in the context of the impact of herbicides, and we now, more than 30 years later, have more information and understanding of this and we think it is appropriate to have an official history that looks at the medical legacies of the Vietnam War and to do so dispassionately and have it informed by what we now know.

CHAIR: Can you tell us when you would expect this project to commence and when you would expect it to be completed.

Dr Nelson : The project has effectively already commenced. We expect Dr Yule to provide the final completed history to us in 2019. There has been extensive consultation with relevant veterans organisations in relation to it, and I think it is fair to say that there is universal agreement that this is a good thing to do.

CHAIR: How is it being financed and what is the budget for the project?

Dr Nelson : The overall budget for it is $1.6 million. It is being funded from the non-government funding that we have been able to raise. I emphasise that this is not associated with any particular individual corporation or anything of the sort. We have been particularly successful in our partnerships, commercial activities and bequests in the last two or three years.

CHAIR: Before I go to colleagues, could I just ask a couple of questions about visitation numbers—the total numbers of visitors in 2014-15 and how that has compared with the previous year, please.

Dr Nelson : We had 1.24 million visitors to the Australian War Memorial to the end of June 2015, which is a 15 per cent increase on the preceding year, and there has been a 29 per cent increase to the end of the June quarter compared to the June quarter for 2014. These have been quite extraordinary numbers.

CHAIR: I wonder if you can just further break that down for us if it is possible, to the total attendance by students and those attending with them from schools during 2014-15, and whether that also is reflected in that 15 per cent increase.

Dr Nelson : It is included in the 15 per cent increase. Student numbers to the end of June 2015 for the financial year were 140,000 and they were accompanied by 13,400 adults. That represents an 11 per cent increase overall, 12 per cent for students and eight per cent for accompanying adults.

CHAIR: Finally, I do want to acknowledge, as I have before, the Australian War Memorial's contribution to the National Anzac Centre in Albany and the fact that I believe that at the end of September they surpassed what were to be the predicted numbers for the first full year of operation, which would not be until 1 November. I thank you for those.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Could you give the committee an update on the Sir John Monash Centre in Villers-Bretonneux?

Dr Nelson : I would love to, but we are not responsible for it.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You are not anymore?

Dr Nelson : No. In fact we have not been primarily responsible for it. We support it, of course. My assistant director for the national collections is part of the advisory board. We are working with the prime contractors on examining materials, objects, images and so on which would be put into it, perhaps. But we do not have primary carriage for it. The Department of Veterans' Affairs does that.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That is fine. It is underway?

Dr Nelson : I will ask the secretary to respond.

Mr Lewis : We will be moving to the department immediately after the War Memorial, and we will be happy to take questions on the Sir John Monash Centre then.

CHAIR: Dr Nelson, finally, could you summarise any highlights at the Australian War Memorial for the remainder of this financial year that the committee may wish to take note of, please.

Dr Nelson : To the end of the 2015-16 financial year? In terms of highlights, I would think Remembrance Day will be a significant day, and it is now known publicly that His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and his wife will be attending. I would expect a very large attendance from the parliament and the Senate, and the guest speaker will be Dr Jackie Huggins, a respected Indigenous academic who has a strong family history of service in both the First and the Second World Wars. Then we will move to Anzac Day commemorations next year. We will expect to have significant events to commemorate Fromelles and Pozieres at the Australian War Memorial. We are currently working on some sculptures for our Sculpture Garden. We also have ambitions which we are developing to expand both our exhibitions and our exhibition space. We will present an exhibition on the history of Indigenous service in Australia's defence forces over 100 years, which we will open mid next year, amongst other things.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Dr Nelson. It has been very informative.

Senator LAMBIE: I just have one quick question. Dr Nelson, could you just tell me how the Boer War and peacemakers and peacekeepers memorials are going. Where are we up to? I believe the peacemakers and peacekeepers have got a further donation from the current government over the last few weeks.

Dr Nelson : Thank you, Senator Lambie. Again, whilst we are strongly supportive of those memorials, we are not responsible for them. I am a patron of the Boer War Memorial, and in that context I can inform you that I am advised that the Commonwealth government recently made a significant donation to it and it is now only $300,000 short of its fundraising target. We are currently looking after the first horse for them at our storage facilities. I am not in a position to confirm the money given for the peacekeepers memorial.

Senator LAMBIE: Would the defence minister be able to confirm where that peacemakers and peacekeepers memorial is up to?

Senator Payne: No, but I will get some advice for you on that.

Senator LAMBIE: That would be great, because it would just be a shame if we are that close and we are still not starting to build those memorials.

Senator Payne: We might also be able to ask the department when we move into the department's space.

Senator LAMBIE: Thanks.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Nelson.