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Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee
Nationhood, national identity and democracy

ANDERSON, Mr Matthew (Matt), Director, Australian War Memorial


CHAIR: Thank you very much for coming down to talk to us today. Information about parliamentary privilege, I trust, has been provided to you, and I'm sure you're familiar with all of the ins and outs of that, so that's all good. You have not made a submission, so we'll proceed to questions in a moment, after I give you a chance to make an opening statement. I remind senators that, as an officer of the Commonwealth, you don't have to give your opinion on matters of policy and should be given every opportunity to refer questions asked to superior officers or to the minister. This resolution of the Senate prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy but does not preclude questions asked about explanations of policies or of factual questions about when and how policies were adopted. Do you wish to make an opening statement?

Mr Anderson : If I may.

CHAIR: Yes, of course.

Mr Anderson : I'd like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunawal people and paying my respects to their elders past and present, and I extend my courtesies and respect to any who are here today, particularly during NAIDOC Week. Thank you, Chair and members, for both the invitation and the honour to appear before you.

The Australian War Memorial combines a shrine, a museum and an archive, and its purpose is to commemorate the sacrifice of Australians who have died in war or in operational service and those who have served our nation in times of conflict. Its mission is to lead remembrance and understanding of Australia's experience of war—or, as Governor-General Lord Gowrie said at the opening of the Australian War Memorial in 1941, to ensure that everyone who visits the Australian War Memorial says never again; never again.

Every nation has a story to tell, and the memorial has the honour of telling the stories and commemorating the Australian experience of war and conflict, and in doing so we seek to define part of our national identity. I think what makes the memorial remarkable and our story compelling is that largely we are telling the story of volunteers. The values and the attributes that they have displayed in service reflect the values and the aspirations of Australian society.

After the First World War, Charles Bean, the founder of the Australian War Memorial, was with John Treloar, a Gallipoli veteran and became the longest serving director of the Australian War Memorial. What they sought to do was answer a very important question that they posed to themselves: what are the essential personal, social and fighting qualities that they saw in the men and women that they had witnessed from Gallipoli all the way through to the end of the First World War? In a sense, they were probing, what's the nation's character?

What they then did was commission an artist, Napier Waller, himself a veteran of the First World War who had lost his right arm at Bullecourt, and who then taught himself to paint with his left arm because he said, 'An artist paints with his head, not his hands.' They commissioned him to basically construct 15 stained glass panels, which are now in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial, that best represent the social, fighting and personal characteristics of what was then the first AIF. What they chose were resource, candour, devotion, curiosity and independence; comradeship, ancestry, patriotism, chivalry and loyalty; and coolness, control, audacity, endurance and decision.

The way the memorial now goes about conducting its business and achieving its purpose is through storytelling, allowing us to become a place of reflection, learning, discovery, research, understanding, forgiveness and reflection. At the Australian War Memorial we honour, we learn and we heal. We belong to all generations of all Australians; those who are born here and those who choose to call Australia home. Australians and foreigners alike come to us to understand our military history, families come to research and discover how their relatives served their country, school students learn about the impact of wars and conflict on Australian society, and veterans come to a safe place for recognition and healing. For all visitors, the memorial is then a place of reflection.

We're respected for being impartial and considered in the way that we tell our stories of military history. We understand that the public want the memorial to be a place of truth-telling. They want to participate in and learn about all facets of Australia's involvement in overseas deployments, not just about the victories but also about the events where we have had to learn hard lessons. Our act compels us to talk about the causes, the conduct and the consequences of war in our galleries. But of course the memorial is not itself the story, but it does however have a fundamental role in telling the continuing story as our custodian of Australia's military history. The Australian military story continues to evolve, and therefore we are necessarily evolving our collection and focusing on more recent conflicts, peacekeeping humanitarian operations and humanitarian peacekeeping in current conflicts, hoping to give a holistic view of our nation's military history. But we're also seeking of course to expand physically in order to tell those stories and in order to remain relevant.

We welcomed 1.3 million visitors to the memorial in 2018-19, more than any other cultural institution in Australia. Of those visitors, 191,000 were schoolchildren. At its heart, the memorial represents how highly Australians value democracy and the willingness to serve, to sacrifice and to preserve our freedoms. We honour those who put service before self. We develop in young learners a deeper understanding of the connection between civic responsibility and military service by exploring the stories of Australians who have served. This underpins all of the memorial's educational resources and programs, both onsite and done online.

Indeed, it's very location, at the base of Mount Ainslie and at the top of Anzac Parade, points a finger at Parliament House. Whatever decisions are taken in this great parliament, part of the tally is kept at the Australian War Memorial. At the opening of the memorial in November 1941, Curtin said:

It is, I believe, extraordinarily appropriate that the place where this tradition is housed should be in sight of the building which is the seat of all our government. The Parliament of a free people deliberates day by day and cannot but be inspired and strengthened in the performance of its great duty by the ever present opportunity to contemplate the story that has gone before them of the deed that helped make the nation, and of the unifying purpose which links the ordered ways of a free people with that matchless courage which inspires its sons to maintain it.

So the memorial ensures that when students visit their learnings align with the Australian curriculum, with civics and with citizenship, and this allows them to explore topics such as the impact of war on Australian society, conscription and the qualities exemplified by the Anzacs while providing consistent messaging across all the states and territories.

But, of course, social cohesion and national identity are not just represented in our visitors but also in our staff and volunteers. Our oldest volunteer is 97, showing that age is no barrier. Our volunteers come from a variety of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, demonstrating that the memorial is a place where everyone can and is welcome. Over the past 10 years our volunteer guides from the memorial have on average conducted more than 4,000 free daily tours, 200 group tours and 90 VIP tours, with 60,000 visitors each year where our guides have shared that passion, their knowledge and sometimes their lived experience. The importance of the Anzac spirit and what it stands for today is also a key element in defining our national identity. Though born from the ill-fated campaign on Gallipoli, the spirit of Anzac is of course not about loss at all; it's about courage, endurance, duty, love of country, mateship, good humour and the survival of a sense of self-worth and decency in the face of dreadful odds.

The men and women who served came from across Australia, and their actions reflected the morals and the aspirations of their communities. But I stress today that it's only part of our story and there are parallels in the attributes demonstrated by our surf lifesavers, members of our rural fire services and, of course, our remarkable and wonderful first responders. That's why these values still speak to and inspire all Australians and non-Australians. Every day at the Australian War Memorial we conduct the Last Post ceremony, where we break down and highlight one of the 102,800 women and men who have given their lives for us. And we quote the words of Bean, which drive everything that we do, 'Here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they loved; and here we guard the record which they themselves made.' We're custodians of their story and we seek to inspire the next generation.

CHAIR: I've been attending memorial for as long as I can remember. It has changed a great deal, hasn't it? That's the point, isn't it, in terms of your observations?

It's not a static descriptor of Australians at war and it's not just for one purpose. It's a research institute, it's a memorial and, as you say, it's also an antiwar institute. How do you describe the change that's occurred?

Mr Anderson : Simply, I think the change has occurred with the society that's evolved along with it. It's just a mirror. It's a reflection of society. I had the honour to wear the uniform in the Army in the last century. I went through Duntroon and graduated in 1988, when the Eternal Flame was lit in the Pool of Reflection by Ninian Stephen, the Governor-General. The entire Anzac Day congregation fit inside the commemorative area of the Australian War Memorial. When you fast-forward to 2014—

CHAIR: That's right.

Mr Anderson : So, with people's understanding, I do think there was a low ebb. I do think there was a period when we didn't reflect on the characteristics of the Australian service men and women. We didn't value the people who put service before self, but I think that's changing. I would argue that now, probably more than ever, in the midst of a global pandemic, the world needs heroes. We need to look to people who set an example for us in arguably the most trying of circumstances. So I think there has to be an increased awareness. Almost counterintuitively, in a period in which the number of women and men serving in the Australian Defence Force as a portion of the population has decreased, our knowledge of or willingness to attend places like the Australian War Memorial has increased. Perhaps it's just that thirst for knowledge. Of the people who visit the Australian War Memorial, only 11 per cent have actually served in the Australian Defence Force. Only 30 per cent of the people who visit the War Memorial know someone who served in the Australian Defence Force. So the vast majority of people who visit the memorial are people who are just interested and want to understand. So our job is to do both: to honour and recognise those who have served and give them a touchpoint at the memorial that provides some meaning but also to provide the context, for those who have no knowledge, about the broader issues of being an Australian.

CHAIR: But it plays an important part in the arguments or discussion about what it is to be Australian, doesn't it?

Mr Anderson : I agree. I think it's an important part of what we are. I'm not one of those who think it's the sole story, but I believe that it is a fundamentally important part of our understanding of those 15 character traits or values that the diggers identified in the First World War. If you've had the honour of walking the Kokoda Track, you know that up at Isurava the four granite pillars that sit there speak of courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice. So, if through these very hard learnings—there is nothing harder than a battlefield—we've identified some underlying social characteristics that are worth championing, the memorial's role is to speak to those.

CHAIR: It's often been in the face of quite incongruous presentations. We talk about the legacy of the First Word War. For instance, in the city of Melbourne, on the side of the cenotaph, of course, it says 'For empire'. That's what the words say. It's not 'For Australia' or 'For national identity'. It's certainly not 'For democracy'.

Senator STOKER: It's reflective of the time.

CHAIR: But that's the point. These are changing institutions, and we often misrepresent what they are. The legacy takes on a new meaning from what it was in its initial inspiration. It's almost as if the men and women who participate have changed that in the writing of the history of it. Bean's history seems to have changed. When I've read it and studied it, I've often thought it was in itself a remarkable work of fantasy to think that the military actually operated in the way it's described. But it has that nature, doesn't it—to appreciate, again, this idea of being in a dynamic, fluid concept of national identity.

Mr Anderson : Yes, I think it does. For me what's interesting is that elements of the Australian War Memorial seek constancy. There are elements—for example, the Roll of Honour. There are 102,800 women and men recorded on the Roll of Honour, and they're all equal under death. There are no postnominals. There's no rank. We just see that as an Australian society we're being very egalitarian in what we seek to do in the highest honour we can bestow upon someone—to have them recorded on the Roll of Honour. William Throsby Bridges was a major general commanding the Australian troops at Gallipoli and was commandant at Duntroon. Above him is a driver. Below him is a private. That speaks to us a nation, both at that time and perhaps as an ideal that's worth retaining—that we are actually fundamentally decent, equal human beings. But then there are other things where we need to evolve and which—

CHAIR: I think that's right. I'm always moved when I go there. I want to raise with you more difficult questions. How do we handle bad behaviour? Not all our history is honourable and we've had difficulties. Part of your work as a museum is to keep the records.

Mr Anderson : That's correct.

CHAIR: It's not like the National Archives. You actually have a different role. The problems that have arisen, for instance, with the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force that have been in the news in the last few days have highlighted what can go wrong. How do you deal with those types of issues in an institution? I don't want to talk about the specific cases because I think it's effectively sub judice, although no charges have actually formally been laid, so I don't want to go to that. I want to go to the question of how, in an institution of such importance, you deal with examples where we as a nation haven't done the right thing? How do you deal with the Breaker Morant issue as an example? How do you deal with circumstances which are less than honourable?

Mr Anderson : I think what we need to do is recognise context is important. Of course, as you rightly say, I've not read the report of the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force. I haven't seen it. I'm aware of what's in the media.

CHAIR: You keep the records, don't you? So it's actually material that you provide.

Mr Anderson : Correct. I don't know if you know, but I had the honour of being our ambassador to Afghanistan in 2015-16. I think the most important thing the Australian War Memorial can do, as they have throughout history, is acknowledge the good and the bad and acknowledge that good people are capable of bad decisions but, ultimately, also provide context. In my service alongside our men and women in Afghanistan in 2015-16—40,000 Australian women and men have served in Afghanistan since 2001—to put it into context, the vast, vast majority of them have done a difficult job extraordinarily well. We need to tell the truth. We need to acknowledge things. I don't know what we don't know yet. I think the War Memorial's role, in order to continue to be a place of trust, is to tell the truth but also to provide the context in which those stories occur.

CHAIR: We're looking at this in the international context. I will just say that I married into a German-Jewish family. I look at the German treatment of dishonourable behaviour. The history of the German people, for instance, has a five-storey modern building now which deals with these issue in quite a sensitive way, but this is only in recent times. How do you think we compare by international standards in dealing with difficult issues? For instance, how well do the Americans deal with this issue? How well do the Europeans, as a rule, deal with these questions by comparison with the way we approach them?

Mr Anderson : I can't speak for the Americans. I haven't actually visited any American war memorials or museums to gain an understanding. I do know, for example, that the American army museum treats issues relating to Vietnam—there are some very, very uncomfortable stories around Vietnam—by seeking to say, 'This is what happened,' and acknowledging it as a point in time. Certainly in the UK, the army museum there, for example, talks about 'the Troubles' and what happened in Northern Ireland. Again, both as statements—

CHAIR: Is this the Imperial War Museum?

Mr Anderson : It's actually the National Army Museum. The Imperial War Museum is separate to the army museum. It tells the story of Northern Ireland and what happened there in the context of the campaign or the struggle. I think that's important: you need to tell the truth and you need to put it in context. How do we compare? I'm pleased to say that, as we embark upon this process of redeveloping the Australian War Memorial, what we will be seeking to do is have new galleries that tell stories of contemporary service in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria, in the gulf and in peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. We will start that process of determining what goes into these galleries—of course, we haven't started. So this is actually the perfect time, in a way, for us to pause and say, 'How are we going to do this?'

CHAIR: I raise the issue not because I want to denigrate what you're doing. To me it poses a really difficult question, if we're to be honest with ourselves and if we want to lecture other people on human rights—which we do; we're very good at telling other people about human rights—we've got to face up to our own history properly as well. Would you agree?

Mr Anderson : Yes, I do, and I think we will. I think in the development we will. We will make sure that we do actually tell of the causes, the conduct and the consequences, the aftermath of those more recent conflicts that we've been involved in—and clearly this is part of the conduct, and how we deal with it will be the aftermath.

CHAIR: Senator Stoker, do you have some questions?

Senator STOKER: I wanted to approach a different subject from Senator Carr. It picks up on some of the things you mentioned in your opening statement. There's been this real resurgence in interest and respect, particularly from younger generations, in honouring Australian service men and women and in coming together to remember on Anzac Day and Remembrance Day. It's something I think is really beautiful about the changes we've seen in Australian culture over the last few decades, in circumstances we spend a lot of the time lamenting changes in culture and saying it's not necessarily good. No doubt that improvement is in large part due to the work that is done at the Australian War Memorial in telling the story of Australian service and in educating schoolchildren about our history and those people who have served our nation. But are there other cultural factors that you observe as playing a part in driving that rise in respect and interest that might be helpful for this committee to hear about as we try and think about ways that we can help to pique more interest in democracy and its value?

Mr Anderson : I think part of it is almost technological. There are 1.2 million people who visited the Australian War Memorial physically, who came up through the front steps and into the galleries and the commemorative area, but more than four million visited online. So it's about making sure that all of the collection, all the stories, are accessible in ways that encourage examination, reflection and understanding. We recently, for example, launched a thing called 3D Treasures, where we had 25 items from our collection scanned in 3D and popped them online to give mostly children, but anyone who is interested, the opportunity—rather than seeing something through a glass screen or at arm's length that you can't touch—to be able to look at this thing, spin it, turn it and analyse it, wonder what it's made of, see the carbon fibre in it, imagine what it must be like to wear it or hold it or shoot it or to hide behind or whatever the object was. So it makes it far more interpretive. My son's 14 years old and I've spent most of my career in the Pacific, and he's never walked into a bank. For him, a bank is an app on a smartphone. So how do you take a museum or something like the Australian War Memorial to people who can't physically visit—during COVID, for example—or to those who choose not to visit, who want to do other things with their time? How do we make it relevant to that generation of Australians and new generations?

That is another point, of course. I've forgotten the figure now, but it must be that about one in three Australians weren't born in Australia. So how do you make it relevant to them? You do it by making sure that it tells a story of a culturally diverse Australian Defence Force. The last post ceremony last weekend was delivered by a young private wearing a hijab. That's how you do it. You make it relevant by speaking to every generation in the farthest corners of this massive country of ours, and I think technology is part of that.

On the chair's comments about uncomfortable truths, I think what we need to do is paint the story of the good and the bad. In fact, in one of our information galleries, there is a rear admiral talking, and he says that our challenge is to ensure that we explain what we have in our museum component in such a way that when eulogising people on the Roll of Honour, we don't want it to become myth or, indeed, religion. We need it to be factual and honest—that these were ordinary men and women who proved capable of extraordinary things. That's the story and that's not just a story. That's the fact when you consider our achievement in the First World War, for example: 10 per cent of the forces, 25 per cent of the guns on the ground gained at the final stretches of the war. They were remarkable women and men. It's about providing a touchpoint for people. As I say, it's that dual carriageway, to give those who have served and understand a sense of meaning and a sense of value in what they did.

I recently had the honour of speaking to the 10th anniversary of the departure of Mentoring Task Force One from Afghanistan. One of the things they were searching for was meaning. When you listen to their testimony in the Anzac story, they want to know whether or not they left Afghanistan in a better place than they found it and they want to know, to put it bluntly, was it worth it? As I said to them, and as I say to you, I had the honour, the privilege and the perspective of arriving in Afghanistan five years after they left. You go to Oruzgan, Kandahar, Herat, Kunduz or the Panjshir Valley, or, most importantly, you go to meet the governor of Oruzgan province and the head of police in Oruzgan province and their first request of the Australian ambassador is for the Australians to come back. My job is to make sure that the women and men who served there know that. Both so that the soldiers will find meaning that it was worth it and so that the community that allowed them to go there understands that it was worth it and that they did good things.

When the Taliban were kicked out in 2001, there were about 900,000 kids at school and three per cent of those were girls. When I left in 2016, there were nine million children at school and three million of those were girls. So when you talk about why we went and what they achieved, my job and part of making sure the War Memorial remains relevant to the contemporary service man and woman is to provide touchpoints to their achievements and successes, their failures where there were failings, but also to place those failings and failures in the broader context of a 19-year war in which Australians have an enviable reputation both as war fighters and for the humanitarian reconstruction of Oruzgan province. I was putting it all together. If the Memorial can do that, it will continue to.

Senator STOKER: Are you finding that the efforts you've just described are playing a role in helping returned service men and women cope with some of the physical and mental difficulties associated with their service?

Mr Anderson : One of the most powerful things you can do at the Australian War Memorial is come down to the post '45 galleries and watch a returned service man or woman who has served in the Middle East area of operations sign the Tarin Kowt Wall, which is a replica concrete blast wall with the 'Tarin Kowt' sign from Kamp Holland. You realise that when they come there it's a powerful moment of homecoming. They will often bring their partners and children along to witness them signing the wall, to witness that sense of belonging, to witness that sense of, 'I was there, and it's a story worth telling' and they have a role in it.

In MTF 1 the other day they were talking about where they were in the battle and when they left. On things like causes, conduct and aftermath, there are negotiations going on right now towards a peace process. Some feel, 'Oh my goodness; we're negotiating with the Taliban.' When I was there, one of the American generals who spoke to me said his campaign strategy was to fight, to fracture and then to talk, acknowledging it was always going to be a political settlement. For me, it's helping veterans understand that continuum and understand that the role that they had in that continuum at that point in time led us to the point that we're now in negotiations, which isn't of itself a bad outcome. The solution was always going to be political, but they played a part in that. So it is about giving them some context. As I say, I was only there for a short period of time in 2015-16, but I was there in a privileged position with the perspective to know what the governor of Oruzgan thought and to know what the President of Afghanistan thought. His thoughts of the Australian women and men who served there were profoundly positive.

CHAIR: I think one of the changing roles has been Australia's involvement in the UN peacekeeping. Whenever I've had the opportunity, I have visited Australian troops, particularly in the Middle East. Do you think peacekeeping has adequate recognition within the Australian community?

Mr Anderson : No, I don't, frankly. I think if you told the average person on the street that we've had an Australian soldier, sailor, air man or woman, or policeman on peacekeeping duties every day since 1947, they would be surprised. But that's the fact. We've sent more than 40,000 peacekeepers on, I think, more than 60 peacekeeping operations to over 30 countries and disputed territories. That goes to our values. That goes to those things that we seek to engage in—these services beyond self, both at the individual level and as a nation. We say, 'We want to uphold the rules based international order and we want to uphold United Nations Security Council resolutions.' I think we should absolutely be telling the story of what we've done and what we continue to do in the South Sudan today, and what we did in Timor Leste, in Bougainville, in the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands or RAMSI, where we went in and then we stayed.

CHAIR: In Jerusalem and Golan Heights.

Mr Anderson : Correct.

CHAIR: There are all sorts of places that people have almost forgotten about.

Mr Anderson : They have forgotten about them. So our job and part of the development is to have a peacekeeping gallery. I was in the post '45 galleries when a young man came up to me with his wife and kids, and was looking for our South Sudan section. I said, 'Mate, you're just home?' He said, 'Yes, I am.' He was an Air Force officer. He wanted to show his kids where he had served. I said, 'Mate, I can't do that now, but we will,' and I promised his children we would. Then we took him to a white Land Rover, which was an old untagged Namibia Land Rover from 17th Construction Squadron. He had a look at that and got to tell his kids why it was white and what 'UN' meant. Then he went around and found a sky-blue beret and spoke to that. He was able to try and explain to his children why he went away, where he went away to and that it was in Australia's national interest as a good international citizen for him to go and do that and that his country asked him to go. We need to tell that story, because it's a reflection on us as a nation. It's a good and profoundly decent thing that we do both as a country and as individuals when people volunteer to deploy in harm's way in places like the Golan Heights or Namibia or the South Sudan or the Western Sahara. It's a profoundly decent thing we do in asking our women and men to go there. The job they do does not get the credit that is deserved. Under the new development, it will.

CHAIR: Very much so. Thank you very much.

Senator STOKER: One of the things about trust—and that's a theme that has cropped up a lot in this inquiry—is that it is built when there is alignment of actions with values, and trust is burnt when those two don't align. Do you think part of the deep respect that Australians have or those who served and for the work of the War Memorial, is that there is that alignment between the values you expressed in your opening statement, like resources, candour, devotion, independence, chivalry, endurance and the like, and an image of what many Australians aspire to be, and that in that sense it becomes an important part of our national identity?

Mr Anderson : I do think trust is terribly important. On those values, I had the honour of speaking to the soon to graduate class from ADFA. I challenged them to pick one of the 15. I said, 'Let's not be greedy; just choose one and make it your true north, make that your compass heading for your career and the women and men that you serve will be richer for that.' But, of course, most people don't spend long in the military. It's like it was for me—it was my finishing school. You go through, you do that and then you move on to other things. But hopefully what I learned as an army officer in my finishing school called the Australian Defence Force is what's carried me through my career in the foreign service and now into the War Memorial. I think if people can look at the memorial, they don't have to—it's not a recruiting tool for the Australian Defence Force, far from it. It's a place that says, 'Never again.' Hopefully, what it does is reveal, peel back a layer and give us a snapshot of a richer image of ourselves as a society, as a country, as an individual.

Again, in a world right now where we need heroes, we're not eulogising. We're just saying, 'We'll give you some examples of ordinary Australians who have proven capable of extraordinary things, and if you're looking for role models, you could do worse than look at them.' That's our role. So perhaps that's why, when you turn the mirror on people and they like what they see, if they like what they see in the Australian War Memorial and if they like the fact that we tell the good with the bad, but we tell truth, and we back it up in a way that's understandable by those who have served and those who will never serve but who want to have an understanding of an element of what it means to be Australian, then I think that's a good thing.

Senator STOKER: To use your language, you could do a lot worse than that as a model for our national identity. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for coming by today.

Mr Anderson : It's a pleasure; it's an honour. Thank you.