To hear Brendan Nelson tell it, arms manufacturers have a patriotic duty to fund the Australian War Memorial. It’s about “completing the loop”, he says. And it’s certainly not crass.
“You need to know that the man on behalf of BAE Systems with whom I negotiated the sponsorship of our theatre, the BAE Systems Theatre, himself spent over 30 years serving our country in the Royal Australian Air Force and his own father was killed in the service of our country,” the War Memorial director told Radio National.
BAE Systems sells guns, bombs, submarines, jet fighters and components for nuclear weapons. Its customers include Chile, Romania, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Tanzania and Qatar. It maintains Australia’s Jindalee over the horizon radar.
The former defence minister says the British firm employs 4000 Australians. “Of course that company needs to be involved in the Australian War Memorial,” he says. “What makes me angry are the ones who won’t.”
While he doesn’t hold arms manufacturers responsible for “what happens to innocent civilians”, he says they do have an obligation to help tell the stories of wars they weaponised.
“I think these companies have a responsibility to complete the loop and help tell the story of what has been done in our country’s name and the impact that it’s had on the men and women who have done it,” he told Senate estimates.
And they wouldn’t be sponsoring the memorial itself, merely sections of it or its educational activities. In May he announced a three-year deal with the world’s biggest armaments manufacturer, Lockheed Martin. It’ll help fund a bigger Remembrance Day.
He is no slouch when it comes to getting money from the memorial’s owner, the Australian government. This year it will contribute $62 million, money he regards as no more tainted than money from weapons markers.
“If you follow the argument to its logical conclusion, we wouldn’t accept any government money because government is the purchaser of equipment that’s produced by defence technology companies,” he said.
But the government isn’t that prescriptive about how the memorial uses it. Further, it’s directly accountable to voters, not shareholders. The prospectus Nelson offers corporations “offers sponsorship opportunities that are individually tailored to suit the sponsor“.
Among the donors is Chinese businessman Chau Chak Wing. His donation helped subsidise a book displayed in the memorial shop on Chinese Australian servicemen. It has beautiful photos but is written in pidgin English. It seems well meaning, if, as one researcher told me, “cringe making”.
The vigour with which Nelson has fished for private finance is driven partly by plans to acquire an awful lot of jet fighters and helicopters and to house them in a $500 million underground extension known colloquially as “Brendan Bunker”. The business case alone will cost many millions of dollars.
An academic group that monitors the memorial known as Honest History doubts that it’s a good use of money.
“It doesn’t have to build $500 million worth of space just to show kit it insists on getting from the Australian Defence Force,” says secretary David Stephens. “It can get digitised pictures instead.”
Stephens says if it insists on acquiring the big machines, it can hold them at the memorial’s annex in Mitchell, where it can be seen once a year on open days.
The Medical Association for Prevention of War, which began debate on the Australian War Memorial and weapons manufacturers, is about to launch a petition called Commemorate, Not Commercialise. This week Liberal Senator Zed Seselja rejected its concerns. “What we’re talking about is the defence of our nation and that includes using weapons for the defence of our nation,” he said.
Expect other conservative warriors to bat for the plan and its strategy to use weapons manufacturers to help fund it. But there’s growing disquiet among what ought to be his core constituency. On a recent talkback segment one caller, a former naval officer, said he almost expects Brendan Nelson to hand out showbags on Anzac Day.
Toni Hassan is an adjunct research fellow with the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Charles Sturt University in Canberra.
Published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 9 June 2018