Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


The Australian wars that Anzac Day neglects

  • 22 April 2013

For more than 30 years the Australian War Memorial in the nation's capital has refused to consider any recognition of the long and often violent conflict between black and white.

The proposal that the memorial might commemorate the 'frontier wars' first came in 1979 from Geoffrey Blainey. It has since been repeated by commentators and scholars including the then-principal historian at the memorial, Dr Peter Stanley, and a former army chief of staff, Lieut-General John Coates. To no avail.

The memorial is not alone in its silence. Sydney's Hyde Park, just a few hundred metres from where it all began, has almost as many monuments, memorial gardens and commemorative fountains as trees, most to do with our loss, sacrifice and valour in war, the struggles of our explorers and pioneers, or the sagacity of our civic leaders.

But on the 97.8 per cent of human affairs conducted in this place before colonisation, on the 2000 generations who made their lives where Hyde Park now stands, on what happened in our obtaining of it, and on what became of the 'dispossessed', not a word or stone is spent.

And in 2006 the Sydney Morning Herald published a 20-page 175th anniversary edition comprising dozens of stories, illustrations and photographs from the paper's countless thousands of pages. It remembered to include just three short pieces about us and the Aborigines. All showed our good selves in a favourable light.

There have been moments of acknowledgment. In 1967, 90 per cent of Australians voted, as they believed, to end racism; in 1992 the High Court declared that Aboriginal people did have a claim on the land; in 2000 the march for reconciliation across the Sydney Harbour Bridge took nearly six hours to pass; and in 2008 a prime minister said that hardest word: sorry.

But compare these spasms of lumpy throats and teary eyes with our annual observation of Anzac Day.

On best estimate around 20,000 people died in a series of violent conflicts between peoples extending across the entire continent and more than half of our history. But we have yet to find a way to remember the loss of those people with anything like the scale and intensity of our other commemorations.

The commemoration gap dwarfs the life-expectancy gap, the educational outcomes gap, even the incarceration gap, but there's no policy on closing it. It is rarely noticed.

The commemoration gap may prove to be even more recalcitrant than the other