22 January 2016
by David Stephens
Minister defends Abbott's wasteful war museum boondoggle
The proposed Sir John Monash Centre addition at Villers-Bretonneux in France by Cox Architecture.
After copping criticism about the $100 million war museum in France (including from the prime minister's own son-in-law), the Turnbull government is blaming everyone but itself for proceeding with another of Abbott's wasteful Captain's Picks.
ANZAC CENTENARY minister, Stuart Robert, has wielded what is probably his first official silver spade in turning the first sod of the whizzo Monash museum (Interpretive Centre) to be constructed at Villers-Bretonneux in time for a slap-up opening ceremony on Anzac Day 2018.
The centre is to cost $A100 million, including $A88 million of Defence money.
The minister defended the cost of the centre against criticism by Honest History (quoted in the online piece though not in the Canberra Times hard copy of 20 January) and others. He blamed civil engineering issues and high French labour costs. Maybe. Honest History wonders whether some canny official in the mairie in Villers-Bretonneux or Amiens worked some clever legalese into an agreement such that Australia could not get out of the deal, regardless of misgivings which were said to be around in Canberra.
The minister should release the text of any such agreement, as well as the costings of the project, which were shown to the Public Works Committee (PWC) of the Australian Parliament (as it rubber-stamped the boondoggle) but were not made public.
Here’s the really interesting bit, though, and it’s about those costings. On the cost drivers, the minister said:
On the other hand, there is what a senior official from the Minister’s department, Major General Dave Chalmers, told the PWC on 26 June last year. This is our summary:
Specifically on digging into the hill, General Chalmers said this to the PWC:
This is not what the minister said this week. According to General Chalmers, the main reason for the centre being expensive was not the digging but ‘the quality of multimedia interpretive product that we have’. (In Honest History’s analysis of the project we listed around a dozen adjectives – from "immersive" to "state-of-the-art" – used by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to describe the planned contents of the Monash centre; we settled on "whizzo" as a shorthand descriptor.)
It’s not French diggers of holes who are driving the Monash centre costs up but Aussie builders of grandiose monuments. Honest History sticks to its view of August last year:
If the minister has another view, he should make public both the deal struck with the French and the detailed costings of the project.
The awarding of the construction contract was “announced” in a ministerial press release two days before Christmas (while nobody was listening). Honest History’s extensive analysis of this project links from here or search our site under ‘Monash’.
Embarrassingly for the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull’s own son-in-law, James Brown, a former Australian Army Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and author of ‘Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of our National Obsession’ strongly opposed the project, as reported by Ian McPhedran for News Corp:
“We’re spending millions on monuments which catalogue every death in World War I yet until last year no one was tracking the number of returning modern veterans taking their own lives.
“There are direct opportunity costs: $88m from the defence budget spent on a museum in France is $88m not going towards weapons training or personnel costs”.
He said that since his book was published he had been overwhelmed by how many serving defence personnel and veterans shared the view that somehow they’ve been overlooked by the Anzac centenary frenzy.
The Amiens newspaper Courrier Picard has been following events closely, anticipating Minister Robert’s visit and reporting on the sod-turning event (including a little video of arriving guests). Minister Robert was accompanied by his French counterpart, M. Todeschini. Courrier Picard‘s Delphine Richard reported that the centre when completed is expected to welcome ‘tens of thousands of tourists’ and noted that the same Australia which had fought the Germans in 1918 was today making ‘an unprecedented financial effort for Villers-Bretonneux’, 56 million euro, indeed.
Minister Robert said that, as a former Australian soldier, he was...
(Minister Robert served in the Australian Army for 12 years until 2000.) Both ministers talked about the strong relationship between Australia and France.