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Governor Underwood was always undeterred

By Max Atkinson - posted Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The life of Peter Underwood was recently honoured by a State funeral, with eulogies to a distinguished lawyer, Chief Justice and respected Head of State. While much of this community service will not be widely known, most readers will be aware of his efforts, in successive Anzac Day Speeches, to remind us of the need to honour those who gave their lives by reflecting, not just on their courage and sacrifice, but on the need to minimise the risk of future wars.

We can get a better sense of this concern if we look at the background to a proposal - a major feature of the 2014 speech - for increased understanding of the causes of war and strategies for peace. This should, he believed, be a major theme of the 2015 Centenary celebrations, now estimated to cost 300 million dollars.

The idea of an 'Anzac Studies Centre' arose from a bi-partisan six-member National Commission set up by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard; it included former Prime Ministers Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke, and national RSL President and retired Rear Admiral Ken Doolan. Its report included five pages addressed to three questions: Why do wars happen? How can they be prevented? If they cannot be prevented, how can they be contained? It explained:


'Exploring these questions will do much to help current and future generations of Australians reflect on and understand the events we wish to commemorate, and contribute to their thinking about how such tragedies can be avoided in the future.'

With this in mind, the Commission recommends the establishment of The Anzac Centre for the Study of Peace, Conflict and War … to explore these questions … The most bitter disappointment for the original Anzacs was that their war was not, in fact, the 'war to end all wars'.… The best way we can honour their memory is to focus our thoughts on how we might reduce the risk that future Australians will have to endure what they endured.'

The new government, however, appointed a successor committee chaired by retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, with a larger membership half of whom have defence ties or a defence background. This Centenary Committee has taken a very different view; it agreed a Research Centre would 'provide a highly visible and independent educational and research body … worthy of contributing to the Anzac legacy', but it was, they believed, too costly. They proposed an alternative - a 'merit-based Anzac Centenary Educational Scholarships and Research Grants Program', which might use the resources of the ANU or the Defence Forces Academy. This would, they said, ensure

'a targeted program that makes better use of existing tertiary resources, avoids the overlaps from having separate proposals and is able to be administered in a far more efficient way…. This would be a prestigious program that honours the Anzac heritage, as the National Commission envisaged.'

Perhaps so, but if the aim is to increase understanding of the causes of war and strategies for peace, there is a world of difference between a scheme for annual grants and scholarships - in essence prizes given to commemorate an historic event - and a permanent, dedicated research centre, with its own charter, management and finances. The latter will attract scholars of international standing as well as gifted students; it will organise conferences, seminars, and exchanges with comparable institutions, and build up a specialist library to pursue both collaborative and long-term studies. Over time it will develop an institutional memory and a sense of the issues which most need to be addressed.

An example of what is possible is the Lowy Institute for International Policy, a privately funded, right-of-centre 'think tank', which has become an influential contributor to public debates in little more than ten years. Well-known US institutions which have a high reputation for non-partisan scholarship on controversial matters affecting foreign policy include the Pew Research Centre and the Brookings Institute.


What is clear is that the new Committee, perhaps unwittingly, has ruled out an important and permanent contribution to the study of war - it has, in fact, treated the educational role as a minor part of the Centenary celebrations. It has done so, it says, to save money, but if one reads though the list of projects it is hard to avoid a sense that it does not think this aim is important - instead it has chosen to add a few more prize essays and scholarships to the thousands of studies undertaken by university post graduate programs in law, history, politics and related disciplines.

This reluctance to address the causes of war and strategies for peace is reflected in the studies program, with five distinct 'elements'; these are scholarships to study 'Australian military history and the experience of Australia at war', for an Australian student to study in New Zealand and vice versa, for a 'small number of exchanges' between Australian and Turkish universities, for research into 'the experience and impact' of Australia in the First World War, and for the Australian War Memorial and ANU to convene a conference on the Gallipoli campaign.

While these may be sensible proposals in their own right, there is no sense of a need to clarify the nature or origins of conflict. This is in stark contrast with the excellent programs and documentaries, many from the BBC and similar distinguished bodies - as well as from the 'enemy' side - which try to throw more light on the ideas, assumptions and decisions leading up to the First World War.

The present Committee may well believe that, in a healthy democracy with a free press, issues of war and peace should be left to defence staff and other experts. Whatever the reason, it does not see increased public understanding as a factor which might reduce the risk of unnecessary war.

This is the background to the late Governor's Anzac Day Speech. His strong support for the educational aims of the National Commission will remain a defining part of his legacy. Those who admire his contribution to public life and share his disquiet will understand something of the depth of this concern, and perhaps some frustration over the decision by the present Committee to settle for such a pale imitation of a noble idea.

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This article was first published in The Mercury.

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About the Author

Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.

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