In May 2015 the Parliamentary Library highlighted in its Budget Review 2015–16 plans by the Australian Government to build an interpretive centre adjoining the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux in France at a cost of more than $100 million. On 13 August 2015, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works issued its report regarding the proposed ‘Sir John Monash Centre’ (SJMC). Following the release of this report and evidence provided at a public hearing on 26 June, further details are now available.
Throughout the committee process, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) repeatedly emphasised the unique nature of the proposed SJMC. Its May 2015 submission to the committee specifically stated that ‘the SJMC will provide a distinctly different style, content and approach to a conventional objects-based museum, of which there are several on the Western Front’. The DVA submission further noted the interpretive centre—which encompasses approximately 1,600m2 of total floor space—will contain four individual galleries incorporating nine separate narratives, spanning Australia’s entry into the war in 1914 to Australian military service post-1919.
DVA indicated during the committee’s public hearing that such a large and comprehensive interpretive space ‘without peer’ was required for this project, as it ‘needed to be sufficiently compelling in character that they would change patterns of visitation to the battlefield’ and that its ‘very significant point of distinction is going to draw a new audience to this very important site’. In 2014 the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux attracted 47,000 visitors and it is anticipated that the completed SJMC will increase visitation to 110,000 per year. However, this remains far lower than other memorial sites on the Western Front, such as the Canadian memorial at Vimy which DVA has noted attracts some 700,000 visitors a year.
By way of comparison, the Canadian Vimy Foundation and the Canadian Government are partnering to establish a visitor education centre at the Vimy Memorial site, to open in April 2017. The Canadian Government has committed C$5 million to the project while as at April 2015, the Vimy Foundation had raised half of its C$10 million target to fully fund the project, which will include a theatre, education room, museum hall, exhibition spaces, resource centre and a wall of remembrance. As another point of comparison, the National Anzac Centre at Albany, Western Australia was opened in November 2014 at a cost of $10.6 million. Unlike the National Anzac Centre, there are no plans to charge admission to the SJMC.
At the committee hearing in June 2015, DVA explained the large cost of the SJMC in the following way:
In this instance, you get what you pay for. If you are going to build an interpretive space for an amount of $6 million or $10 million, then you do not get the size of the interpretive space that is in this proposal, and you do not get the quality of multimedia interpretive product that we have. So the [other] proposals that you are talking about are simpler and smaller designs. In terms of cost drivers … there is a cost associated of course with excavating [a semi-underground building], but it is not a significant cost.
The full detail of the SJMC’s associated costs were not made public through the committee proceedings, so it remains unclear as to how the estimated $93.2 million cost identified in the committee report is calculated, or why this is over $16 million less than the cost identified in the Department of Defence 2015–16 Budget Snapshot. The fact that the capital costs for the project will be ‘absorbed’ by the Department of Defence also makes it unlikely that the project will be reported as a separate line item in future budget papers. However, the committee has recommended that DVA provide a ‘progress report’ at the halfway point of the project and at its conclusion, as a means of further monitoring the project.