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Lest we forget to pay: how Anzac Day became a commercial enterprise

Organisations are flogging memorabilia and governments are spending millions on the Anzac century. Army veteran and Lowy military fellow James Brown asks: why can’t we remember without spending up?

The breathless Irish voice on the end of the phone had been singing for four minutes straight on the majestic scale of the Anzac centenary. “It will be the biggest thing you’ve ever seen,” she said. “It’s going to start with a gorgeous re­-creation of the Gallipoli convoy departure in Albany, Western Australia, on 1 November 1914, to bookend the whole centenary of celebrations. Everybody’s involved,” she gushed from her call centre. “Legacy, the City of Albany, the West Australian Government, the RSL, the Australian Light Horse Association — it’s going to be magnificent. You don’t want to miss out.”

Untroubled by the silence from my end of the phone, she homed in with her sales pitch: “So we’re producing the commemorative publication for the whole centenary, Gallipoli 100, distributed to 84,000 people and with introductory letters from the likes of the Prime Minister. Would you like to book a message of support and show the Defence forces what you do?” She outlined the options: the best spots up front had already been taken by the National Australia Bank and a “gorgeous” advertisement from the Australian Submarine Corporation, but $14,950 would buy me a full page. For a 50% premium she could reserve a special spot right after the Ode of Remembrance.

I hesitated and asked her to email me through a pamphlet, which she did. A thoroughly unsentimental advertising rate card was placed alongside a sweet photo of a World War II veteran being helped along to an Anzac march. “Gallipoli 100 aims both to commemorate the sacrifice of Australians who fought at Gallipoli, and by extension in other wars, and to educate the reader about what actually happened during the Gallipoli campaign,” it read. “Many other scholarly and popular books are likely to appear for the Gallipoli centenary. This unique publication will stand out as the most comprehensive, accessible and attractive of them all.” With the promise of 50 “lavishly photographed” and “thought­-provoking and satisfying articles” written by world experts, it was hard to say no. I told my new friend Nicky I needed time to think about it. She promised to follow up with me in a few days, adding, without the slightest trace of irony: “Lest you forget.”

A century after the war to end all wars, Anzac Day is being bottled, stamped and sold. Nicky is not the only one spruiking the Anzac spirit. The Anzac industry has gone into hyperdrive. The year 2015 will be a bumper one for battlefield tour operators as thousands of Australians wing their way to Gallipoli for what is being marketed as a once-­in-­a-­lifetime opportunity. One company, with a flash of brilliance and a tenuous link, is arranging a surf boat race across the Dardanelles. Another is organising marathon swimmers to make their way from Europe to Asia Minor. Off the shores of Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove, cruise ships will anchor so that thousands might nestle alongside the Anzac legacy. By morn on April 25, pilgrims will embark in small boats as Anzacs once did, to join the throngs on the sand. By night they’ll rock away to Daryl Braithwaite and Kate Ceberano. Bert Newton will narrate the war.

It’s an all­-Australiana jamboree. Just issuing tickets for the Gallipoli event will cost more than half a million dollars, and an events management company in Melbourne is pocketing a cool $27 million for a multi­-year contract to keep everything well organised on the day. What started as a simple ceremony is now an enormous commercial enterprise. Cartoonist Michael Leunig has captured it best: “They’ve put a big thumping hoon outboard motor on the back of a tragedy.”

Anzac Day is also a time to honour and remember. That might best be done with a purchase from Australia Post’s limited-edition “Sands of Gallipoli” range of key rings and medallions, which promises to “keep the spirit alive” while earning millions for its savvy creator. In the view of the historian Ken Inglis, these little vials of sand are “relics from the holy land”. For just five instalments of $39.99 plus $19.99 in postage and handling, the Bradford Exchange offers the chance to “honour a loved one who served our country courageously” by purchasing a “Lest We Forget Remembrance Watch” with “iconic rising sun and slouch hat reproduced in shimmering golden­tone”. The Australian War Memorial, too, is devising an official “Anzac Centenary Merchandising Plan” to capitalise on “the spirit”.

Selling Anzac is not a new phenomenon: one of Australia’s official World War I historians wrote of the scandal when a real estate venture was advertised as “Anzac on Sea”. Had the sacred word not been protected, he wrote, “the name was likely to become vulgarised” and “Anzac companies would soon have sprung up like mushrooms”. For that reason, since the early 1920s the federal government has legislated to protect the word Anzac from commercial misuse. But just as restrictions on Anzac Day sporting events and trading hours have wearied over the years, so too have restrictions on the commercialisation of the spirit.

Instead, Australians are embarking on a discordant, lengthy and exorbitant four-­year festival for the dead.”

Preparation for the four years of the Anzac centenary is, in every sense, monumental. Governments — rarely able to lift their gaze beyond daily, even hourly, media cycles — have meticulously prepared for this anniversary for nearly half a decade. A federal Minister for the Anzac Centenary has been appointed under successive governments. In a small country already home to thousands of war memorials, debt-­struck governments are quarantining funds for more commemoration. The numbers are staggering. Australia will outspend the United Kingdom on the commemoration of the Great War by more than 200%. All told, the centenary will cost Australian state and federal taxpayers nearly $325 million. With an additional $300 million expected in private donations, commemorating the Anzac centenary might cost as much as two­-thirds of a billion dollars.

While there is bipartisan consensus that the actual Defence Force is underfunded by 25%, Australians are racing to outdo one another with bigger, better, grander and more intricate forms of remembrance. In Canberra a $27 million renovation of the Australian War Memorial’s World War I galleries will give the gore of interminable trench warfare new zest. In Albany, Western Australia, a $9 ­million Anzac Interpretive Centre will rise on the shores of the Indian Ocean alongside a further $8 million of Anzac infrastructure providing a peace park, an Avenue of Honour, an improved lookout and a refurbished war memorial. In Europe, years of diplomatic effort with the governments of France and Belgium will underpin a $10 ­million Australian Remembrance Trail to link the Western Front’s most significant Australian battlefields and another interpretive centre. In Sydney, the state government is considering funding a multimillion­-dollar “NSW Commemorative/Educational Centre of Excellence”. In Victoria, $45 million will go towards new World War I “Galleries of Remembrance” at Melbourne’s already magnificent Shrine of Remembrance. The Queensland government has pledged more than $60 million towards the centenary, including a major capital project to upgrade Brisbane’s Anzac Square.

A cacophony of ceremonies will be needed to maintain the spirit for the full four years. The federal government is providing $125,000 to every electorate for community activities focused on World War I. The NSW and Tasmanian state governments will provide similar grants as well as funding the refurbishment of local war memorials. In anticipation, bronzing and stone masonry companies are advertising to veterans groups, helpfully advising them on how to best capitalise. The official start of the centenary will be a $3­ million re­staging of the departure of the first Anzac troop convoys from Albany to Egypt. Current soldiers from the Australian Army and Royal Australian Navy will be ordered to reprise the roles of their doomed forebears setting sail for defeat and bloodshed at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. This festival will be broadcast live nationally.

Government’s role in all this will be hyperactive, leaping over veterans’ groups to become the “choreographer of commemoration and guardian of public memory”. The NSW Anzac Commission has recommended the government “negotiate with media agencies for a palette of stories in daily newspapers, television, web, social networks and mixed media to provide a historical narrative throughout the Centenary period”. The NSW Ambulance Service has offered to sport commemorative banners on the side of all ambulances for the duration of the centenary. The NSW Roads and Maritime Service wants an Anzac logo to be placed on all departmental documentation. Sporting authorities have suggested convening international commemorative test matches. In New South Wales and Victoria, governments are leading the wholesale renaming of roads, avenues, rest areas and bridges in accordance with Anzac themes.

It is entirely fitting and proper to commemorate World War I and Australia’s military campaigns. Yet all of this ingenuity and industry is for an anniversary that is ultimately arbitrary. The only reason the centenary of Anzac is considered a special, once­-in-­a-­lifetime experience is because we have imbued it with that meaning. To be sure, we often mark centuries as significant. But the struggle and sacrifice of our forebears at Gallipoli will not be any greater in 2015 than it is in 2014, or was in 1915. The centenary marks an epoch that we have chosen for ourselves. And we have chosen not to commemorate it with a respectful silence and quiet reflection. At the War Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park, inscribed words decree: “Let silent contemplation be your offering.” Instead, Australians are embarking on a discordant, lengthy and exorbitant four-­year festival for the dead.

*This is an extract from Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of our National Obsession by James Brown, published by Redback and available in bookstores now

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  • 1
    Dez Paul
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, James, for bringing this detail, even if inglorious and vomit inducing.

    I do hope that, in amongst all the nostalgic jingoism and chicanery, people do actually remember what the sacrifice meant and the context it occurred in. And, hopefully, that would be enough to make the original ANZACs proud.

    Keating would be rightly disgusted, and, I suspect, many Kiwis and Turkish also.

  • 2
    wayne robinson
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    I’m going on the 2015 cruise to Gallipoli, the one with Bert Newman as one of the entertainers.

    It’s a good excuse for going on a cruise and visiting places I otherwise wouldn’t have considered. A good excuse for getting away and relaxing.

    The passengers on the ship won’t be going onshore for the Anzac Day service. It will be observed from the ship (and a good thing too - it will be much more comfortable than being squashed into a small area)

  • 3
    MJPC
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Jingoism is never attractive, or inexpensive it would appear.
    I wonder how many of the comemorative items (offered at great cost, not only in $ but also in good taste) are actually made in Australia?

  • 4
    Sean
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been there myself and you wouldn’t get me within a bull’s roar of the place around Anzac Day. Idiocy.

  • 5
    graybul
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Have we moved from reverence to obscenity? Am reminded of Christ clearing the Temple … . .

  • 6
    Phillip Gray
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Thanks James,
    My Great,Great Uncle left the new land farm at Kwolyin in the WA wheatbelt to go timber cutting in the south west. He joined the 10 Light Horse and sailed away without saying goodbye to his parents. He landed on Gallipoli on May 24 and was killed by a sniper in Monash Valley on May 25. He’s buried in Shrapnel Valley. I arranged a small plaque to be placed at the base of a tree in the Honour Avenues along the Kings Park drives. This is a place of quiet reflection, and is certainly how, in my opinion, these slaughtered invaders would want to be remembered. Certainly not as a laser light disco show to sounds of the BeeGees singing “Stayin’ Alive”.
    I remember reading a comment from a Gallipoli Digger as he vainly tried to keep the swarms of stinking, bloated-corpse fed blowflies out of his mouth during a meal break - “Of all the bastards of places in the world, this is the biggest bastard of them all!”
    To breathless Nicky, her cohorts and the rest who have their snouts in the trough - just sit and think about it.

  • 7
    Sean Doyle
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    ANZAC Day has clearly been getting a bit out of hand for several years now, but the preparations and especially the commercialisation for 2015 sound obscene (speaking as someone who doesn’t have any actual links to ANZAC day besides Australian citizenship. I can only imagine how ex soldiers/widows/relatives et al feel).

    Personally I’m feeling a bit of relief that I’ll likely be overseas (and nowhere near Turkey) for these ANZAC days. For too many in society it’s just become a jingoistic party day that provides fallen soldiers and Australian society little benefit. My main hope is that it causes a reaction that helps push out the story of Australian society around the time of WWI to the public so we have a much fuller story of Australia’s past than just the military version we have now.

  • 8
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    OMG How utterly tasteful an exercise it will be! I’m surprised there are no plans to construct giant Ferris wheels painted red white and blue and belching out sound waves of God Save the Queen, erected in every public park throughout the land.

    Blurt Newton-doncha lurve ‘im? will do a stellar performance to stun unsuspecting tourists into mass ennui and torpor. Beer companies will rush to join the massacre probably to sell brightly painted kiddies kups with a little drop of beer in them. Get ‘em young, get ‘em early and drop ‘em when they’re old and reliant on the booze.

    Naturally, betting companies will have special kiddies’ Anzac gambling coupons for the midyear, midweek, mid-anniversary Anzac-lotto draw. And every state and territory will frog-march the hordes of the nations Governor’s-General not forgetting their understudies, all the grovellings and assorted hangers-on to come to a halt while giving the royal salute for ten hours at a time.

    I’ll bet the English queen and her very large family have all been invited to make the many occasions sufficiently ‘royal’ and our lovely ‘Liberal?’ government doubtless has already purchased the latest jetliner-cheap at half a billion dollars- to fly Prince Charles and his wife Camilla out here. She will absolutely lurve it, I’m sure. Special English knighthoods will be revamped and the rural brigade will have to let their animals starve because the money to save them won’t be there.

    I love a poleaxed country,
    A land of sweeping plains
    Where no one questions royalty
    Or ever does complain.

    We have our quaint customs and
    We are ANZACS through and through.
    Yet we only fought for England,
    But we’re Aussies, this is true.

  • 9
    Michael Hess
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the fact that - as the PM puts it - we live in a ‘British nation’ - means that the reality of ANZAC - a botched campaign to protect the interests of the British Empire will not be entirely ignored?

  • 10
    zut alors
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    silent contemplation” doesn’t generate dollars, if it did Gallipoli would be one of the most sedate accessible spots on the planet.

    We regularly hear cases of fragile former soldiers (or their war widows) who are treated less than generously by our government after serving in the Middle East. Meantime mega-dollars are thrown at this circus of self-indulgence. Oh yes, let’s not forget we also make a media show when various prime ministers attend funerals of dead combatants, they’re a handy occasion for generating patriotism - no penny pinching then, it’s the full military service with the PM jetting in for the PR exercise courtesy of the RAAF/taxpayers.

    One positive thought to hang on to: these days youths aren’t so gullible to flock en masse like willing lemmings to enlist for the two major wars in which my father & grandfathers fought. Cannon fodder isn’t so plentiful in Australia in the 21st century.

  • 11
    Liamj
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    Saddest is the shallowness of our society - that anyone would mistake the greed & jingoism of Anzac plc. for real meaning is pathetic.

  • 12
    philro
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    My great Uncle who was only just married and a great great Uncle were both killed in the battle fields of WW1, this should not become a big celebration, it was a horrible tragedy that Australia has never recovered from.

  • 13
    Electric Lardyland
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    Would you like fries with your commemoration pack?

  • 14
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Indeed. I recall Keating saying that he would never visit the place, I think he meant it, it certainly came out in the way of ‘not out of a lack of respect, but out of too much respect.’

    I think he is right. This looks very much like a circus now.

  • 15
    Iskandar
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    I never heard of Gallipoli before I came to Australia, and having heard of it decided to read up on what it was all about and having read came out wondering what on earth are you guys celebrating? An ineptly-executed military misadventure which, if it had any point at all, was based on an agreement between Russia, France and England to carve up the territories of the collapsing Ottoman Empire. But guess what? By your invading their homeland the Turks fought back like demons, and the glorious adventure became nothing but a human abattoir. At least in an abattoir the dead meat is put to good use whereas that from Gallipoli now seems to mainly fertilise the commercial vultures described above. I for one intend to disregard every upcoming celebration of that war, but will sure as hell seeth with rage at the political and military boneheads, then and now, who send young men into those furnaces.

  • 16
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    And the ANZAC commemoration packs will be made in China.

  • 17
    wayne robinson
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Iskandar,

    Most people observe Anzac Day to remind themselves of the futility of war. War isn’t a glorious adventure, and is usually counterproductive.

    It’s the reason why the majority of Australians opposed Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

  • 18
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    When TT proclaimed that OZ is open for business, I thought he meant the present & future but even the past is being fed into the commercial maw.

  • 19
    DiddyWrote
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    One of the most poignant memento’s our family has, is the war diary of my Grand Uncle who fought in France.
    We also have the passports for my Great Grand Parents, that they obtained for the only ever trip abroad they ever made, so they could visit his grave.
    My Great Grandfather fought at Gallipoli although as a Scot he landed at Cape Helles not ANZAC Cove. Against the odds he survived this campaign and the Western Front. He died of the Sleepy Sickness epidemic just five years after the war.
    I will pay my respects to both these men and their sacrifice but it won’t involve handing money to these corporate leeches.

  • 20
    jamie shaw
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    ride on - two dollar flags waving, ride on to celibate a massacre of innocents at the behest of big brother Britain… celebrate, again, the invasion of a sovereign nation, celebrate again, the killing off hundreds of thousands of turks, celebrate again being used like a whore by a big and powerful friend, celebrate again the ignorance of the ra ra brigade of followers… followers of any cause and celebration that engenders a grotesque show of patriotism and buruing ones face in a flag, for lest we forget, patriotism, shouted blind, will always suffice when thought is gone and prime ministers need to buy a few votes amongst the wreckage of declining polls and savage cuts to civilized society. ra ra, ozzie ozzie oi oi oi is all the fodder i need… oh n bring your credit card n get on free king hit on a wog… oh no… make that a chink… oh no… make that an asylum seeker… what ever… cause the punch is the important bit isn’t it… that and the momento of a turkish tooth found in the sand.

  • 21
    Itsarort
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    Back in the early 80’s, as a soldier marching on ANZAC day, the not so receptive crowd used throw stuff and spit on us. And the only place you could hang-out with a crew-cut was in an RSL; being anywhere else would almost certainly result in a fight with some of the locals. Somehow, the current situation is far more disgraceful…

  • 22
    macca
    Posted Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    I made a personal visit to Gallipoli some years ago (I too served in the Australian army for 24 years). The highlight was a visit to the Turkish cemetery. I strongly recommend this to all visitors - it brings home the ‘other side’ to the war, the wasted young lives, those defending their homeland.

  • 23
    Peter Kington
    Posted Friday, 21 February 2014 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    I am born and bred Australian - several generations over with long-dead relatives killed in both wars.

    It embarrasses me that Australia behaves like it owns ANZAC day. At some point in the last few years “we” have taken it upon ourselves to take what was once, appropriately, ANZAC (an acronym which reflected the combined effort with our neighbour, New Zealand) and made it a proper noun in ‘Anzac’. At the very least this single action diminishes the role our friends in New Zealand played in this one campaign.

    How would “we” feel if, across the ditch, they started writing it as ‘aNZac’?

    Poor form by the print media, including Crikey, who persist with this offensive style (QANTAS v Qantas is another example).

  • 24
    Iskandar
    Posted Friday, 21 February 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    @wayne robinson

    Most people observe Anzac Day to remind themselves of the futility of war. War isn’t a glorious adventure, and is usually counterproductive.

    It’s the reason why the majority of Australians opposed Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.”

    Wayne, that is exactly what I said, but what I’ve observed during the 44 years I’ve lived here is that Gallipoli has been mythologised into a glorious adventure; the founding myth of Australia. On war memorials the dead are “Glorious”; Simpson and his donkey, mateship. The few quiet voices saying it was hell are drowned out in the cacophony of jingoism. To disagree with the Gallipoli myth is considered unpatriotic and subversive. I’ve been chided previously with a comment that “I should be ashamed of myself” because the soldiers were “teenagers”, as if their Turkish opponents, and 25 years later the soldiers of Wehrmacht and Waffen SS who rampaged into Russia weren’t also teenagers. All it proves is that wars are started by old men for their own benefit, and fought by children.

    Regarding the opposition to the invasion of Iraq, rest assured I also marched and chanted and waved a placard, but John Howard and Alexander Downer went ahead anyways. They deserve to have been strung from lampposts but instead live in sedate comfort. I sincerely hope the upcoming commercial bloodfest is a complete flop, but I am also a realist.

  • 25
    Brian
    Posted Sunday, 23 February 2014 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Good work James, as an ADF bloke, I cannot sollow the tripe from either side of the pollies when current and ex-service personel recive poor after Operational care. More over,their famlies struggle…however having said that ex-diggers and their true mates (each other) do pull together for famlies…

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