After eight years as head of the
Office of Australian War Graves, retired air vice-marshal Gary Beck has
been sacked and, as Jewel Topsfied reports in this morning’s Age, Veterans Affairs minister De-Anne Kelly isn’t above giving him a big whack on his way out the door:

The Minister for Veterans Affairs has launched an
extraordinary attack on the senior public servant behind the
controversial redevelopment of the Hellfire Pass memorial in Thailand.

Kelly said Mr Beck had given her incorrect information about the
controversial roadworks at Anzac Cove, made hurtful and insensitive
comments about New Zealanders and failed to adequately consult former
prisoners of war before ripping up the Hellfire Pass memorial, where
some of the ashes of Weary Dunlop were buried.

It’s not often you’ll see a minister launch such a scathing attack on a
public servant (especially when one of his chief crimes is listed as
insensitivity to Kiwis). But in fairness to Kelly there’s a long list
of c*ck-ups under Beck’s watch and there’s a major one that Kelly
didn’t even mention.

Apparently, in addition to digging up the
Hellfire Pass and the debacle over the roadworks at Anzac Cove, Beck
also presided over significant problems at the Australian war memorial
in London.

The building of the London memorial was announced
by John Howard and Tony Blair in 2000 and a site found on the noisy
roundabout at Hyde Park Corner. The gossip at the time was that the
Westminster Council needed to erect a sound barrier and saw a way of
getting Australian taxpayers to foot the bill.

Sydney architect
Bob Woodward was commissioned by War Graves to build a water-wall which
would do the trick. Submissions were then invited by a short list of
candidates to add a “memorial” component to the wall. In late 2001 a
panel including former NGA director Betty Churcher selected sculptor
Les Kossatz working with architects Rob Watson and Bob Sinclair. The
race was on to finish the $6.5 million construction in time for
Remembrance Day 2003.

Then the whole thing fell apart for
reasons that were never properly explained to the public. The project
“met with Westminster City Council approvals,” Gary Beck told the SMH in October 2002, but there were “contractual difficulties in delineating the responsibilities for various design members.”

The Herald-Sun
estimated the cost of cancelling the project at somewhere between
$300,000 and $500,000. What had happened in fact was a complete
stuff-up by War Graves. Contractual arrangements with the designers had
been completed, even though progress payments were being made and
countless design refinements added at War Graves’, and London’s behest.
When problems emerged with Bob Woodward’s water-wall the project had to be
cancelled because the Attorney-General felt Woodward had a claim to
intellectual property in the whole of the design, the memorial as well as his wall.

The memorial team was dumped and the project started again from scratch.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey