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Culture Wars Casualty


6 December 2003

One of Australia's top Aboriginal bureaucrats, Dawn Casey took on Howard's men and paid the price, as Christopher Kremmer reports

One of Australia's top Aboriginal bureaucrats, Dawn Casey took on Howard's men and paid the price, as Christopher Kremmer reports

It was a typically confronting day on the board of the National Museum of Australia. The debate had turned to the return of indigenous human remains to Aboriginal communities a process pioneered by museum boss Dawn Casey when a member of the governing council interjected. Human remains, Aboriginal or otherwise, were vital to a good museum, said David Barnett, a conservative member of the council. They must be displayed so people could study the history of human evolution.

Casey, the daughter of a poor Aboriginal family from far north Queensland, said nothing. She did not expect Barnett to sympathise with Aboriginal cultural practices concerning the living or the dead. He was already on record as describing the Stolen Generation as a "victim episode".

"He told me once that it had been necessary to separate the children, because from Port Augusta to Broome, their parents were killing and starving them," Casey recalls with a deep sigh, her extended family having suffered from the forced separation of children from parents.

As she prepares to leave her post, Casey is reflecting on her own long journey, from school drop-out to accomplished public servant, and on what she sees as a growing threat to the integrity of Australia's great cultural institutions.

When Casey looked around the boardroom table, she saw a phalanx of the Prime Minister's men staring back. "If you appoint a chairman who's a current member of the executive of a political party, and a councillor who's the prime minister's biographer, and another councillor who has written speeches for the prime minister, then of course, you will get the

strong perception of political interference," she says.

In interviews with the Herald over the past six weeks, she has spoken frankly for the first time about the museum's debilitating internal struggles over claims that it has misrepresented Australian history. She blames two board members Barnett, who co-wrote a biography of John Howard, and the conservative columnist and former Howard speechwriter, Christopher Pearson for creating a "destructive" atmosphere on the board. "There were articles in the press, extremely critical internal memos . . . I even had a phone call from Christopher demanding that we change a certain display in the museum. It went on and on and on."

Pearson and Barnett are unlikely bedfellows, the former a bumptious Adelaide literary figure, the latter a dour veteran of the Canberra press gallery who runs a farm near the town of Yass. But they share a fascination for politics and proximity to power. They are courtiers in Howard's raj.

Casey is a battler. Her father was a stockman and the family lived on cattle stations in far north Queensland but drifted into Cairns in the 1950s, where they lived in a shack on the outskirts of town. Her mother cleaned houses and her father worked as a garbo.

She left school at 14, was married and pregnant by 16, and worked as a cleaner to put herself through business college. A job with the Department of Education unleashed the achiever in her. She rose rapidly to senior posts in AusAid and the arts bureaucracy, and developed equal opportunity and reconciliation policies, winning three Public Service Medals along the way. She was honoured with the 2003 Centenary medal for service to Aboriginal society, and last month inducted into the prestigious Australian Academy of the Humanities.

But this week, Casey was negotiating a severance package after being told there was no longer a permanent position for her in the public service. She leaves the museum on December 14. At home in the Canberra suburb of Wanniassa she fusses over an eclectic garden and the bookshelves are stocked with Don Burke, Jamie Oliver and other how-to books. In social encounters she speaks the typical Aussie patois lots of gunnas and youses and words often fail her.

But at the boardroom table issues are core, positions are advertised and projects are completed. She co-ordinates, lobbies, builds teams and is "rigorous in terms of savings" and "very consultative".

"There's nothing trumped up about her. She plays by the rules. She doesn't use her race as a crutch," says Kathryn Greiner, a senior member of the NSW Liberal Party and one of the museum's roving ambassadors.

THE National Museum is, literally, the house that Dawn built. In 1997 she joined the $152 million project as construction manager. As director from 1999 onwards, she drove architects, builders and staff harder than her dad ever drove cattle, completing the ultra-modern building on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin on time and on budget. "She did an amazing job," says Tony Staley, a former federal president of the Liberal Party, and chairman of the museum council since 1999.

As a public servant of 27 years standing, the NMA director is not, say those who know her, one to go looking for a fight, unless it's for self-betterment. But reluctantly, she found herself drawn into the so-called history wars. In October 2000, five months before the museum opened, Barnett fired his opening salvo in a memo to Staley. He warned that political correctness infected the labels that explained museum exhibits. "The `labels' . . . are quite alarming," Barnett wrote. "We are heading towards public, parliamentary and media criticism."

Staley, the veteran Victorian Liberal, handled the crisis adroitly, calling on an independent historian, Graeme Davison to review the labels. Some were changed, but Davison rejected claims of systematic bias. "David gives the impression which I am sure he does not really hold that the museum should follow the historical views of the government of the day," Davison reported to Staley. Later he would change his mind.

To assure the board that exhibits would be mounted in line with best practice, he formulated a statement of aims to guide curatorial staff. But the complaints continued. Davison would later write ruefully of the museum's critics that "I have now reluctantly concluded that their concerns are not primarily scholarly at all, but political."

Barnett took the director to task over a display concerning the 1967 national referendum, at which Australians voted to give Aborigines the vote. It showed Labor leader Gough Whitlam campaigning for the "yes" vote. Barnett told the director the referendum had been brought on by a Coalition government. The complaint sparked a wild goose chase for photos of Liberal ministers campaigning for the "yes" vote. Casey says staff couldn't find any because while the Liberals had introduced the referendum, they ran dead on the issue. Despite that, the exhibit was later removed.

Barnett won't comment. He told the Herald he had never commented publicly about the museum's business, and would not break with past practice.

One day in mid-2001, Casey received a telephone call from Pearson. "I have had a senior person contact me about the museum's display of the diary of an Italian internee who was a supporter of Mussolini. You should change it." Pearson has declined to comment, but the Herald has been told he was concerned the exhibit might damage the museum's reputation in the Italian community. Casey, however, was wearying of his advice on a range of issues.

"Some council members . . . thought they were there to reshape the total content of the museum," says Professor Kay Saunders, a University of Queensland historian who advised the museum and attended occasional board meetings. "The first rule of being on a board is that you don't interfere in the day-to-day operations of the organisation. That's why you have a CEO. And if you're too unhappy, you resign."

At times, the issues occupying the board and even the Federal Arts Minister, Rod Kemp seem to have been rather petty. Museum sources have told the Herald that Kemp and Staley were furious over a book launch at the museum, at which historian Stuart Macintyre, co-author of The Oxford Companion to Australian History, criticised the Government.

But Pearson was being critical too. His columns in national newspapers attacked alleged left-wing distortions of history, fuelling the "history wars". While he did not attack the museum directly, his journalism was sometimes sympathetic to those who did, including the conservative historian Keith Windschuttle, who had claimed that accounts of massacres of Aborigines by early settlers have been fabricated.

In August or September 2001, as Casey recalls it, Pearson walked into the boardroom and dropped a draft of a Windschuttle article entitled "How Not to Run a Museum" scheduled for publication in the conservative quarterly Quadrant. Lambasting the NMA, it claimed the museum mocked the white settlement of Australia as a series of disasters. "We're in trouble," Pearson told his fellow councillors. "We should respond to this." Soon Windschuttle was invited to discuss his theories at a forum held at the very museum he had described as a "profound intellectual mistake".

The Windschuttle incident strengthened Casey's concerns about what she saw as conservative dominance over the museum's agenda. Her concern was shared by several board members who spoke to the Herald.

Pearson's power, however, could not be ignored, if only because of his phone calls to and from cabinet ministers and ministerial advisers. When the board was debating whether the museum should charge for admission, one member noted that the then arts minister, Peter McGauran, wanted entry fees to be charged. Pearson contacted the Prime Minister's Office, and the proposal to charge admission never saw the light of day.

On that occasion, Casey was pleased. It could have been a winning combination a board with friends in high places and a museum that was winning public and critical acclaim. Two million people have visited the NMA in less than three years, far beyond expectations, and corporate sponsorship and profits from the museum shop have grown steadily.

Six months out from the end of her contract, Casey was still fully expecting to be given a typical three- to four-year extension. Kemp had given her top marks at her annual performance review in May last year. But the museum's governing council was increasingly divided. As Pearson and Barnett's persistent questioning of exhibits and management continued, board members began to rally around their embattled director.

In August 2002 an article in Melbourne's Herald Sun, headlined "Museum in a Capital Crisis", quoted a board member as highly critical of a "culture of defeatism" in the museum when it came to fundraising. "I just knew then that it was the start of a campaign to say `She shouldn't be reappointed. She's not capable enough, and here is her weak area,' " Casey says. She doesn't know who gave the media the material, but the boardroom leaks were like the Victoria Falls.

By early November last year, although retaining the support of a majority of board members, she suspected her days were numbered. Sensing the same thing, several board members contacted Kemp, urging him to retain the director. He did, but only for a year. The conservatives had won. "I said, `Well, I'm astonished . . . On what basis is it only for one year?' . . . And he said, `Well there's a review that's going to happen . . . and we'd need to look at the outcome of the review.' " Casey turned to her chairman: "I was very cross and upset [but] he [Staley] said, `We've got to wait for the review, and it may be that we might need an academic . . . to be the director of the museum'."

Suddenly, Casey was back to square one. She had pulled herself up from the lowest rung of Australian society to an almost legendary status within the public service. And it still wasn't enough for them. "I said, `Well Tony, it's interesting that you should say that. Do you know my history? My father was one of those children that was taken away. He was a half-caste child. They were never allowed to go to school to learn to read and write. My mother's mother was taken away to Palm Island, and my mother was never allowed to learn to read or write. But they thought it was really important that we went to school. When I went to school and tried to do subjects . . . I was told that I couldn't. I could only do domestic science. Aboriginal kids couldn't do it. Aboriginal kids never went to university or even grade 12.' "

Staley refused to comment to the Herald on why Casey had to go. "She's shown very good leadership indeed, and she goes with our great goodwill," he said. Kemp was equally opaque.

Pearson said: "Dawn did a good job under terrible deadline pressures to get the museum up and running, and my relations with her have almost invariably been cordial. I'm afraid that she hasn't handled her one-year extension of office as well, and that grief, denial and the urgings on of her boosters have led her to get some specific events and some general issues topsy-turvy."

FOR historian Kay Saunders, the saga has important lessons for Australia's public institutions. "You need workshops for council members to be told what your role is and where you draw the line," she says.

In recent changes to the National Museum's board the Howard Government has dumped most of those who supported Casey, while her main opponents had earlier been given second terms. Pearson was not only reappointed but appointed to the board of SBS as well.

Casey is preparing for a new, and hopefully less excoriating, future. Despite it all, the futuristic edifice on Acton Peninsula will be a source of enduring pride to at least one Australian. "When you walk into those galleries, and see thousands of schoolchildren, and . . . elderly people and young people, well, I don't regret it," she says, then laughs with just a hint of relief that her ordeal is almost over. "Imagine what we could have achieved if everyone had been really supportive."

-- The Sydney Morning Herald


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