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The debate about the SIEV X Memorial continues to bring to bear the nature of contemporary memorials and political polemics. In October 2007 in The Canberra Times, then Prime Minister John Howard’s Government Territories Minister, Jim Lloyd described the memorial as protest art’ criticizing the way it trivialises existing memorials commemorating those who gave their lives for our country’ (Lloyd 2007). Others responded positively to Lloyd’s condemnation in the letters pages of the newspaper. Dr Tom Ruut, a Canberra citizen, applauded Jim Lloyd’s call for the demolition of the memorial and described it as a haphazard collection of poles that posed a hazard to joggers’ (Ruut 2007). Retired Australian Defence Force Officer Warren Feakes wrote that the memorial offended him because it shoved unwarranted political statements upon him in a public recreational space. A Stanhope-run, bleeding heart capital territory is the only place such a ridiculous erection would be tolerated’, he raged.2 Feakes wanted the supporters of the memorial to swipe their credit cards and pay the rent for the space’ (Feakes 2007). These responses tap into a perception generated by controversial Australian writer and historian Keith Windshuttle, and reproduced in Quadrant Magazine in January 2007, that the story of the sinking of the SIEV X is the kind of atrocity story that has been critical to the success of the propaganda campaign that has infected the writing of history for the past thirty years’.
Figure 2a: The SIEV X Memorial as it currently stands in situ. Image: Brett Milligan.
Windshuttle accuses the tertiary-educated, middle-class Left’ of promoting interest in the fate of SIEV X and of becoming morally unhinged’ by their efforts to undermine the Howard government (Windshuttle 2007: 23). Defenders of the memorial also surfaced in the public debate. Many charged Jim Lloyd with trivializing the value of life and the preventable deaths of 353 asylum-seekers. David Perking, another Defence Force retiree, described how members of his family had served in two world wars. He had wept at only three memorials in his life. The first time was at the Belgium war cemetery where his uncle fell in 1917, then at Dachau and the third time at the SIEV X memorial down by the lake’ (Perking 2007).
The fervour of the public contestation highlights the accomplishments of this memorial. Complex political stakes and meanings are bound up with what a culture remembers and forgets. Content, sources and experiences that are recalled, forgotten or suppressed are always intricately bound up with issues of power and hegemony. The discussion that the work raises is just as pertinent to the memorial as the physical interventions themselves. The discussion and debate is the memorial. The influential life of a memorial project is also far more than any particular moment of its built expression or discussion raised about that arbitrary moment.