Memorial path not peaceful

The Baxter Memorial at the intersection of Albany and George Sts.PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
The Baxter Memorial at the intersection of Albany and George Sts.PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
Those who have stayed the distance on the turbulent journey to install a memorial honouring all New Zealand’s conscientious objectors will be breathing a sigh of relief it will soon be opened in Dunedin.

After some controversial false starts, it was eventually agreed the memorial, organised through the Archibald Baxter Memorial Trust, will be at the intersection of Albany and George Sts. Covid-19 alert levels willing, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson will do the opening honours on October 29.

It has taken around a decade for the project to get this far. Plans for the memorial in Anzac Ave and then the Otago Museum reserve were both scuppered in circumstances which were never fully explained. Then, designer Stuart Griffiths withdrew from the project, concerned the George St site was unsuitable, suggesting organisers had given up the fight for the other better sites too soon.

Whether the busy central city site is ideal for visitors to quietly contemplate peace as an alternative to conflict may still be disputed, but we will soon be able to make our own judgements on that.

Hopes that the memorial might be built to coincide with the centennial commemorations of World War I were not able to be realised. This was unfortunate, considering there is no other national memorial to those who conscientiously objected to the war.

It was not until late 2019 that the trust’s fundraising campaign received a $326,639 grant from the New Zealand Lotteries Board, the boost it needed to ensure the project could proceed.

While the memorial is focused on Otago farmer Archibald Baxter, including a depiction of the hours he spent tied to a stake during the infamous Field Punishment No 1, it also recognises the place in our history of resisters in the Second World War and the non-violent resistance of Maori at Parihaka in the government land-grab of 1881.

There have been some who have questioned whether a memorial could be seen as an insult to those who fought, died or were injured in World War I, even though those same critics recognise the folly of that war. Others have acknowledged there were different types of courage, and all needed to be recognised, and that the pacifist story is part of our history and should not be ignored.

Trustees of the Archibald Baxter Trust Richard Jackson and Kevin Clements, countering the anti-sentiment, described the memorial as a living reminder of the importance of weighing all government decisions in relation to the values and beliefs that promote individual, social and community wellbeing.

‘‘It is an invitation in the face of fear and ruthless power to create non-violent political spaces for individual human beings to realise their common humanity and live according to the better angels of our nature.’’

The trustees also wrote: “The willingness to disobey authority on grounds of conscience is absolutely essential to freedom of speech, association and assembly — the values many soldiers felt they were fighting to uphold. If the space for legitimate protest or dissent is restricted, the conditions will be ripe for arbitrary and autocratic rule.’’

When the Archibald Baxter Peace Garden eventually opens, we hope those who may still have reservations will be open-minded enough to make the time to visit and consider these important and still relevant issues anew.

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