Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Real Travesty Is Government Cost Cutting

There are strong arguments on both sides of the debate over corporate sponsorship at the Australian War Memorial. It was revealed this week that the local Canberra utilities company TransAct had done a deal to sponsor the Last Post ceremony each day at the Memorial just before closing time. For $25 000 a year, TransAct is entitled to have a small logo displayed on the lectern used by the master of ceremonies. They also get a mention on the Memorial’s website along with dozens of other sponsors. It would seem to be a reasonably tasteful form of corporate sponsorship without any tacky or garish paraphernalia. But this is the Last Post, considered a solemn and sacred event, and so the accusation has been made that the Memorial, and more importantly the government, has sold out.

While nothing should be allowed to detract from the importance of the ceremony, opinions are divided on just whether or not such a sponsorship deal does so, or is in keeping with other sponsorship arrangements already in place and long accepted. For example, the eternal flame at the Memorial has been sponsored for over twenty years, and that contribution is noted by a small plaque alongside the flame. Nobody has ever been offended by that. The Memorial actively seeks out support from both individual and corporate donors and sponsors, and has benefited considerably from that assistance over the years.

It should also be considered that sponsorship provides an opportunity for good corporate citizens to make a contribution to something that is worthwhile and important to the community. It is a way for companies to give something back to the Australian community from the profits that they make. None of these companies is obliged to support the memorial, and there are thousands of other public relations and marketing opportunities available to them which in many cases might even offer them better exposure. They could be sponsoring a football team and receive plenty of media coverage, but instead they have elected to allocate some of their marketing money to something which is of great significance to the community.

Wars have been fought to preserve democracy and freedom, and one of the freedoms that we have defended is the freedom to do business in a free market economy. From that point of view, it is perfectly fitting that the businesses which operate in our free market should honour the sacrifices made by the members of our armed forces in preserving that freedom. Is there anything wrong if they also gain a public relations benefit from that? Of course, nobody wants to see any such solemn event turned into a blatant commercial message exploiting the goodwill associated with the War Memorial. That would be a travesty, but for precisely that reason, no corporate sponsor would want that anyway as it would reflect just as badly on them as it would on the curators of the Memorial. But there is nothing wrong with sponsorship arrangements which are tasteful and appropriate.

Of course, if every exhibit and every event at the Australian War Memorial is to be tagged with a sponsorship message, the real risk is that it will start to look very much as if the government is simply failing to provide adequate funds to sustain what is such an important part of our nation’s heritage. With real funding for the Memorial falling as part of the government’s efficiency drive, it would be easy to come to that conclusion, and that is the real travesty.

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