The Australian War Memorial has reversed a contentious decision to remove “known unto God” from the Tomb of the Australian Unknown Soldier after a public and political outcry.
Memorial director Brendan Nelson refused to confirm The Australian newspaper’s report on Tuesday that Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a former Roman Catholic seminarian, had personally intervened to prevent the change.
“Knowing Tony Abbott as I do so very well, I suspect he’d be quite comfortable with where we’ve landed,” Mr. Nelson told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. The Prime Minister’s Office would not immediately comment on that report. Mr. Abbott was flying back to Australia on Tuesday after a surprise visit to Australian troops in Afghanistan on Monday.
But Veterans’ Affairs Minister Michael Ronaldson confirmed that Mr. Abbott had opposed the proposed change.
“I was very, very strongly of the view that this was not the right course of action and he very strongly shared my view,” Mr. Ronaldson told Nine Network television.
The sandstone war memorial opened in 1941 to commemorate Australians killed in World War I and is among Canberra’s most popular tourist attractions.
Mr. Nelson had proposed replacing the phrase “known unto God,” attributed to British writer Rudyard Kipling, with the inscription - “We do not know this Australian’s name, we never will.”
Those words open a eulogy given by then Prime Minister Paul Keating for an unknown soldier killed in WWI, exhumed from a French cemetery and re-interred at the memorial in 1993.
Mr. Keating was a polarising politician who led the centre-left Labour Party. Mr. Abbott leads the conservative Liberal Party and Mr. Nelson is a former Liberal leader.
Mr. Nelson said some complainants “had particular views about Mr. Keating.” Others accused Mr. Nelson of “de-Christianising” the memorial, which he said was always intended to be a secular institution.
“This was never driven by some suggestion that we should remove ‘God’ or political correctness or anything of the sort,” Mr. Nelson said. “The motive was to give permanence to this towering Australian speech by an Australian Prime Minister.”
The memorial’s governing council has settled on a compromise that will include Keating’s 1993 words “He is all of them, and he is one of us” being inscribed in the stone surrounding the soldier’s grave.