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Extra cash needed to safeguard RSL's Anzac centenary 'gift'

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UPDATED | The cash-strapped Returned and Services League is fighting a desperate rearguard action to salvage its landmark Virtual War Memorial - its gift to the state to commemorate the centenary of Anzac Day.

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InDaily revealed yesterday that two staff members who curated the site were among seven made redundant by administrators Rodgers Reidy on Tuesday, raising doubts about the future of the website – an online database that provides biographical information, photographs and memorabilia on almost 700,000 former soldiers Australia-wide.

Essentially a Wikipedia site for veterans, it can be compiled by members of the public but has been curated by RSL staff and partly funded by taxpayers through the Education Department.

It’s understood the project’s chairman – prominent businessman Peter Williams – has spent the morning in discussions with administrators in a bid to map out a solution that will keep the resource alive.

Former Marathon Resources chairman Williams told InDaily today: “It’s a bit early for me to be making statements, except to advise that the Virtual War Memorial is a separately incorporated body.”

“We have our own resources, supported by the State Government.”

However, he conceded that “of course” additional funds would be needed to keep the project going.

The state Education Department today confirmed it had kicked in $195,000 in both 2015 and 2016.

“The department has acquitted funding for the Virtual War Memorial for 2015, meaning grant funds were expended in accordance with the funding deed,” it said in a statement.

“We are finalising the acquittal for 2016’s funding. We believe it is in order and anticipate that process will be successfully completed soon.”

A screenshot from the website.

The department said Virtual War Memorial Ltd “has been created to take over operation of the portal from the RSL SA”.

“We are seeking to clarify now how that will operate with a view to providing funding for 2017 and beyond,” it said, adding that $780,000 had been “set aside” for the site’s Education Portal for the four years to 2018.

The portal “aims to help students develop a deeper understanding of Australian history and the impact of war”, the department said.

“The grant funds education officer support, website development and maintenance and general administration costs.”

It’s understood the employment contracts for the memorial’s CEO Sharyn Roberts and a government-funded school program manager were transferred to the separate Virtual War Memorial entity late last year.

The VWM board currently consists of Williams, RSL SA president Tim Hanna and fellow director Steve Larkins, who founded the website project.

The site currently lists former RSL directors Rick Harley and Corey McGowan as board members, but it’s understood they relinquished their positions when they quit the RSL board earlier this year.

Williams said there had been “lots of support coming from the sub-branches and those associated with the RSL” and that the resource – a Flagship Project under the Centenary of Anzac commemorations – had been “wonderfully received”.

“It’s clearly a very valuable memorial, and we’re working towards making sure it continues,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to answer any more questions… I’m still dealing with administrators and so on, and until I’ve got all that settled I think I should make no further comment, if you don’t mind.”

RSL insiders have told InDaily the “aspiration” is to ensure the project “can continue to operate” in some form, separately governed and funded.

“Part of that would continue to come from Government funding, and the rest would need to be sourced from donations and other contributions,” a source said.

It’s understood there have been discussions with the national Australian War Memorial in Canberra, whose director – former federal Liberal leader Brendan Nelson – was a keen supporter of the project, but “at this stage there’s no plans for them to take on any greater role”.

Nelson, who is in the US for the Battle of Coral Sea commemorations, told InDaily in a statement that the Australian War Memorial “strongly supports” the project, which he describes as “an excellent educational tool… bringing to life the online stories and lives of Australian servicemen and women over more than a century”.

But he emphasised the AWM “has not, nor will be, investing any resources in the RSL Virtual Memorial”.

“It is disappointing that the issues affecting the RSL may impact on the virtual memorial, which is a separate entity,” he said.

It’s believed the site would require “at least one [additional] staff member” to keep running.

It has already relied on generous start-up donations from the government and private sector.

Prominent businessman Andrew Fletcher, a former boss of Defence SA, chaired the initial fundraising committee.

He told InDaily the RSL contributed initial start-up funds “and then we got money from both state and federal governments [and] the business community came up with a fair bit”.

It’s understood the private donations were in the order of several hundred thousand dollars.

Fletcher said he was “disappointed” to hear of the project’s travails, as “it’s a bloody great idea and a good way of preserving history that would otherwise be tossed out”.

“I’d be very concerned if the Virtual War Memorial project didn’t continue, because it’s so important to the memory of those who served and, more importantly, [offers] a way for their families to contribute their memorabilia about their loved ones, which was tied to our state’s history,” he said.

“It would be a bitter blow if it can’t continue.”

IT developer Achilles Vafiadis, whose company MindVision Interactive developed and hosts the site, said it would “stay up” in the short-term.

“We developed it in conjunction with the RSL and currently we’re just hosting it – and we’ll continue to host it until this thing gets sorted,” he told InDaily.

“We’ve been paid for most of the work – we just haven’t been paid for the last two or three months, basically.”

He said the project was instigated by the state branch of the RSL and was originally intended to contain information on just SA and NT servicemen and women, “but in the back of all our minds it was felt that once we could prove what the product was doing we could get other states involved”.

“If you have a look at all the sites around Australia and around the world, most of this information is siloed [with information about a particular conflict or regiment]… what makes the VWM unique is it links all of those silos together,” he said.

“My understanding is it has been well received… I’m fairly confident they’ll find a solution [but] I’m not sure what that will be.”

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