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Stephens, David: Lest We Forget#6: Brendan Nelson is to be Chair of the War Memorial Council – but who will really run the place?

David Stephens*

‘Lest We Forget#6: Brendan Nelson is to be Chair of the War Memorial Council – but who will really run the place?’ Honest History, 23 April 2022 updated

Update 27 April 2022: 2ST radio (Shoalhaven and Southern Highlands) says Bowral resident Brendan Nelson

has been given the responsibility of overseeing the delivery of the $500 million dollar re-development of the Australian War Memorial. Dr. Nelson said it’s a real privilege and honour. “Also to support the Director Matt Anderson in the further development of the memorial in support of veterans and their families.”

‘Support’ all round, but does the word adequately describe (1) the impending Nelson-Anderson relationship or (2) who the Memorial is for?

Update 27 April 2022: The Riot Act (Canberra) takes up the story with quotes from critics and standard bumpf from the Memorial.

***

So, not only is Dr Brendan Nelson joining the Council of the Australian War Memorial but he is also to be Chair of that body, having been elected by his fellow members of the Council, as the Memorial’s Act (section 11) sets out. What can this possibly mean?

Dr Nelson left the job of Director of the Memorial in December 2019, having been in the position for seven years. Before that he was an Australian Ambassador, Leader of the Opposition, and a Minister in Coalition governments, including Minister for Defence 2006-07.

Dr Nelson’s replacement as Director was Mr Matt Anderson, a former diplomat, former soldier (many years ago and only for eight years), and published author (three children’s books on military history). Dr Nelson encouraged Mr Anderson to apply for the job, and Dr Nelson let it be known around the Memorial that Mr Anderson was his personal preference, although the actual choice was down to the Public Service Commissioner and three Major Generals in the Australian Defence Force Reserve. Asked about Mr Anderson, Dr Nelson said, ‘He’s a man who wears humility more comfortably than any medals he’s been awarded’ [in his public service and military roles].

Matt Anderson (AWM)

So it has proved in Mr Anderson’s two years as Director. He is a pleasant gentleman, somewhat self-effacing, who has tried some Nelsonian rhetoric and anecdotes from time to time but seemingly without great conviction, as if this is not his preferred form of communication. He could perhaps be labelled in this respect, a Half Nelson.[1] On the other hand, his claim that doubling the display space at the Memorial would double the Memorial’s heritage value was as silly as some of Dr Nelson’s more extreme public remarks.

In Senate Estimates, questioned about the Memorial’s building program, Mr Anderson seemed to defer to Executive Director, Development, Wayne Hitches, as the man with a grip on the detail – and the man earning a marginally higher remuneration (Memorial Annual Report 2020-21, page 17). Mr Anderson has certainly been more judicious in his public remarks than Dr Nelson, who had a penchant for careless (sometimes offensive) remarks about his opponents – remarks that were often lacking in evidence, but which played to the Anzackery gallery – and emotive, often teary speeches that epitomised what has been called ‘prosthetic memory’.[2] Perhaps no-one in Australian history has done this stuff better than Dr Nelson; the question is whether it should be done at all.

A while ago, the present author did a forensic analysis of ten of Dr Nelson’s speeches over the years 2007 to 2016. These articles concluded:

Dr Nelson’s delivery certainly suggests he sees his speeches as words for the ages. When he is in Anzac mode, he does not speak; he preaches. He uses and re-uses vignettes of individual soldiers in a manner akin to a revival preacher intoning parables. Even when rattling off details of campaigns and battles …, he looks for the affecting individual story, if sometimes he misquotes the source.

The accuracy of the evidence is not really the point; emotion and impact is. Dr Nelson has taken to heart [the late historian] Ken Inglis’s throwaway line about Anzac being a secular or civic religion. (Communism, Nazism, fascism and Kemalism have been described in the same way.) He has undertaken to assuage what Father Paul Collins, in an Anzac context, once called Australians’ longing for liturgy. He once thought about becoming a Jesuit priest …; he has become a bishop of the cult of Anzac …

When Dr Nelson was leaving the Director’s job his remarks revealed his self-appointed role as custodian of the Anzac myth and as counsellor to young Australians:

In a world that is changing so dramatically, what is most important is that we never lose sight of that in which we believe and the truths by which we live. The Australian War Memorial reveals our character – our soul as a people. In a context of war, it is a place that heals telling stories of love and friendship. Young people will also find in the Memorial’s heart above the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, fifteen values enshrined in the Hall which inform character. Every Australian should reach out to them.

Whether we get the ‘Full Nelson’ [3] this time around will depend rather on how the new Chair uses his position: will he let Mr Anderson (and Mr Hitches) continue to run the show from day to day and week to week, with particular focus on the redevelopment program – in which case Mr Anderson’s reputed humility might be tested only at quarterly Council meetings – or will he, on the other hand, be more of an Executive Chair, taking a high profile, being closely involved in regular decision-making, and doing the spruiking with which Mr Anderson seems less comfortable?

Brendan Nelson (AWM)

The more Full Nelson we get, the more tear-jerking speeches Dr Nelson makes, the more he lobbies Ministers and potential arms manufacturer donors to the Memorial, the more Australians will wonder at the appropriateness of the Australia-Pacific President of Boeing, in 2020 the world’s third largest manufacturer of defence equipment by value of sales [4], also being the face of the Australian War Memorial, which commemorates men and women who die from the use of such equipment.

The more Dr Nelson persists with his day job at Boeing, the more offensive the military-industrial-commemorative complex will appear. [5] Lest We Forget that the Memorial does not deserve reputational damage to accompany the physical destruction that it is undergoing at present.

*David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and has been convener of the Heritage Guardians group, which campaigned unsuccessfully against the $498m War Memorial development.

Endnotes
[1] ‘Half Nelson’: ‘a wrestling hold in which one arm is thrust under the corresponding arm of an opponent and the hand placed on the back of the opponent’s neck’ (Merriam-Webster).

[2] ‘Prosthetic memory’: has been described by historian Jay Winter as a means by which people in and around the commemoration industry make emotional connections with past events and people – events and people that they do not and cannot remember – as a way of filling gaps in their own lives. See also: Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture.

[3] ‘Full Nelson’: a wrestling hold gained from behind an opponent by thrusting the arms under the opponent’s arms and clasping the hands behind the opponent’s head’ (Merriam-Webster).

[4] More detail on Boeing and other arms companies. Boeing products have been used in armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and Libya and the company has applied for export licences to 152 countries. More.

[5] While Dr Nelson was Director of the Memorial he was also a member of the Australian advisory board of French arms company, Thales.