‘Awkward humility’: The speeches of the Hon Brendan Nelson AO: Part I: Thrice more with feeling

David Stephens

‘“Awkward humility”: The speeches of the Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson AO: Part I: Thrice more with feeling’, Honest History, 11 October 2016

The received Australian view of war can be encapsulated in phrases like ‘Lest we forget’, ‘the supreme sacrifice’ and ‘they died for our freedom’. These phrases and the rhetoric that surrounds them may cause tears to spring to our eyes or particular feelings to be … felt. This reaction is sometimes described as ‘emotional’ though it is more precisely called ‘sentimental’ or ‘teary’ or even ‘mawkish’. Peter FitzSimons has also claimed (p. 687) Australians have ‘a naturally bowed head’ about Anzac Day, suggesting there is reverence as well as sentimentality.

j01587Christmas Day Church Parade, Lemnos, 1915 (AWM J01587)

Similar feelings come to nominal or lapsed Christians at Christmas – the present author is an absolute sucker for ‘Away in a manger’ – and at equivalent gatherings for those of other faiths, and for everyone at christenings, funerals, graduations and weddings. These are family rites of passage. According to the received view, war and the ‘memory’ of it is intimately associated in Australia with national rites of passage, although there is often a strong connection with family also, as we recall relatives who went to or were affected by war.

Just as anyone speaking at a wedding or funeral only has to be half-competent to get a reaction from his or her audience, an Australian or New Zealand spruiker in an Anzac context traditionally has had a fairly cushy gig: the sentimental ‘hot buttons’ of a good proportion of the audience have been primed and ready. These two articles look at some of the speeches of one Australian spruiker, the Honourable Dr Brendan Nelson AO, currently Director of the Australian War Memorial. Dr Nelson is in some respects a very good spruiker – he is certainly more than half-competent – but any collection of his remarks raises a number of issues and deserves close analysis. Part I looks at what Dr Nelson has said and how he has said it; Part II, coming in a week or so, offers some further analysis.

The sources

This is Part I of two articles. The articles consider ten of Dr Nelson’s speeches:

  1. 25 April 2007, as Defence Minister, Dawn Service, Gallipoli
  2. 12 February 2008, as Opposition Leader, House of Representatives, supporting motion to apologise to the Stolen Generations
  3. 25 April 2013, as Director, Australian War Memorial, National Ceremony, Canberra
  4. 18 September 2013, as Director, AWM, National Press Club, Canberra
  5. 3 November 2014, as Director, AWM, Geoffrey Bolton Lecture, Perth
  6. 22 February 2015, as Director, AWM, Opening of First World War Galleries, AWM, Canberra
  7. 14 June 2015, as Director, AWM, ‘Magna Carta and the Australian Defence Force’, Canberra
  8. 6 August 2015, as Director, AWM, ‘The August Offensive: the last gasp’, National Press Club, Canberra
  9. 25 April 2016, as Director, AWM, Dawn Service, Canberra
  10. 20 July 2016, as Director, AWM, ‘From Fromelles to Pozières – we remember’, National Press Club, Canberra.

These speeches amount to not quite 30 000 words altogether. For convenience we will refer to them by number, ‘Speech 3’, ‘Speech 8’, and so on. We also look at some comments on Dr Nelson’s speeches and on him personally at stages of his varied and distinguished career, a career which led to the award of a well-deserved AO earlier this year. The article is not meant to be comprehensive or the last word; other analysts may well come up with different conclusions, based on different evidence.

The structure of the speeches

When the author of this article used to write speeches for senior officials – and he wrote dozens – the usual plan was to deliver a product with a beginning, a middle and an end. The middle usually included an argument, a case supported by evidence. That is not the sort of speech that Dr Nelson mostly gives: most of the speeches that we looked at lacked that conventional structure.

For example, Speech 3 starts with an invocation, including a line from the National Anthem, followed by some scene-setting devices, then moves on to an anecdote and two epitaphs, continues with some loosely-linked reflections on sacrifice, uniformed service, values, commitment, legacy, and the hope of a better future, and concludes with another anecdote. Speeches 1 and 9, both short, are pretty much of that form also.

hqdefaultJohn Stuart Mill 1806-73 (You Tube)

At the other extreme, long Speeches 5 and 8 include anecdote after anecdote of death and devastation, though the ground the speeches cover is much the same as the shorter commemoration numbers. Some of these speeches include non-sequiturs and odd segues. (They possibly sound better than they read.) In Speech 5, for example, a particularly graphic vignette from Lone Pine (‘one mass of dead bodies … fourteen of our boys – stone-dead … cold, lifeless … glassy eyes, sallow, dusty faces’) is followed by the Memorial’s standard slogan (‘Every nation has its story. This is ours’) and then a brief disquisition on the relevance to Australian history of John Stuart Mill .

On the other hand, there are a couple of longer speeches, Speeches 4 and 7, which make a sustained effort to consider issues of foreign and defence policy. These have relatively less to say about commemoration – sacrifice, service and so on – and manage more by way of argument. Speeches 8 and 10 have slices of campaign history interleaved between little stories about individuals.

The recurring themes in the speeches – and the recurring words


Speeches need not include arguments but, if they are not to degenerate into babble, they at least need themes. There is no doubt that Dr Nelson’s speeches have themes. He regularly (Speeches 3, 5, 8, 9, 10) uses the list of qualities depicted in the Napier Waller Windows above the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier at the War Memorial – Resource; Candour; Devotion; Curiosity; Independence; Comradeship; Ancestry; Patriotism; Chivalry; Loyalty; Coolness; Control; Endurance; Audacity; Decision – and suggests they are a guide for young Australians to a life well-led. He has refined this pitch from speech to speech. In Speech 10 it runs thus: ‘A century after Fromelles and Pozières, to young Australians – your search for belonging, meaning and values for the world you want – ends here’.

Most of the Napier Waller qualities get a run in Dr Nelson’s speeches, though not always explicitly. More explicit are the themes of mateship and love. Some of the words expressing these themes are quite lyrical; others are just maudlin or misleading. You be the judge:

Their spirit is here in these commemorations. Amidst the horror, it is not about war. It is about love and friendship. Love of family, love of country. We honour lives devoted not to themselves – but to us; and their last moments to one another. They gave us greater belief in ourselves and a deeper understanding of what it means to be Australian. Their ultimate legacy is that a life of value is one spent in the service of others, irrespective of the cost. Like them, what we need most is one another. (Speech 10)

paiu2011_065_15-full-windowNapier Waller windows, Australian War Memorial (AWM)

What about the broader canvas? Dr Nelson has long since departed electoral politics but he can still give a good speech on public matters. Look at his tour d’horizon in Speech 4, a thoughtful exposition of European politics, or at Speech 7, where he traverses defence policy. On these occasions his considerable intelligence and perceptiveness has full licence. His speech in Parliament on the apology to the Stolen Generations (Speech 2) was attacked because he argued that settler Australians today should not accept blame or guilt for past events yet, taken as a whole, the speech is just as worthy an effort as Prime Minister Rudd’s. It was probably too analytical and even-handed for the occasion.

Again, in Dr Nelson’s parliamentary valedictory speech in 2009 (not one of the speeches in our sample), the ‘what needs to be done’ list – on economic prosperity, federation, the environment, defence and social cohesion – is as good an outline of slightly right-of-centre priorities as you could have found at that time. Dr Nelson would have been an asset to the Coalition cause had he remained in Parliament. Notably, that speech starts with the three-fold scene setter device that Dr Nelson has used (with different components) in many later speeches: ‘It is with a sense of privilege, deep gratitude and team achievement that I make my final contribution to the parliament of Australia’.

Sets of words

Beneath the themes in Dr Nelson’s speeches there are common sets of words. All public speakers recycle words and paragraphs – the author of this article does it – though the frequency of Dr Nelson’s recycling is unusual, particularly in his speeches with a commemorative theme.

Take the set of words which often introduces Dr Nelson’s speeches or appears a little further down. Here is an example from Speech 8: ‘With a sense of awkward humility, abiding reverence and infused with overwhelming pride, 128,000 Australians paused at the Australian War Memorial in the pre-dawn darkness of Anzac Day this year’. Dr Nelson must like these words because he uses them often. ‘Awkward humility’ appears in six out of ten of our sample speeches (Speeches 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, 10), ‘abiding reverence’ in four (3, 8, 9, 10), and ‘overwhelming pride’ in four (3, 8, 9, 10). The trifecta as in Speech 8 seems to be settled for the moment (see also Speeches 9 and 10) though the numbers at the Dawn Service were adjusted down from 128 000 in Speech 8 to 55 000 in Speech 10 to reflect the dip in attendance from 2015 to 2016.

Other popular Nelsonian locutions include ‘renewed commitment to one another, our nation and the ideals of mankind’, used five times in our set of ten (Speeches 1, 3, 8, 9, 10), ‘the broad brushstrokes of [our] history’ (the ones we should not settle for because they obscure individual stories), six times (Speeches 1, 3, 5, 8, 9, 10) and ‘free and confident heirs’, six times (Speeches 1, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10), mostly heirs ‘to a legacy born of idealism and forged in self-sacrifice’. Twice the self-sacrifice is ‘bloody’ but five times out of six the legacy is ‘passed now to our generation’. (That last clause has a ring of President Kennedy’s Inaugural Speech.) Where we are heirs not to a legacy born of idealism but just to one ‘conceived in a document signed 800 years ago’ – Magna Carta (Speech 7) – the adjusted mix-and-match shows a subtle grasp of history, since it is difficult to accuse the barons at Runnymede of idealism.

_80366804_kingjohnKing John and barons, Runnymede, 1215 (BBC)

Then there is ‘we are young and free’, a familiar line from the National Anthem and one which the Memorial is (September 2016) market testing as its new slogan. This clause appears as the first line of Speech 1, way back in 2007, Speech 3 and Speech 9, and the fourth line of Speech 10. And, just in case you missed the connection, it is preceded by ‘Australians All, let us rejoice’. It is a way of reinforcing the inextricability of the spirit of the nation and the role of the Memorial.

Dr Nelson often refers also to ‘the truths by which we live’ (Speeches 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). You would expect such truths to be consistent: they are certainly worth fighting to defend (most of the speeches in the previous list). Eternal truths might well justify repetitive rhetoric. Or it might just be laziness or the lack of a speech writer able to churn out new material.

Where did you get it?

Where do these repeated themes come from? Let’s look at Dr Nelson’s favourite openers. ‘Awkward humility’ seems to be lifted from a possibly apocryphal story about Winston Churchill. (Another favourite punctuation of Dr Nelson’s – ‘it is my firm belief’ – sounds rather like Churchill’s compadre, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or Dr Nelson’s nautical namesake, Horatio.)

Moving on, ‘abiding reverence’ is a standard of evangelists of differing stripe from Joseph Barker in 1847 to Pastor Jack Hyles in living memory. The founder of the Jesuit order, St Ignatius Loyola, was also strong on reverence, particularly the abiding form. (Dr Nelson was educated by the Jesuits and thought briefly about becoming one himself.)

The Memorial in recent times has had a penchant for possibly plagiarised, certainly snappy slogans. Its current slogan – ‘Every nation has its story. This is our story’ (sometimes just ‘This is ours’) – looks remarkably like the slogan on mass-produced plaques which can be bought online to stick on your lounge wall – ‘Every family has a story. Welcome to ours.’

Then, the possible new slogan, ‘we are young and free’, pinched from the National Anthem and already featured in Dr Nelson’s speeches, emphasises how the Memorial would like us to closely identify its work with what it sees as Australia’s zeitgeist. That is a German word, probably used by Kaiser Wilhelm II. It means ‘the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time’. The message here seems to be: love your country, love your War Memorial. End of story.

‘Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free. Our anthem is a national epitaph to those whose sacrifice in peace and war, gave us that freedom.’ That was how Dr Nelson began Speech 1, way back in 2007. Maybe the anthem can be that sometimes, in some circumstances, on some days, but surely it is more than that?

il_570xn-701603819_r2nxVinyl Wall Decal Sticker, £8.11 plus shipping (Etsy.com)

‘Overwhelming pride’? One of the Memorial’s marketing slogans is ‘Their spirit. Our pride’. Sometimes it is ‘Their story. Our pride.’ These four-word bursts hint heavily to Memorial visitors how they should feel; museum curators these days go for ‘emotional connection’. There is an implication in this slogan, however, that other emotions than pride don’t qualify. There are actually lots of emotions: Aristotle identified fourteen. The author’s father, who had a bad World War II, visited the Memorial twice in 40 years, the second time only briefly. Leaving, he said quietly under his breath, ‘This is an awful place’.

The words in the speeches

Drilling deeper than common themes and groups of words it is possible to find in Dr Nelson’s speeches certain favourite individual words. Let’s try a few. How about ‘sacrifice’, a staple in the language of commemoration? Leaving out one instance where the word is used in a different context, it (including ‘sacrifices’ and ‘sacrificed’) scores 27 hits in the ten speeches, including some ‘self-sacrifice’ and lots of ‘sacrifices made in our name’ and sacrifice that gave us our freedom.

The word ‘mate’ scores 22 hits, often in recycled yarns about Jim and Bill and Lofty. Six times we are told the story of mates Jim and Bill ‘goin’ over together’ from a trench at Gallipoli (Speeches 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9) because ‘him and me are mates’.

‘Values’ are mentioned 39 times, the values that ‘make us who we are’, the values that link with ‘our beliefs, the way we relate to one another and see our place in the world’, the values that call to young Australians from the Napier Waller windows, the values that are more important than ‘value’. The ‘values-value’ contrast appears at least seven times in the speeches, in pretty much identical words each time. Dr Nelson has always been strong on values, as he made clear as education minister and promoter of the values of Simpson and his donkey, particularly to Muslim children, and in his parliamentary valedictory speech in 2009. He is big on them still, as he reminded Paul Daley in an interview in 2015.

Yet the most common word in this little survey is not ‘values’ but ‘Bean’, as in Charles Edwin Woodrow. His name crops up 46 times in these ten speeches, as a teller of stories (Jim and Bill, the Digger at Pozières), as war historian, as admirer of ‘that famous army of generous men’, as visionary and founder of the War Memorial back then and as elongated mascot of the Memorial now. Ross Peake in the Canberra Times noted when Dr Nelson arrived in the job that his new business card carried a Bean quote. Suitable – but not necessarily representative – snippets from Bean can be found on the Memorial’s walls, in its publications and on its website.

Bean is still the talisman. He was there in Dr Nelson’s 2007 speech at Gallipoli, which became the model for many of his later efforts. He is there still, 137 years after he was born, 100 years after he (and others) had the idea for the Memorial, and 48 years after he died. That’s staying power.

The words not in the speeches

What about the words that do not appear in Dr Nelson’s speeches – the words that one might have expected but which do not feature? Some people believe that soldiers are, above all, victims, and you can see why: soldiers are put in the morally hellish position of killing or being killed, they die or they are damaged for life in body or mind. How often then does the word ‘victim’ appear in these ten speeches of Dr Nelson? Not once; not once in almost 30 000 words. It is not as if Dr Nelson has not thought about the effects of war – he made telling points on that subject in his long interview with Paul Daley in 2015 – but universal victimhood is definitely not big in his formal speeches.

bean21Charles and Jack Bean at school, England, c. 1893 (AWM A05393)

What about the word ‘pity’, an appropriate feeling towards victims? Again, not once. What about ‘trauma’, a word that probably was not around a century ago, at the time of our worst war, but which is commonly used now about the victims of war? Nope, not there either. As noted earlier, ‘love’ – of country, family, mates – does rather better (34 mentions in the speeches, including a few ‘loved’) but then the emotion of love fits better into a patriotic narrative than pity or permanent trauma does.

How about the word ‘horror’, a feature of war which often led to mental trauma? Bingo! Six hits. But, hang on, four of the ‘horror’ hits are in a quote from celebrity historian, Neil Oliver, which Dr Nelson uses in both Speech 6 and Speech 8, one occurs when Dr Nelson paraphrases Oliver right at the end of Speech 10 and the other is also in Speech 10, where Dr Nelson quotes the often-quoted Lieutenant ‘Alec’ Raws. Not much horror from the Director, after all.


Repetition, even of eternal truths, tends to bore audiences. Reading Dr Nelson’s speeches, one occasionally thinks, ‘What an opportunity was missed here to say something fresh or original’. The opportunities missed often relate to the words and concepts the speeches leave out – ‘victim’, ‘pity’, ‘family’. Above all, they relate to the key questions of ‘was it worth it?’ and ‘did they die in vain?’

Once in Dr Nelson’s ten speeches, right at the end of Speech 7, a soldier, Second Lieutenant Leo Butler, is quoted wondering if the deaths he had seen were ‘worth it – whether there was anything gained in this war which justified such sacrifices’.

As if to answer Leo Butler’s question [said Dr Nelson] – the very question asked by the families of every one of the 102,700 Australians listed on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial, those assembled at the church and the broader community heard these words said to Malcolm Southwell’s family [at a memorial service for Private Southwell in December 1916]: “It must be their chief consolation to know he laid down his life in the noble cause of righteousness and liberty, and therefore died not in vain”.

For righteousness and liberty, 2 million Australian men and women serve – and have served this nation over more than a century …

Captain Sid Campbell’s family asked the same question. (He was my great-uncle and he died in July 1915 of wounds received at Gallipoli.) King George V gave Sid’s family their answer: ‘He Died for Freedom and Honour’, the legend on the King’s (or Dead Man’s) Penny sent to bereaved families. From King George to Dr Nelson, the boilerplate commemoration-speak has hardly altered over a hundred years.

So we come back to the sameness, and ultimately the lack of imagination, in Dr Nelson’s speeches. There is an epithet – ‘out of the bottom drawer’ – applied in public affairs to recycled policies or forms of words. Audiences to whom bottom drawer stuff is served up are entitled to feel cheated. Yet, sacredness lowers the bar on content. Lots of bottom drawers are rifled for wedding and funeral speeches, too. ‘Away in a manger’ is pretty awful poetry but it still makes me teary. The emotion of the moment drives out listeners’ critical faculties – including those that make them ask ‘was it worth it’.

brendannelson-headerDr Nelson (AWM)

Note: Honest History gave Dr Nelson the opportunity to provide input to this article. By an email of 18 September 2016 to the Communications and Marketing (C & M) area of the War Memorial we asked:

a. Who wrote the speeches? [the ten speeches listed in the article]

b. What is the reason behind the repetition from speech to speech of themes, paragraphs and anecdotes?

c. How does the Director perceive his role when speaking as Director of the AWM?

We said we would print the answers received without amendment, unless any part of them was specified as ‘background’, in which case we would not use that part. C & M responded on 4 October 2016: ‘The Memorial is declining to comment on this matter’.


Part II: long bows, Holly Golightly and political baseball bats

Here’s an extract:

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, as in Speeches 8 and 10, 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 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.


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One comment on “‘Awkward humility’: The speeches of the Hon Brendan Nelson AO: Part I: Thrice more with feeling
  1. Neville Buch says:

    Thinking through the insightful analysis of this article, on the speeches of the Director of the Australian War Memorial, the word that comes to mind is ‘hagiography’.

    “…on the day He comes to be glorified in His saints and regarded with wonder by all who have believed, including you who have believed our testimony.” 2 Thessalonians 1:10.

    “All the saints send you greetings, especially those from the household of Caesar.” Philippians 4:22

    “…until the Ancient of Days came and judgment was passed in favor of the saints of the Highest One, and the time arrived when the saints took possession of the kingdom.” Daniel 7:22

    You can see Ken Inglis’s thinking on ANZAC as civic religion in the speechwriting tradition of ‘scriptural’ or ‘revelational’ type quotations.

    The article has a particular pleasurable feeling for me, once being a speechwriter for a Vice-Chancellor who was a former academic historian (who had also addressed religion and secularity as history) during the time Nelson was the federal Education Minister.

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