‘Awkward humility’: The speeches of the Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson AO: Part II: Long bows, Holly Golightly and political baseball bats

David Stephens

‘“Awkward humility”: The speeches of the Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson AO: Part II: Long bows, Holly Golightly and political baseball bats’, Honest History, 20 October 2016 updated

In our previous article we looked at the structure, themes and content of ten of Dr Nelson’s speeches. In Part II we make some further analytical points though we do not try to answer all the questions raised. For ease of reference, we have repeated below the links to the ten speeches:

This is Part II 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.

Long bows

Dr Nelson’s speeches regularly make connections between battlefield actions and high-flown objectives. These connections are standard in the literature and vocabulary – the ‘spin’, if you prefer – of commemoration. In each case, they involve the drawing of long bows, bows as long as the English archers used at Agincourt, a battle which does not seem to have featured (yet) in Dr Nelson’s speeches.

First, what is the source of our Australian values?

No group of Australians has given more, nor worked harder to shape and define our identity than those who have worn – and now wear – the uniform of the Australian Navy, Army and Air Force. They forged values that are ours and make us who we are, reminding us that there are some truths by which we live that are worth defending.

Let us recommit ourselves to that which Gallipoli asks of every Australian, whether by birth or immigration. Our Australia – their Australia – is a nation in which our values are etched less in granite and marble than they are in our flag, a slouch hat, rising sun, and a smile that says, “G’Day mate. Can I give you a hand?” (Speech 1; emphasis added)

Not only our nation but also our values, it appears, were forged at Gallipoli. But what values actually lie under the slouch hat? As noted in Part I, Dr Nelson often refers (Speeches 3, 5, 8, 9, 10) to the Memorial’s Napier Waller windows and their list of 15 values (Resource, Candour, Devotion, etc.) said to be exemplified by Australian soldiers and nurses, and suitable for the rest of us, particularly for children looking for guidance. But these are really individual character traits rather than national values.

Something approximating a list of values appears, however, in Dr Nelson’s Speech 7 on the theme of Magna Carta, where ‘our nation’s values’ are ‘the belief in individual political, economic and religious freedom; commitment to the rule of law; a free press; free academic enquiry; the co-existence of faith and reason; equality; fair play; compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good’. It’s not a bad list but it’s one that has come to us by many routes and it includes values which our armed forces cannot take much credit for forging, despite Dr Nelson’s remarks in Speech 1 in 2007.

Secondly, exactly who were our men and women fighting for? Dr Nelson’s generalised claims in this regard are often along the lines of they died ‘for us’ (Speeches 4, 8, 10), sometimes with the addition of ‘in our name’, and ‘under our flag’. But is Dr Nelson just making a connection between war deaths then and Australians then or is he claiming that deaths long ago directly benefit Australians today? Which ‘us’ is it? Is it drawing a long bow even to claim that war deaths long ago were for the Australian people at that time rather than for ‘mates’ (Dr Nelson’s speeches allow for the latter possibility)? Were these deaths really ‘for’ anything?

Is it rather that deaths just happened, luck ran out, carelessness had a consequence, someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or out of reach of medical help? Were the high-flown sentiments about death just tacked on afterwards, along with the boilerplate words in letters to grieving relatives (‘he died like a Briton’, ‘his last words were of his mother’), when the dead person no longer existed or cared? Perhaps, like these bromides, Dr Nelson’s speeches are just intended as comforting rhetoric and not meant to be analysed. It must make them easier to deliver.

menin-gate-019-1125x800Menin Gate, 1927 (C20 Society)

Thirdly, there is the claimed connection between battlefield stories – and that temple of battles, the repository of the stories, the Australian War Memorial – and our national identity. ‘Every nation has its story. This is our story.’ That is what the Memorial tells us and the mantra pops up regularly in Dr Nelson’s speeches (Speeches 5, 6, 8, 10). In Speech 4, and in other places not on our list, Dr Nelson adds that the Memorial represents or embodies ‘the soul of our nation’. Honest History has argued that both the ‘story’ and ‘soul’ slogans – they are really no more than that – are misleading. Australia is a much bigger and more interesting place than it would be if its only story was the one found at the Memorial; the soul of Australia is surely found wherever there are Australians.

Holly Golightly?

Margaret Simons is a distinguished author and academic in journalism. She collaborated with the late Malcolm Fraser to write a highly regarded biography of the former prime minister, so she has plenty of experience of politicians who are ostensibly conservative but are still hard to pin down. Simons’ long 2004 article on Dr Nelson is thus worth a close look, 12 years on. Some of the characteristics she discerned in the then education minister have not gone away with his transition to a job which is not – ostensibly again – political but certainly involves the protection of received views.

Simons made much of Dr Nelson’s nicknames, Rainman (‘because of his ability to spout endless statistics at the drop of a hat, like the autistic savant in the movie of the same name’), Forrest Gump (‘because he seems to use every conversation to tell well-honed homilies and morality tales drawn from his own life’) and Braveheart, ‘which would seem complimentary if it were not delivered with a sneer’. Do these handles still work?

‘Rainman’ certainly still applies to Dr Nelson, though these days it is sentimental rhetoric rather than statistics that is apparently delivered entirely from memory. Feats of memory were a staple of music halls and there was a famous ‘memory man’ in the Hitchcock movie, The 39 Steps. Actors rely on memory all the time but they tend not to make little mistakes in their lines, as Dr Nelson does with his anecdotes. Compare a few renditions of the Jim and Bill ‘goin’ over together’ yarn (Speeches 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9). They are pretty much the same, although Dr Nelson’s placement of Bill arriving at, approaching or even leaning over the trench rather than in it looking up at the fire step, as Bean had him (page 6) is implausible – and life-threatening. Bill placed as Dr Nelson has him would likely have been taken out by a sniper or blown to bits.

A ‘photographic memory’ is a good party trick – provided the slips are inconsequential – as is ostentatiously ditching one’s speech notes, which Dr Nelson used to do when he was a minister. It can impress audiences, too. (‘He spoke for 45 minutes without a note!’ as someone Tweeted after one of Dr Nelson’s speeches this year.) Watch, for example, the video of Dr Nelson addressing the Liberal Party Federal Council in 2015 (not one of our sample of ten speeches but most of them are not on video). Not a note in sight.

Forrest Gump? Homilies and morality tales from his own life? Maybe not so much in the War Memorial job – because Dr Nelson lacks war experience – but certainly in Speech 4 there is a brief memoir of how Dr Nelson came to the decision to apply for the War Memorial post. It brings in the number of times he visited the Menin Gate memorial (more than 70) while he was in his diplomatic job. Dr Nelson also mentions conversations with the then foreign minister, the then Chief of the Defence Force, the then Chief of Air Force, Dr Nelson’s wife, and someone called Benoit.

Then Dr Nelson has more than once referred to the Afghanistan veteran who thanked him for the initiative to do an Afghanistan exhibition while the Australian contingent was still in country. Speech 5 includes stories about Dr Nelson’s contact with the relatives of a Western Australian soldier killed in France and of a family appreciative of the projection of their relative’s name on the wall of the War Memorial, as part of the Memorial’s regular program.

There are more self-referential homilies in Dr Nelson’s valedictory speech when leaving Parliament in 2009 (not in our sample) but that is where you would expect to find them. While Dr Nelson is noticeably (but not overwhelmingly) Forrest Gump as defined by Margaret Simons there are plenty of vignettes in his speeches – particularly ones about dead or heroic soldiers – that do not feature him personally but with which he clearly identifies, from which he draws a moral, and which he repeats often.

Braveheart? Now, this is interesting, given what we noted in Part I about Dr Nelson’s tendency to repeat himself.

Nelson’s Braveheart nickname comes [said Simons] from a set piece he seems to deliver at every opportunity. It goes, with slight variations, like this: “The Jesuit priests taught me that four values underwrite a successful life. Commitment: you should consistently apply yourself to that in which you believe. Conscience: continually ask yourself, ‘What is the right thing to do?’ Compassion: always try to share another person’s pain, to place yourself in their shoes. Finally, you will need courage – to have a brave heart.”

We have seen a similar pattern in our survey of ten of Dr Nelson’s speeches, which state and restate what are seen as eternal verities: ‘The truths by which we live’, values that transcend value, ‘we won’t forget you, cobber’, and the way we approach significant occasions (‘awkward humility’, ‘abiding reverence’, ‘overwhelming pride’, ‘goin’ over together’). These forms of words crop up again and again. Is it just sloganeering – or something more?

Face to face with Nelson, a strange thing happens [said Simons in 2004]. Although he has repeated these words so often, there is no sense of phoniness. It is impossible to doubt that Nelson is sincere, or at least thinks of himself as being sincere, which is almost, but not quite, the same thing. Perhaps the appropriate movie character is not Gump or Rainman or Braveheart, but Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Golightly is charismatic and adored, yet hungry and somehow lacking a centre. The recurring question in that movie is, “Is she a phoney?” The answer comes from one of her best friends. “Yes, she is a phoney. But she is a real phoney.” In the world of manufactured political identities, it may be the best kind of sincerity on offer.

Political baseball bats?

The historian Peter Cochrane put down some wise words last year about the difference between history and politics. He linked them explicitly to the Anzac commemoration that was big then but which has reduced in intensity since. ‘Politicians and a retinue of warrior commentators’, Cochrane wrote, ‘want us to be proud of our martial history, lest the nation fall apart’. This could be an ingredient of ‘Anzackery’, now defined in the Australian National Dictionary as ‘the promotion of the Anzac legend in ways that are perceived to be excessive or misguided’. Anzackers don’t plug their cause for fun; they really think our national future is at stake. Unless they are just doing it for the money, that is, like Woolworths in 2015.

‘Historians worth their salt’, on the other hand, says Cochrane, ‘want us to know that history critically, lest the nation be deceived, or simply dumbed-down. This is a great divide.’ History is ‘a cautious, ever-questioning discipline …, all historical truth is contextual and contingent and thus open to revision or to new ways of seeing the past’.

Politics, though, is different. It is, says Cochrane, ‘a profession played out with dogmatic certainties that are wielded like baseball bats’. Like: ‘Every nation has its story. This is our story’. Whack! The ball flies into Right Field. Or the War Memorial ‘represents the soul of our nation’. Whack! Three-bagger. And: ‘Those Australians who are able have not only an opportunity but a responsibility to see the [Memorial’s refurbished] First World War galleries (emphasis added).’ Again, whack! Safe at second base. Then, finally, ‘overwhelming pride’ (Speeches 3, 8, 9, 10). Whack!! Home run! (Cheers.)

How does that bat-wielding approach fit with a national cultural institution? Cochrane goes on: ‘Where historians must be ever critical, ever ready to go deeper, politics (and national history as set down by politicians) must be unimpeachable’. In the light of that distinction are our national cultural institutions best run by people who have the skills of a historian or the rather different skills of a politician? Or should they be run by someone else altogether, perhaps Generals in the case of the Memorial?

Is the War Memorial different? Is the place not really about history at all but about allegedly eternal verities like pride and patriotism? ‘Drape “Anzac” over an argument and, like a magic cloak, the argument is sacrosanct’, says Cochrane. The Anzac connection seems to give an exemption from normal historical standards. So we return to Cochrane’s binary. ‘History will not stand for that. In history nothing is sacred. History is open inquiry; politics is slogans.’

Of course, many historians do manage to look at Anzac and still maintain their standards. They twitch the cloak aside and prevent it smothering their endeavour. But we are left with Cochrane’s references to baseball bats and slogans. It comes down to whether you think the head of a cultural institution should be concerning himself or herself primarily with preserving and presenting history or with swinging baseball bats which help perpetuate myths and can fit easily into a political agenda. There is, after all, not much distance between myth and the currency of politics.

Some guesses about motivation

One piece of evidence suggests that, perhaps most of all, Dr Nelson simply wants to be remembered. Facsimile-signed copies of his 2016 Anzac Day Dawn Service speech (Speech 10), slightly edited and with one literal error, on heavy stock paper suitable for framing, can be purchased in the Australian War Memorial shop for $10. There is a similar poster of Prime Minister Keating’s 1993 Eulogy for the Unknown Australian Soldier – a speech which has become justly famous – but not, as far as we can tell, posters of other speeches made at the Memorial. Across the top of the Nelson poster there are these words from the speech: ‘Their spirit is here. This place, this day – is not about war. It is about love and friendship.’

Not war but love-and-friendship. Not p but q. Zero sum. Either-or. This is another binary, like Cochrane’s history-politics one, but it is a fatuous and cynical one. The virtue of comradeship under pressure is pressed into service to wash away brutality. War becomes all mates and blokes together. Nothing about being obliterated by a shell or a roadside bomb, or dying entangled in barbed wire and crying for your mother, or being beheaded in a prisoner of war camp. Nothing about parents without sons and children without fathers.

Schools have presumably bought copies of Dr Nelson’s speech poster for use in class. (We asked the Memorial a while ago about sales figures but they wouldn’t tell us.) In the longer run, perhaps Dr Nelson’s ambition is that one or more of his speeches might appear in anthologies alongside Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the fallen’ or John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ or be recited by 11-year-olds on Anzac Day. Children reading the speeches may well come to think that, in Dr Nelson’s martial love-in, ‘war can be ok’.

img_2169The poster (Author)

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 – as Simons and Peake both noted; he has become a bishop of the cult of Anzac.

Yet, while Dr Nelson’s commemoration speeches certainly push hot buttons, they lack the weight of old favourites like the works of Binyon or McCrae (let alone Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon), partly because the speeches did not commence their run at a time when mass slaughter was a recent memory. World War II, let alone the Great War, is not yesterday. The speeches come across as attempts to trade off and reinforce a legend, rather than as cries from the heart. Because of the passage of time they rely on evoking an Anzac myth maintained artificially rather than on actual memories of war and its effects. They could be seen as life support for something that is dying or as the equivalent of Christmas Eve homilies which tap into the congregation’s memories of ‘Christmases past’ but are a long way from the simple story of the original Christmas.

Dr Nelson is not a relaxed speaker when he is in Anzac mode, though he presents as a sincere one, as Margaret Simons suggested. He sometimes looks more comfortable in question time. He seems almost overwhelmed by the Anzac subject matter, by the responsibility of carrying the sacred vessel. He appears often to be on the verge of making himself weep from the pathos of his content and the sincerity of his delivery.

Is this just ‘Holly Golightly Nelson’ though? Is it a case of ‘if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made’? Again, perhaps, but just perhaps. There is certainly about the speeches an air of defiance, as if Dr Nelson is challenging anyone to feel differently. When he talks about values and truths worth fighting for he looks like a man about to take up sword and buckler in a righteous cause. Does serving a sacred cause sacralise the server?

Yet the effect is still unconvincing. Because the Director’s hot buttons are having to connect to an artificial, sentimental image, not to reality, they need to be pumped hard to achieve the desired emotional impact. The fertile myth and the overheated rhetoric feed off each other and the speeches often sound overwrought, almost hysterical. Only audiences that are keyed up for a sentimental journey – which is most of us sometimes – or have Peter FitzSimons’ naturally bowed heads could be greatly impressed.


What does this history of Dr Nelson’s speeches say about the future of the Australian War Memorial, which is a large part of the future of war commemoration in Australia? One answer is that there should be no doubt that, with Dr Nelson at the helm in full and regular voice, nothing much will change. The Memorial as Charles Bean intended – or as it has come to be accepted that he intended – will roll on much as before. The heavily military composition of the Council of the Memorial will help to keep the place on the straight and narrow path – and, perhaps, may already have hobbled Nelsonian innovations in some areas.

Margaret Simons years ago quoted critics and colleagues on how Dr Nelson tended to personalise everything. Some of them even accused him of narcissism. (Gideon Haigh in 2006, writing about Dr Nelson’s role as minister overseeing research grants, suggested he was too inclined to pander to conservative critics on the right and ministerial colleagues but that shouldn’t be a problem in the Memorial job.)

Dr Nelson has come to personify an institution and a cause which should be beyond personification. A low-key, respectful version of Anzac doesn’t need a spruiker, anyway; it speaks for itself. If anyone should personify the Memorial it should not be its director but the Unknown Australian Soldier, who is surely beyond narcissism. As Abraham Lincoln once said, in a speech at Gettysburg that was much more memorable than any of Dr Nelson’s, some things remain ‘far above our poor power to add or detract’.

lncoln-seal-signatureLincoln (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation)

There is another possible answer, however. Just as the Memorial struggles to be more than a theme park, Dr Nelson could – with effort and courage – be more than a sentimental spruiker of perennial themes. In the remaining 18 months of his tenure as Director, Dr Nelson could use his speeches to project new directions for the Memorial. He could stop warbling repetitively and mawkishly about awkward humility and abiding reverence. He could park the slick marketing slogans and the overcooked rhetoric. He could lay to rest Simon Fraser endlessly searching for his cobbers (Speeches 3, 5, 9, 10) and Jim and Bill and the mates and help move us all towards a new and useful – and peaceful – version of Anzac.

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’.





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