Knaus, Christopher: Brendan Nelson denies ‘conflict of interest’ after passing on fees from arms firm to war memorial (with Comment)

Christopher Knaus

Brendan Nelson denies “conflict of interest” after passing on fees from arms firm to war memorial‘, Guardian Australia, 24 April 2019 updated

Article in the Guardian‘s ‘Transparency Project’ series looks at Director Nelson’s receipt of fees from arms manufacturer Thales for his role on its advisory board, which provides advice to the company’s executive. The Memorial says there is no conflict of interest and necessary approvals have been obtained.

Heritage Guardians member and former War Memorial Director, Brendon Kelson, on the other hand, says the arrangement is messy and does involve a conflict of interest, even though the fees received are passed on to the War Memorial. Twitter traffic following Knaus’s article tended to agree.

Comment: big dollars and easy rides

Thales is a donor to the War Memorial, separately from money that flows from it to Dr Nelson for his advice and then to the Memorial. Dr Nelson has defended donations from arms manufacturers to the Memorial. Six of the world’s ten largest arms manufacturers donate to the Memorial – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman and Thales.

Dr Nelson is a former Minister for Defence (2006-07) but has been Director of the Australian War Memorial since December 2012. His current term expires on 31 December 2019. He joined the Thales Australia Advisory Board in March 2015.

Thales is the world’s eighth largest arms manufacturer. At any one time, it has hundreds of contracts with the Australian government, particularly the Department of Defence. According to the government data base, AusTender, between March 2015 and April 2019, Thales had 3749 contracts with the Australian government, 29 of which (all with Defence) were worth more than $10m each, and six of which were worth more than $100m each.

Typical of the tender categories into which Thales contracts fall are Arms and ammunition accessories, Computer hardware maintenance or support, Conventional war weapons, Electronic hardware and component parts and accessories, Light weapons and ammunition, Marine craft systems and subassemblies, Military watercraft, Surveillance and detection equipment, War vehicles.

Image result for Thales Australia

Accountability and, more generally, whether conduct has been appropriate, has been an issue in the past at the Memorial. See, for example: questionable reporting of statistics about visitation and web usage; careless errors in an annual report; the Director’s outspoken support of Ben Roberts-Smith VC in the context of an inquiry into events in the Afghanistan war. And, of course, that carelessness about naming rights: see here, entries for 23 April (2nd entry) and 11 April.

The Memorial mostly has an easy ride through Senate Estimates Committees, normally an accountability mechanism, with the atmosphere sometimes becoming jocular. Senator Moore (ALP) recently remarked on Dr Nelson’s ability to speak at length without notes (p. 103 of the Proof Hansard) and Senator Gallacher (ALP) asked whether anyone ever said ‘No’ to him.

Senator GALLACHER: The only other question I had is a bit facetious, really, but in your current role has anybody ever said no to you?

Dr Nelson: My wife—

Senator GALLACHER: We will leave it at that, I think. (p. 168 of the Official Hansard).

It took a couple of attempts recently for the Memorial to fully disclose to Parliament aspects of its donations from arms companies. It drew a distinction between a direct donation and a donation in kind to the Canberra Airport for advertising space.

David Stephens