‘A narcissist always searching for a new niche? Brendan Nelson’s autobiography’, Honest History, 21 February 2023: Part II: ‘From the Big Build via the Frontier Wars to Boeing – but a lot left out’
Part I of this review noted that Brendan Nelson met lots of people. In the book, however, he tells us way less than their full stories. He writes about the 2006 Jake Kovco case where, on Nelson’s watch as Minister for Defence, Kovco accidentally killed himself. Kovco’s repatriated body was lost for a time, then found. Then, the laptop on which a report of this event was being compiled was lost, then found. Nelson leaves out the bit about the Coroner asking him to explain his three different versions of how Kovco’s death occurred. (It should be said that Nelson was not well served by deficient communications coming up the line.)
The officer who lost the laptop, then Brigadier, later Major General, Liz Cosson, is not named in the book. In 2006, Cosson was junior to her then Minister, Nelson. She later became head of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and was present, and technically senior to Nelson, when he made his final appearance at Estimates in 2019. The video of that hearing is fascinating for its body language and expressions.
More importantly, Nelson omits the fact that he was from early 2015 a consultant (unpaid) to French arms manufacturer Thales while he was Director of the Memorial. We get no inkling whether his consulting helped Thales in October 2015 gain the contract to supply its Hawkei vehicles to the Department of Defence, even though they were more expensive than the Lockheed Martin alternative. The Audit Office report on the contract was redacted at the order of then Attorney-General, Christian Porter; the redactions protected Thales. Nelson does not reveal whether his lobbying for Thales helped produce this outcome. (More on this case.)
Nelson frequently mentions his close and long-time political confidant, Rhondda Vanzella, but does not tell us that she became a member of the War Memorial Council in 2018 nor whether he as Director had anything to do with that appointment. (Ms Vanzella has also been a senior office-holder with war widows’ associations and other remembrance organisations.)
Nelson describes Matt Anderson, his successor as War Memorial Director and one of three people Nelson encouraged to apply for the job, as a ‘superb choice’ but spares us his comment on Anderson’s 2019 appointment: ‘He’s a man who wears humility more comfortably than any medals he’s been awarded’. Anderson may well appreciate that omission.
Nelson refers to Boeing (his employer since 2019) as having ‘a diverse portfolio of research and technology-based businesses’ but does not mention it is also one of the world’s leading manufacturers of military hardware ($US 33.4 billion in arms and military equipment sales in 2021). Also missing from the book is the Memorial’s 2013-19 conniving with Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest military manufacturer, to meet Lockheed’s transparency requirements as a military contractor.
Nelson c. 2020 (Wikidata)
Apart from skating over stuff, the book is very uneven as literature. The lengthy quotes from speeches and other historical documents work well enough, but in between there are slabs that read like transcriptions of remarks taped late at night and never checked again. Dangling participles are frequent (‘Blinded in a roadside bomb blast just weeks before returning, his mates guided him. Emotional stuff.’ ‘Now permanently resting behind softly lit glass, stand, reflect and be moved as you look upon it.’)
There are mistakes, too: Tony Windsor MP from New England is ‘Mike’; Ben Roberts-Smith VC might be one of Nelson’s heroes, but his name is twice misspelt; Nelson’s attaché when he was Minister for Defence, Wing Commander Sharon Bown (Ret’d), has seven entries in the index but appears just once in the text – under her unmarried name. (Bown, like Vanzella, was appointed to the War Memorial Council while Nelson was Director and, is still there, having been reappointed last April, during the caretaker period.)
On the good side, Nelson details his worthy efforts to have the Memorial depict the Holocaust more fully, against opposition from Memorial traditionalists. He has also been a patron of Lifeline ACT, a supporter of veterans’ charities, and frequent speechmaker to raise money for good causes. He is donating all his book royalties to Legacy and Lifeline. This reviewer, wrangling a history website, frequently said of Nelson as Memorial Director that, if every version of Australian history had spruikers as good as Nelson was at spruiking his myth-heavy, emotive version, then the discipline – and the country – would be in good shape.
Nelson’s departure from the War Memorial Chair’s job late last year was rather sad as he was trying to spruik a different version from the War Memorial’s previous practice on portraying the Frontier Wars. At a media conference on 29 September (about an unrelated subject) he was provoked by a journalist into telling how the Memorial was committed to ‘a much broader, much deeper depiction and presentation’ on frontier violence, then had to back down a couple of weeks later, by phone from Washington to the Murdoch Press, admitting that the coverage after all would be ‘proportionate, modest and sensitive’.
This retreat would have pleased the RSL, whose National President, Major General Greg Melick, also a member of the Memorial Council, had tried to wind back Nelson’s original statement, as well as the shock jocks such as Andrew Bolt, the more than ten thousand signatories to a petition organised by a Quadrant author, plus Barnaby Joyce. Nevertheless, Nelson’s initial remarks seemed like a genuine effort to have the Memorial follow a different tack. He and Memorial Director Anderson had discussed Frontier Wars possibilities with the new responsible Minister, Matt Keogh, within a couple of weeks of Keogh taking office and Nelson was probably strongly influenced by Rachel Perkins’ documentary, The Australian Wars, which he and others at the Memorial saw in pre-release rushes. He had while Director purchased art works depicting massacres of First Nations people, commissioned a sculpture in the Memorial grounds recognising Indigenous service people, and overseen a special exhibition (For Country, for Nation) about Indigenous warriors in uniform since 1901 and out of uniform since 1788.
Nelson has been described as a bullshit artist, a narcissist, a charlatan, oleaginous, and having a glass jaw. Each descriptor is incomplete, some even unfair. Yet, throughout his career he has been popular across the political spectrum. Why? Some of the answer lies in the analysis by journalist and academic Margaret Simons, way back in 2004. Simons considered analogies with Forrest Gump (homilies), Rainman (photographic memory), and Braveheart (repetitively uttering inspiring phrases), but settled for Holly Golightly, Audrey Hepburn’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).
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.
Cartoon by David Pope (courtesy of the artist), Canberra Times, 3 November 2018
This reviewer once described Nelson as ‘a bishop of the cult of Anzac’. Nelson gives in the book, as he has many times before, his exposition of the War Memorial’s Napier Waller windows, with their 15 values of Devotion, Comradeship, Loyalty, Endurance, and others. These are, he says, values to which Australia’s youth should aspire. By his final chapter he is even more like the national scoutmaster or cheerleader, dispensing tips for life. These are rather reminiscent of homespun 19th century philosopher Samuel Smiles. ‘Character is property. It is the noblest of possessions’, said Smiles. ‘Build and develop your character. It transcends everything’, echoes Nelson.
Even in these challenging times, we don’t need national cheerleaders spouting platitudes. And it would be great if we could move beyond phonies, even real ones.
*David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and convener of the Heritage Guardians group, which campaigned against the Memorial extensions. He met Dr Nelson four times between 2004 and 2013, including two meetings while Dr Nelson was Director of the War Memorial. At the second of these meetings, Dr Nelson bullied Dr Stephens and a colleague about the Honest History project and refused an offer from Honest History to talk to Memorial staff. When Dr Stephens congratulated Dr Nelson for his AO in 2016, Dr Nelson thanked him. In 2020, Dr Nelson described Dr Stephens as ‘a strident, persistent critic of the Memorial’ (submission No. 75). In his book, Dr Nelson briefly mentions the opposition to the Memorial extensions but glosses over his responses to that opposition, some of which were offensive, others just inaccurate.
An insightful and well-balanced review, David. Thanks for going through this tome so many of the rest of us won’t have to bother. I especially appreciate the ending background relationship summary.