Stephens, David: From the Honest History vault: Awkward humility: the speeches of the Hon. Brendan Nelson AO

David Stephens*

‘From the Honest History vault: Awkward humility: the speeches of the Hon. Brendan Nelson AO‘, Honest History, 15 August 2019

A long piece in two parts on the oral oeuvre of the soon to be former Director of the Australian War Memorial. The article analyses ten speeches from 2007 to 2016 regarding their structure, recurring themes and sets of words, where the content comes from, the individual words in the speeches, and the words not in the speeches. Part I looks at what Dr Nelson has said and how he has said it; Part II offers some further analysis.

A couple of extracts:

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 …

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’.


Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, 1961 (New Republic)

And from Part II:

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 …

This quote from journalist and academic Margaret Simons in 2004, in a comment that has more recent relevance:

Face to face with Nelson, a strange thing happens. 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.

In a strange way, we’ll miss him.


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2 comments on “Stephens, David: From the Honest History vault: Awkward humility: the speeches of the Hon. Brendan Nelson AO
  1. Leighton View says:

    Probably the pontificator that one knows rather than a possible devil one doesn’t, eh?

  2. Richard Llewellyn says:

    I cannot remember who it was who famously said that: ‘Once you can fake sincerity, you have it made’ – or something similar. The accuracy of that statement is incarnate in Nelson.

    His chirpy face is indelibly etched on the consciousness of anyone who has read an AWM Annual Report produced during his tenure – just open one anywhere and you will find a photo of him within a page or two. They are an invaluable resource for tracking the trajectory of Nelson’s conversion from failed politician to Saviour of the memory of the military personnel of Australia.

    Yet – and despite the apparent triumph of Nelson’s crusade to make the AWM into the Australian equivalent of Lourdes for military personnel – there is a curious deficit in his credentials as a consummate showman.

    The creme de la creme of Showmen (gender neutral terminology, here!)know that the cherry on the cake of a performance is to ‘leave them always wanting more’.

    But what Australians overwhelmingly (by a verifiable ratio of almost 10:1 to those whose ‘feedback’ has been touted by the AWM as justification for its grand plans)want Nelson to do, is ‘leave with less’ (than his plans foreshadow).

    The timing of Nelson’s decision to leave on the very cusp of his championed development plans is curious – unless one investigates the entire documentation associated with such development in depth. The appropriate documentation has been referenced on this site.

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