Conversation and Relationship

Report of a Meeting with Dr Brendan Nelson AO
at the Australian War Memorial 5 November 2018

In escorting us from the foyer, Dr Brendan Nelson's PA had told me he was looking forward to our meeting. True for he was at his office door as we approached, beaming goodwill and welcome.

Recent media photos had suggested some ageing under the stress and strain. To the contrary he was looking trim and vigorous (the rewards of regular bicycling), on top of the world, truly a man in command and loving his job.

Also a man in demand, we noted. Signing in we saw the entries of ABC Tv personnel whom he had met ahead of us. In the week before a $500m make over of the Australian War Memorial had been announced and Dr Nelson and Memorial were news.

The 'we' being Janet Salisbury and I. Janet is a volunteer singer and producer for A Chorus of Women. For some four years now together we have been negotiating and producing the Anzac eve Peace Vigil at the AMW. Janet also has a passion for conversation. She has a vision of "Canberra Conversations" where, with goodwill and patience, good listening and fair words, all contention is soothed and peace prevails.

First up we did a brief recap on last April's Anzac eve Peace Vigil, Anzac Day "Lest We Forget the Frontier Wars" March and Desert Pea wreath making. Dr Nelson thanked me for the unasked report I had sent him, and said he had enjoyed it.

We spoke very little about the Frontier Wars and the AMW recognition of them. But when we parted, he walked a little way beside me to say that I could expect good news on the subject. "I can't say more at this time but things are cooking on the other side of the Lake," he said. Progress!

"I have huge respect for you, Graeme," he said. Flattery maybe. Such a charming man is Dr Nelson. He choses his words carefully and even though one hears the paradoxes and contradictions in his spiel, out of politeness and respect one feels reluctant to challenge.

There is no doubt that he speaks and acts from conviction and a genuine compassion for those who served and suffered in wars. He sees that the AMW, by telling their stories of wars and service, is providing healing therapy.

Suicide amongst veterans is a major concern. He said he is an active supporter of LifeLine and that he has had all the AMW staff trained by LifeLine in suicide prevention so they can be ready to identify and help AMW visitors in need.

A natural leader who could have been a prime minister, I asked him about his dumping from the Liberal Party leadership. Any regrets?

No. He had always been driven, he said, by a call to public service. It didn't work out in the Parliament but as the director of the AWM he had found his niche and big time.

Jack Waterhouse, former editor of the Canberra Times, described Dr Nelson thus: "a still active politician, has manifested a genius for turning every story about the memorial and the World War I celebrations into a story about himself. He has assumed a role particularly outrageous for one who did not serve - that seems to be a spokesman for soldiers, for soldiers being criticised, or for the very notion of military service."

But then Brendan deals daily with veterans, their families their trauma and their grief. He has a thousand anecdotes, all stories with tear-up tugs. Also true is that he has created an image of himself as an Australian leader with vision, far outshining both the flailing ScoMo and the bumbling Shorten.

Janet took up the question of the $500 mill renovation spend. Did it not starve other cultural institutions contributing to the making of Australian identity so distorting it in favour of militarism? Dr Nelson was as unapologetic as he had been before media cameras. Just doing my job, he said. Winner take all, the attitude.

Janet inquired about the upcoming commemoration of Armistice Day, noting that although Armistice Day remembers a victory for peace - the day when the guns stopped and so too did military solutions, for awhile that is, in Europe at least. But Armistice Day alas has become Remembrance Day and totally militarised.

No peace organisations or public peace advocates have been engaged in the planning of the centenary commemoration or its upcoming execution on 11 November. The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) for example, which was founded during WW1 at the International Congress of Women, and this the only peace conference to take place during WW1, had not been approached to contribute to the planning.

"They are not part of the prevailing narrative," observed Janet. Dr Nelson concurred that the events planned for 11 November would follow the usual formula of Remembrance of fallen service people. "Without meaning any disrespect for the dead, isn't it time to think outside the box?" she asked.

Dr Nelson said he wanted no one to feel excluded from 11 November centenary commemorations. He said Dr Wareham of MAPW (Medical Association for the Prevention of War) was welcome to hold her silent Vigil for a peace on that day in the War Memorial precinct if she wished. "We are all here for the same reasons," he said.

But Dr Sue has other concerns, namely a campaign called Commemorate Don't Commercialise / No weapon-makers at the War Memorial. We talked about that.

Dr Nelson said his job calls him to do a lot of fund raising, calling up rich mates and pitching to corporations. Exhibition mounting needs big bucks, he explained. For example, the display of 60,000 volunteer-made poppies presently on the lawns cost the AWM $300K .

Armament makers? He was more concerned about the armament makers which did not contribute to the AWM. Most armaments corporations are managed and staffed by veterans and ex-service people, he said, and donating to the AWM makes sense to them. Boeing Australia staff, for example, raised $50K for the Memorial with fun run style activities. He stressed that none of the commemorative events are funded by armament makers.

The ethical contradictions of war profiteers projecting their corporate image as benign on AWM exhibitions were beyond Dr Nelson in the same way as they were beyond the NSW Premier Gladsy Berejiklian when it came to projecting commercial advertising onto the Sydney Opera House.

It's a Liberal Party neoliberal cultural thing. Thrusting corporate logos and advertising unasked upon our attention as the hapless, passive, consuming public is the natural way of the Market.

I sensed that Dr Nelson was much more defensive when I challenged him about his public praise of Ben Roberts-Smith (BRS), the Afghan war VC winner accused by his colleagues of murder, torture and other crime, lies and cover ups.

Leaked documents from the Inquiry by the Inspector General of the ADF into the conduct of the Australian SAS and Commandos in Afghanistan make clear that a toxic culture had developed and prevailed and that BRS was core to it. BRS is in denial and, to silence the investigative reporters, is suing for defamation.

He challenged me about my facts. True I wasn't there as an eye witness and neither have I read the leaked documents, only the various reports. But it is enough for me to know something rotten was going down in the SAS, so rotten that colleagues of BRS and witnesses to his crimes could no longer stomach it. Come the Inquiry, they were forthcoming with testimony, even though that meant bringing the wrath of BRS upon themselves and bad odour upon the SAS Regiment as a whole.

My heart tells me that Ben Roberts-Smith VC is now lying to camera big time, that he is a psychopath of Herculean proportions.

Hercules is the pseudonym for BRS used by his SAS colleagues, a name most apt. Hercules of myth was the big and shining, muscle bound son of Zeus, unbeatable in battle and as crazy as a loon, forever creating mayhem for others and enduring strife and labours for himself.

For him and his victims both I have compassion. Also foreboding for Dr Nelson's overt support for BRS and his call for the Inquiry to be speeded up.

I warned Dr Nelson of the folly of building Australian national identity upon a hero who is psychopathic. Yes, we need people to believe in, but liars are the worst people to believe in. More labour and strife coming.

Dr Nelson listened in silence, eyes glittering. I had argued this all before in a FaceBook thread and I sensed he had heard it all before, that maybe he was one of the FB commentators with a pseudonym. Whatever he made no comment on what I had said and we passed on.

Dr Nelson mentioned a peace event which the AWM might produce to mark the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles in June 2019. Janet spoke for the engagement of WILPF in the commemoration.

Resolutions passed at International Congress of Women in 1915 were intended to promote permanent peace and make war illegal. Delegates carried the idea to heads state in Europe and the USA where their resolutions underpinned the founding of the League of Nations, the International Court of Justice and much other human rights law since that time.

Chorus is singing the story as The People's Passion on 11 November. And again in June next year. Dr Nelson was open to integrating the performance into the AWM Treaty of Versailles commemoration.

Janet also speculated about AWM being more war museum than memorial. Coming from Britain where war memorials are small and monumental, she had been surprised, she said, by the physical size of the AMW and its role it takes creating exhibitions and national identity narratives.

But for Dr Nelson that's how it is. It's that combination which makes AMW such a powerful institution for endless war propaganda.

"If one of the features of the extended Memorial is to provide real-time reporting on current activities of the ADF," asks Dr David Stephens of Honest History, "is this not turning the Memorial into an arm of defence policy?"

It was one of the many questions I wanted to ask but we had run out of time.

Afterwards Janet and I reflected on how we had found ourselves stimulated and swayed by Dr Nelson's stories, insights and explanations. And then by the counter arguments. This way, that way ...

Wouldn't it be good to have an extended conversation? A Canberra Conversation?

Then there is the matter of relationship.

My friends note that i am more than a little obsessed with him. A Google Alert daily brings me his news media and i read it assiduously. Truly excited to be meeting with him, I had cleaned by shoes, ironed my shirt and brushed my hair.

We had parted with a hug and i had felt his heart tender against mine. It's a love affair of sorts and i suspect its mutual. For 5 years now.

What to make of this? In terms of militarism and perpetual war, we are opposites. Yet i am in awe and admiration for what he has achieved as corporate fund raiser and high priest for Australia's greatest secular cathedral. I might not agree with him but I love him and his style.

My teachers tell me that relationship is all and my life experience confirms it.

That same day, my friend John Shipton had sent a letter to Prime Minister Morrison. It was a plea for compassion for his son, Julian Assange. For the return of his son's Australian passport and for the return to home of his son. John had asked for help to get the plea some media attention.

Pondering who and how, the question arose: "Who do I know who might have the ear of Scomo?"

You guessed it, folks. I passed plea for compassion onto Brendan with a prayer.

Open doors is what heart connection brings.

writer Graeme Dunstan
text editor Janet Salisbury
6 November 2008


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