26 April 2022

Nelson's War Memorial appointment a disgrace, say critics

| Ian Bushnell
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Dr Brendan Nelson

He’s back: Dr Brendan Nelson announcing his retirement as War Memorial Director in 2019. Photo: Region Media.

The return of Dr Brendan Nelson to the Australian War Memorial as Council Chair raises questions about the chain of command at the institution and who will actually be in charge, according to critics of the appointment.

The Memorial announced on Friday that its former Director would succeed media baron Kerry Stokes as Council Chair.

Director Matt Anderson said Dr Nelson would bring passion, commitment and knowledge to serve the Memorial in this strategic capacity.

“Dr Nelson demonstrated his outstanding commitment to the purpose of the Australian War Memorial and his support of veterans and their families during his seven years as Director,” Mr Anderson said.

But Dr Nelson, a former Liberal defence minister, was also a controversial figure, driving the $500 million redevelopment project and pursuing funding from arms manufacturers.

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Since February 2020, he has been President of Boeing Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific.

UNSW Canberra historian Professor Peter Stanley, a vehement critic of the redevelopment and the direction of the Memorial, said the appointment was a disgrace.

“It’s a scandal that a former director should return as Chair of the Council,” Professor Stanley said.

He said the appointment clouded the leadership of the Memorial and would make Mr Anderson’s job impossible.

“This is a public service town. Any public servant will tell you that what you don’t want is your predecessor looking over your shoulder,” Professor Stanley said.

Former senior public servant and now Professor of Public Policy at the ANU Andrew Podger said the political nature of the appointment was concerning, but it was also unwise to appoint as chair of any major organisation someone who has been the chief executive.

“The danger is to blur the respective roles of chair and chief executive; in particular, to constrain the chief executive’s capacity to take responsibility for management within the broad strategic direction set by the board,” he said.

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Heritage Guardians convenor David Stephens also said the appointment blurred the lines about who will be running the national institution.

He said Mr Anderson had toned down Dr Nelson’s evangelical approach, but the rhetoric and controversial decisions may again start to flow from the Memorial.

“Whether we get the ‘Full Nelson’ this time around will depend rather on how the new Chair uses his position: will he let Mr Anderson [and Executive Director Wayne] Hitches continue to run the show from day to day and week to week, with particular focus on the redevelopment program … or will he, on the other hand, be more of an Executive Chair, taking a high profile, being closely involved in regular decision-making, and doing the spruiking with which Mr Anderson seems less comfortable?” Mr Stephens said.

Mr Stephens also warned that Dr Nelson’s closeness to the arms industry put the Memorial at risk of reputational damage.

“The more Full Nelson we get, the more tear-jerking speeches Dr Nelson makes, the more he lobbies Ministers and potential arms manufacturer donors to the Memorial, the more Australians will wonder at the appropriateness of the Australia-Pacific President of Boeing, in 2020, the world’s third-largest manufacturer of defence equipment by value of sales, also being the face of the Australian War Memorial, which commemorates men and women who die from the use of such equipment,” he said.

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Professor Stanley also attacked Dr Nelson’s links to weapons manufacturers, calling their funding of the Memorial a moral travesty.

“The War Memorial has been captured by the defence industry. It’s become militarised,” he said.

“Brendan Nelson is shameless in the way he courts funding from weapons manufacturers and that will presumably continue because Dr Nelson doesn’t see any moral issue at all in the War Memorial, an institution established explicitly to make an argument for peace, being funded by those who manufacture weapons used in war against civilians,” Professor Stanley said.

He said that for the Council to be independent, it ought to be above the politics of the Memorial, but Dr Nelson had politicised the institution and shown his partiality, like Mr Stokes, in becoming involved in the defamation case of Victoria Cross awardee Ben Roberts-Smith.

“These people have become partisan. They’ve become enmeshed in one side of the story. They no longer represent the interests of the Australian public. They’re representing their own interests,” Professor Stanley said.

He said the appointment was bad administration and wasn’t doing justice to the needs and wishes of the Australian public.

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President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War Dr Sue Wareham said the appointment of Dr Nelson while still working for Boeing was beyond the pale.

Dr Wareham said Dr Nelson had damaged one of Australia’s most important national institutions, turning what should be a focus of unity into a virtual battleground.

She said Dr Nelson had sold the right to be honourably associated with Australia’s war dead to those who already profit financially from wars.

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Putting aside personalities and the whole APS/Govt/Defence Industry Canberra revolving door (which is a wider issue), another concern is the broad mandate of the AWM Council as it is described on the AWM website. It seems to go beyond the role of a private sector board. Would you want to be Director when the Australian War Memorial Council is “responsible for the conduct and control of the affairs of the Memorial, and the policy of the Memorial with respect to any matters is determined by the Council”? Note the words “conduct and control”. Not “oversight”. Canberra sure produces some interesting governance structures.

OTOH the new Chair was only director for 7 years and has had a break of three years. He will chair a council of 13 members and most should have vocal cords and minds of their own. One is Tony Abbott, and he is known to have both. A number of others are distinguished civilians. There are a lot of senior military figures too. So, whoever the Chair is, it shouldn’t be a dictatorship if the Council do their job.

I think there is nonsense galore on display in some of this criticism. When Australian troops undertake peacekeeping missions in places such as East Timor and Solomon Islands they, of necessity, carry weapons manufactured by – you guessed it – “international arms manufacturers”. You can’t simultaneously demonise these companies for what they manufacture and then welcome the capacity and protection they provide to Australians serving overseas in such roles. In fact, Australia depends on arms manufacturers, both international and domestic, to play a constructive role in regional affairs. In those circumstances, why shouldn’t the War Memorial accept from these companies?

When you can’t get a better job just grovel back to an old employer. New blood? What’s that?

I think it a national shame that a former national politician, now closely associated with an international arms manufacturer, should be allowed to turn a national shrine of remembrance into a national military theme park for his own personal enjoyment, all at enormous cost to national taxpayers.

“The War Memorial has been captured by the defence industry. It’s become militarised,” he said.

This must be the dumbest sentence I have ever seen. Please explain how a war memorial is anything but militarised? Like a garden without flowers?

I am a veteran of two conflicts and not normally not a fan of the hyperbolic Brendan Nelson but the commentary on show here is absurd. it is also insulting to the Matt Anderson who may very well put nelson in his place.

The War Memorial shows who went, where they went and what they did. But never why? I’d like to see Brendan spend some of that $500 milllion on explaining why Australians were sacrificed in ‘other countries’ wars. It might even explain what companies made money out of those wars. Or tell of the companies that supplied weaponry to both sides. How about a few thousand on the role and feats of our diplomatic corp as they kept us out of wars and maintained peace.

This article is hilarious.

Dr Nelson is extremely qualified for the role and will no doubt do a good job. He’s extremely knowledgeable and experienced in the field.

The article is just quoting people who are politically against the direction of the war memorial and the redevelopment plans that are now approved.

Is anyone surprised that they are against this?

Marc Edwards – as a veteran of a few conflicts, I 100% support his appointment and so do those veterans I have spoken to. You are the minority so please do not speak for us!

Jeremy, you and I served in Iraq together at one stage.

So Brendon showed great care for veterans did he ?

Seems to me he supported a rebuild of a perfectly good War Memorial at a cost of half a billion $ while veterans were suiciding partly due to lack of support.

TwainAndHume10:57 am 27 Apr 22

This series of poorly thought-out Liberal appointments reminds me of Russia when Putin “turned over” the Presidency of the Russian Federation to Dmitry Medvedev in 2008. THEN in 2012 took back the office and has homesteaded there ever since. And Nelson’s developing ties to the defense industry since leaving the AWM and then (to this point) planning to carry on with that conflict of interest apparently, certainly tosses the original philosophy behind the institution out the window. Sad.

Stephen Saunders9:00 am 27 Apr 22

Such a relief to see “Lockheed” Nelson back in his rightful life appointment, driving the only national museum that really matters. We are all proud Anzacs in John Howard’s Australia. Or else.

RiotACT contacts the same permanently outraged contrarians, for more of their breathless vitriol.

David Stephens9:23 am 27 Apr 22

But not anonymous like your self, sir or madam. David Stephens

Alternatively, instead of contacting the same 3 tiring naysayers over and over, RiotACT should have aimed for some journalistic balance by contacting someone with a different opinion, such as Jeremy Hanson.

Seems strange for someone who released a novel under a pseudonym to be worried about other commenters anonymity.

Not all people can be retired and carefree it seems.

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