After a life in politics and medicine, Brendan Nelson has found his dream job at the Australian War Memorial, writes Ross Peake
Brendan Nelson’s newly-printed business card says a lot about the new boss at the Australian War Memorial.
The card is embossed with Charles Bean’s moving and haunting description of the memorial.
“Here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they loved; and here we guard the record which they themselves made,” the war historian said in 1948.
The dedication on the business card is an indication of how seriously Nelson takes his new obligations as he prepares to take the reins on Monday as director of the national institution, replacing the long-serving Steve Gower.
He was in a reflective mood this week when he spoke about his career and the things he hopes to achieve in what he calls a “dream job”.
Standing in the sunshine near a bubbling fountain outside the memorial, he sweeps his arms towards the parliamentary triangle.
“The way I see it, the political capital of the country is represented by the Parliament House, the judicial capital by the High Court, but the soul of the nation is in here and what is represented by this memorial.”
He comes to the job with impressive credentials.
Although he did not serve in uniform, as Gower did, Nelson has been defence minister and has a deep sense of Australia’s history forged through wars.
During his recent post as ambassador in Brussels, he was a frequent visitor to the Menin Gate in Ypres dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in World War I and whose graves are unknown.
“I went to the Menin Gate on more than 70 occasions and always laid a wreath. if it had been in Brussels, I would have gone every night,” he says.
His advice to visiting Defence Minister Stephen Smith was that it is difficult to appreciate the significance of the site without going to see it for himself.
Smith took the advice. “He said, you were right, that’s the best thing I’ve done,” Nelson says.
In 2007, Nelson was dispatched by John Howard to represent Australia at the Gallipoli dawn service.
He spent a week researching and writing the three brief speeches he was to deliver – and to hone his sense of awe for the sacrifice of those who died in the conflict. “I put a lot of thought into them.”
In the pre-dawn darkness he told the huge, hushed crowd: “With awkward humility, we pause here at Gallipoli, free and confident heirs to a legacy born of idealism and forged in self-sacrifice. We do so in renewed commitment to one another, our nation and the ideals of mankind … To understand what happened here, to feel a connection with this place, is to be fully Australian.”
Now, he says: “Before I went, I often wondered why Australians were so focused on Gallipoli when our sacrifices on the western front were so much greater but once I’d been, I got it, I really got it. I said to John Howard when I came back, ‘prime minister, whatever happens to me in the future in my public life, nothing will exceed the experience.’”
After the Howard government was defeated in 2007, Nelson became opposition leader. He lost the leadership to Malcolm Turnbull in late 2008 and announced his retirement from Parliament in August 2009. Nelson had arrived at that point after a career change. To enter politics, he’d left his medical practice and presidency of the Australian Medical Association.
Earlier, he had begun studying accountancy at university before realising it was the wrong choice.
“I decided that the people who end their lives with the most sense of satisfaction are those who spent it in the service of others,” he says. “The three things I would be interested in would be the Jesuit priesthood – but there were certain things you couldn’t do which I’d already acquired a taste for – the second was to join the police force, but I was too old because in those days if you were 19 they wouldn’t take you, and the third choice was medicine.”
Of his time in the AMA he says: “I learnt in that role how power can be used in certain ways for people who don’t have power or influence.”
His sense of an “incomplete agenda” was encapsulated by a journalist. “At the time, it was Michelle Grattan, who was editor then of The Canberra Times, who said to me, ‘Brendan you won’t get any more done now unless you get in there, to Parliament,’” he says, pointing down Anzac Avenue.
After politics came another career change, with his appointment as Australia’s ambassador to the European Union, Belgium and Luxembourg as well as Australia’s special representative to the World Health Organisation and NATO.
“I thought here’s an opportunity to really do something for Australia’s interests and, in particular, it was the NATO part of the job that really interested me, as another way of continuing to serve the welfare of our troops particularly in Afghanistan,” Nelson says.
“Of all the things I did in Europe, the thing that gave me the greatest satisfaction was the commemorative events in Flanders.
“Almost every day of the three years I was in Brussels, someone would say to me, ‘what are you going to do when you finish this?’ I said to my wife, ‘if I spend the next 10 years turning what I’ve done into money I’m not going to be happy, I really need to do something meaningful.’”
In his role as ambassador, Nelson visited the memorial to see Gower about ideas for commemorative events in Europe.
“I said to him, ‘you must have the dream job, even though you’ve got the challenges of budgets and staffing, but to come into this place every day and do what you have to do to commemorate our memory and involvement in these conflicts must be the best job in the world,’ and he said ‘yes, you’re right,’” Nelson says.
Has the serial career changer found his dream job?
“For me it will be a labour of love … it is a dream job,” he says.
“If life’s mission is to find something you love and to be able to be paid to do that, then surely that’s mission accomplished.”