Welcome and reflection at the dedication of the Sir John Monash statue

4 July 2018

The Hon Dr Brendan Nelson AO
Sculpture Garden, Australian War Memorial

Charles Robb and Sarah Holland-Batt are the artists have produced this magnificent work in honour of our greatest general. And what Sarah Holland-Batt and Charles Robb, poet and sculptor, working together have done is to create an image of Monash as we requested - circa 1924.

After the war, but during one of the most significant decades during our nation’s history.  We wanted to depict John Monash in a civilian suit, wearing his RSL badge, his medals and holding a book. And as Sarah said, to depict him as a man in the midst of world that was in great flux.

‘Every hour',’ he said, ‘of every day and every night, I am in the midst of tremendous events.’

Today Les Carlyon AC was to have been here and to have spoken to us, and the dedication to be done of course by Lieutenant General Campbell. Les Carlyon unfortunately is ill and unfortunately is not here. It gets worse for you. Instead of him speaking, I’m going to speak to you.

We conceived the need to do this early in 2016. And as with many of these ideas - things we want to do, need to do, we had the idea but not the money.

And so we committed $100,000 from the estate of Robert and Nora Casebrook.

I thought very carefully about it and I asked three individuals if they would make a personal contribution to it in addition to a significant contribution by the Australian people through our government appropriation to the Australian War Memorial.

The first person I asked is a woman called Margaret Jack whom I have known for almost 20 years. Proud Australian, business woman, who’s committed much of her life to business, trade and cultural ties between Australia and China. She simply said,

‘He’s our greatest general. How much do you want?’

I then asked Zeke Solomon AM, senior partner Allen Arthur Robinson, whom I first met when I was Minister for Education. I noticed he was attending and contributing to a lot of discussion about intellectual efforts in education. A man who has given much of his life to the Australia – US alliance, support for the state of Israel and Australia’s engagement in Asia. He too made a significant contribution.

The third I asked was Garry Browne AM. I met Garry when I was asked to speak to the Sydney Rotary about five years ago. And his family, his father served in the Second World War, male and female members of his family have served, and he said to me,

‘My parents impressed upon us John Monash’s admonition that you should adopt as your fundamental creed to equip yourself for life- not just for your own sake but for that of the entire community.’

And so we are here today.

Albert Einstein was born fourteen years after General Sir John Monash and he outlived him by almost a quarter of a century. And unlike Monash he lived through, and was witness to, an even greater cataclysm of the Second World War and the murder of six million Jews. And Einstein said,

‘The desire for knowledge for its own sake, a love of justice which borders on fanaticism and a striving for personal independence,’ these he said, ‘are the Jewish tradition that allow me to regard belonging to it as a gift of great fortune.’

He said,

‘History has imposed on us a difficult struggle but if we remain devoted servants of truth, justice and liberty we will not only persevere as the world’s oldest living peoples, but as we have done before, we will achieve through our productive labours, works that contribute to the ennoblement of humanity.’

And in those observations of the Jewish faith and the Jewish people, the oldest, longest living peoples in the world, Einstein said much about what informed the character of the man whose statue is before you.

Here at the Australian War Memorial we reveal our character.

Our character as a people.

Our soul.

The paradox as I say to young people, is that it’s not actually about war. It’s in a context of war, but this place is about love and friendship. Love for friends and between friends. Love of family, love of our country. And honouring men and women whose lives are devoted not to themselves, but to us; and their last moments to one another.

We reveal ourselves as a people, not only in those whom we choose to lead, but those whom we choose to honour. John Monash is only the third person, the third individual at this institution, this sacred ground, to be honoured with a sculpture.

We have a stretcher bearer, disobeying orders with a donkey rescuing wounded soldiers at Gallipoli. We have a soldier-surgeon, wearing humility more comfortably than a stethoscope, having tended to men suffering under the Japanese brutality on the Burma-Thai railway in the Second World War.

And here we now have General Sir John Monash.

This man who is among a very small number of people. Some people lead from position. Generals, chairman of the board, captain of the team. Others eschew position and instead lead from principle. But occasionally we get someone who leads from both.

And John Monash was such a man. 

A soldier, an Anzac, an officer and a general.

A consummate administrator.

An engineer, a pianist, a painter.

A man who committed to and dabbled in carpentry.

A Rotarian, a Scout Leader.

A scholar.

And then at the end of the war having commanded the Corps, he oversaw the demobilisation of 160,000 men in eight months.

By 1922, already for two years the Director of the State Electricity Commission in Victoria, he was President of Rotary in Melbourne and helped found Rotary in Australia.

He chaired the construction committee for the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.

He led the Anzac Day Parade from 1925, from 1927 he organised it.

President of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science.

President of the Zionist Federation of Australia.

And as Colin McInnes said John Monash made anti-Semitism as a respectable position, impossible in Australia by the late 1920s.

And then his qualities.

A man whose intellect was never perhaps fully tested; resourceful, a man who focused on detail. A man who was fiercely independent but consulted widely and made those with whom he worked and those whom he led feel a reverence for themselves.

A man who was devoted to every cause to which he committed his life and devoted to those with whom he served and those he led.

He was consummately skilled in prosecuting his argument. Sir Robert Menzies said he was the most articulate man he that he had ever listened to.

He was also intensely patriotic. He was proud of his Jewish faith and ancestry. A part of the feature of his loyalty was that his personal staff were all Jewish and the men respected him for that loyalty.

But, paradoxically perhaps it might seem for a lay audience, he despised war. He despised its horror, the inefficiency which he described as ‘ghastly’, the impossible cruelty and the misery.

Yet he, like this place, was reminded that in the end that there are truths by which we live that are worth fighting to defend - politically, diplomatically and at times militarily; when he saw it as necessary to maintain national and social order.

It’s easy for us in our comfortable lives to forget that this country has never been more divided than it was in the 1920s.

We emerged from that war victorious, but inconsolably mourning 62,000 dead; we lived with another 60,000 who would die within ten years of returning. We divided principally but not only around the conscription referenda, those who had enlisted and those who were regarded as shirkers.

Monash was regarded as a pillar, a ‘pole in the tent’, of our brittle, fragile young democracy and we remained true to our democratic principles.

One of the indulgences you can have as a Director is you can actually say what’s going to go on a sculpture. So I said,

“I want another steel band around the base”.

During the Great Depression a right wing movement, many fascists, exhorted John Monash to lead an insurrection against the Government. In repudiating them he said in part,

‘The only hope for Australia is in the ballot box and an educated electorate.’

And therein for the generations that will see, reflect upon and absorb the qualities of this man in this sculpture are three things.

First is to never take for granted the democratic principles and values upon which our nation has been built which are our primary interests – political, economic and religious freedoms.

Second the importance of egalitarianism, that we are people that do not place position above principle; we revere the idealism and the heroism of the everyday Australian.

This man in the 1920s was widely regarded as the most respected Australian. Veterans in particular, saw him as unpretentious, not part of the establishment, honest intelligent and decent.

And finally, Monash knew that what will protect our nation most from ideas, attitudes and policies deeply rooted in ignorance and forged on an anvil of prejudice is - education.

Finally he, like all of us, we will be remembered not for what he was but for who he was, the character of the man.