Dr Nelson’s Book Launch: Of Life and Of Leadership

8 mins read

Introduction to Dr Brendan Nelson AO – Of Life and Leadership


“Private Jake Kovco - age 33

Captain Mark Bingley - age 35

SAS Trooper Josh Porter - age 28

Trooper David Poppy Pearce - age 41

SAS Sergeant Matthew Locke - age 33

Private Luke Worsley - age 26

SAS Signaller Sean McCarthy - age 25

Lance Corporal Jason Marks - age 27

These eight men died as a direct result of the decisions I made, supported or administered during my tenure as Australia’s Minister for Defence. That, more than anything else, is what I carry with me. They are real. They are very real. I recall them, their families and the services I attended as if they were yesterday.” (p.249)

You might think that having been Director here for seven years, and our current Chairman of the Council of the Australian War Memorial – the only person ever to have been both Director and Chairman – you automatically have the right to have your memoires launched at the Australian War Memorial.


Brendan gets his book launched at the Australian War Memorial because all proceeds are going to Lifeline Canberra and to Legacy.

And I thank him for that.

And thank him too for the treasure that is this book of insights into a life lived richly in the service of others.

In my job, a lot of books come your way. Most are seeking an endorsement, or a request to have them placed in the Memorial’s shop.  Or both.

There are nine books on my desk today. Others are on my bedside table.

At this point I should apologise to my wife, Lou who is here tonight. Both for the bedside table and for being here tonight on our 31st wedding anniversary.

But I’ve only devoured one book over the past fortnight.

This one.

And no Brendan, it’s not because you put my photo on the front cover without my permission!

Within its 491 pages – which, by the way, makes it very good value for money! – are insights of a man - and by a man - who cares deeply and who thinks deeply.

From humble upbringings, born in Coburg, raised in Launceston, and then in Adelaide, with a lineage that includes Irish Catholics and Gallipoli veterans, the Australian Flying Corps and those with service in the 2nd AIF and the RAAF late in the Second World War.

Christian brothers and love of his brother. Fishing, tinnies and tennis. A tree climbing knee scraping childhood.

Thoughts of enlisting in the Navy as a Cadet Midshipman.

And the Jesuits - amongst those to whom Brendan dedicates this book and who taught him the four pillars: Commitment, Conscience, Compassion and Courage.

The youngest President of the AMA, The Member for Bradfield. Leader of the Opposition, Minister for Education, Minister for Defence, Ambassador to Belgium, NATO and the EU, Director of the Australian War Memorial, Chairman of the Australian War Memorial and, shortly, President Boeing International.

From the basement of Harris Scarfe selling doors and curtain fittings to the roof of the Official Residence in Brussels to rescue his two Jack Russells, Lucy and Sniff.

It is a remarkable arc, although on finishing the book it occurred to me that Brendan might not yet have reached his cruising altitude.

If you’re time poor you need only read chapter 30 – You don’t realise what you’re learning while you’re learning it.

There are some genuine pearls of wisdom in it.

Brendan, I might just consider those the handover notes I’ve been looking for over the past two and a half years!

Throughout the pages you will learn that, as President of the AMA, his ‘guiding North star was that the practice of medicine and the influence of its profession cannot be separated from the problems facing society’.

To an AMA conference in Hobart he would say that ‘none of us should ever accept that the problems we face are too hard, too complex or that we cannot make a difference: when all scientific problems are solved, all important questions will remain unanswered’.

Brendan would describe this as one of the most satisfying nights of his public life – the speech would go on to be editorialised in the British Journal of Medicine.

It was then Brendan knew he was making a difference.

On the most difficult aspect of being a Doctor; ‘I have had a loaded gun pointed at me, been assaulted by a dog and stabbed with a hypodermic syringe.  I would prefer all three than to try to give sufficient care comfort and compassion to a family losing a child.’

The life lesson he drew: ‘It’s not what happens to you in life, that determines its value, but how you deal with it.’

Some spoiler alerts:

One of the things of which he’s most proud: voting for a POW of the Burma-Thailand Railway and surgeon, Kevin Fagan - to be awarded the AMA’s Gold Medal for Service to Medicine and for Humanity.

The most enjoyable role in his political career: Parliamentary Secretary to the then Minister for Defence, the late Peter Reith.

‘I had the responsibility, but did not have to answer questions in question time.’

The worst job: Chairman of the Sydney Airport Community Forum.

But he goes on to say:

‘The lesson I have passed on to those seeking my advice; is you do whatever you are asked. Embrace the role as if it is the only job in your life you have ever wanted. Concentrate on the job you’ve got and the next one will look after itself.’

One of his enduring memories of public life – celebrating with John and Janette Howard when voluntary membership of student unions, guilds and associations actually became voluntary.

On the most important things in life, they seem to be funded by raffles and cake stalls. Something Legacy and Lifeline Canberra would likely agree with.

He also notes that anyone with more than three priorities doesn’t have any.

Brendan, my priority is to redevelop the Australian War Memorial safely while remaining open to the public. My other priority is to ensure the Memorial continues to lead the nation’s commemoration and understanding of the Australian experience of war.

That’s two!

Brendan reckons ‘you have to surround yourself with people possessed of two qualities.

The first is that they believe in something enough to bleed for it, fight for it. That you share their cause is less important than them having one.

The second is to look for people that are over-enthusiastic. Much better to hose someone down several times a day than having to stick ginger up their bum to get them moving."

You can also read about how he prevented the decommissioned Oberon class submarine HMAS Otama from being painted yellow and being used to play Beatles music on the Geelong foreshore.

I wondered at the time whether he would have let it go if it was to be painted any other colour and be the venue for Slim Dusty, Lee Kernagan or Garth Porter’s music!! (Garth, it’s good to see you here tonight.)

It was at Menin Gate that Brendan had the most meaningful experiences of his posting as Ambassador:

The 10 Scottish pipe bands playing Highland Cathedral: six female students from Goondiwindi High School reciting the Ode in unison - each with a relative named on the panels; the girl who bought an old bugle and taught herself to play the Last Post - which she did at the Menin Gate; the Australian national anthem sung by three female uniformed Defence Force singers on Anzac Day.

And in summarising his contribution throughout his public life, he wanted to speak to young Australians, urging them never to abandon their idealism.

‘You can make a difference to your community, your country and to your world. The way each of us lives impacts our world; you can choose to live in a way that changes it.’

But Brendan – as such a gifted orator, you missed a trick in the naming of your book.

Lincoln used to use the rule of threes; government of the people, by the people, for the people.

You could have called it of life, of leadership and of loyalty in honour of those who have been loyal to you and to who you have remained loyal through thick and thin – Council Member Rhonnda Vanzella is here tonight, or the many charities on which you serve as Patron. And another Council Member, Sharon Bown is here. Sharon is a veteran of East Timor and Afghanistan and served as Brendan’s ADC when Minister for Defence.

Or perhaps of life, of leadership and of legacy – your legacy for General Practitioners at the AMA, or for championing Indigenous Health, for decency in conduct and debate in Parliament, or for all you have done here at the Australian War Memorial.

Brendan, you not only reimagined this place from Last Post Ceremonies to the Centenary of ANZAC and the 14-18  war – as you say in your book, Leadership requires vision – but you also re-positioned the Memorial in the minds of many, many Australians.

The only reason I’m here today is because, as Brendan says in his book, he could not stay on for another seven years to see the $550 million redevelopment through.

Brendan, we are on the cusp of realising your vison, and that of Kerry Stokes, supported by Council, Government and with bipartisan support, to honour the service of the 100,000 veterans we have created over the past 40 years and to tell their stories ‘more broadly, and more deeply’  - that phrase can get you in to trouble!

Brendan steps down tomorrow as Chairman of the Council of the Australian War Memorial – he was recently installed a Memorial Fellow.

Brendan, please know that here at the Australian War Memorial, because of your leadership and vision, we will continue to be the place where the nation comes to honour, to learn and to heal.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Dr Brendan Nelson.

Last updated: