Prime Minister Abbott has taken the unusual step of publicly confirming that he intervened to reverse Brendan Nelson's announcement about replacing Rudyard Kipling's World War One commemorative phrase "Known unto God" with a quote from Paul Keating.
Tony Abbott has probably now read the whole transcript of Dr Nelson's speech.
It was 18 September, 2013 at the National Press Club - the day Tony Abbott was sworn in as Prime Minister. But Brendan Nelson didn't congratulate Tony or his ministry even in passing. This was Dr Nelson speaking for Dr Nelson.
The clumsy attempted subtext seemed to be that Brendan Nelson is above petty party politicking and party fealty. Instead we saw the scorned, failed opposition leader trying to launch Brendan Nelson elder-statesman. Very awkwardly.
Elder statesmen exude wisdom, generosity and equanimity. Brendan Nelson didn't send much of that in his own party's direction. The studious avoidance of congtratulations for Tony Abbott and over-emphasis on Labor leaders just seemed weird. I think that led to Nelson's clouded judgement about the relative worth of Keating's speech about the Unknown Soldier.
Here are some excerpts from the transcript of Nelson's speech from http://www.awm.gov.au/national-press-club-address/John Kerin from the Australian Financial Review summed up the mood of the room with this first question:
"Dr Nelson, thank you very much for that speech. At times I was wondering which government it was you were a minister in, given all the praise for Kevin and Paul and co."
Mark Riley sensed opportunity to go after Tony Abbott and was rewarded.
Mark Riley from the Seven Network "Dr Nelson, I'm just struck by the juxtaposition today of you speaking at the National Press Club while the man, but one, who succeeded you as Opposition leader is being sworn in as the Prime Minister. And I'm wondering if I could ask for your reflections on what the Opposition was able to achieve from 2007 to today, to become the Government? Whether you have any regrets about leaving politics, and just if you could share your reflections on what the Coalition has achieved in those six years??
BRENDAN NELSON:"I consulted a number of people whose opinion I respect, and one of them said to me, Brendan, you're not bad or mad enough to be Prime Minister. [Laughter] So, I take it as a compliment.
LAURIE WILSON (chair and host at the Press Club): Yes, I think there's the comment you wanted, Mark.
That's exactly the sort of comment that Mark Riley from Channel wanted and Dr Nelson served it, or Tony Abbott up. While he didn't find it in himself to congratulate Tony Abbott, Dr Nelson had a lot to say about the man Tony succeeded as Prime Minister on that very day, Kevin Rudd;
- Kevin Rudd is immensely popular. I think still the most popular Prime Minister in modern polling history, as he was in 2008.
- As we emerged from the global financial crisis, Kevin Rudd, then as Prime Minister and, I think, to his immense credit, played a significant role in seeing that the existing G20 at Finance Minister's level became a grouping of 20 at leaders' level for global economic governance.
- The Europeans were attracted very much to Kevin Rudd's early ratification of Kyoto which was strongly supported by the Opposition led by me at the time.
- The real head-turner was the parliamentary apology to forcibly remove generations of Indigenous Australians in February 2008
- (another Euro head turner was) Kevin Rudd's early visit as Prime Minister to Brussels enunciating a vision for the future of the relationship.
And he clearly has a bit of a hero-worship for Paul Keating. The Eulogy at the Service for the Unknown Soldier was rated by Brendan Nelson thus:
- I regard one of the most significant speeches given by any Australian Prime Minister in any era since Federation as the eulogy given by Paul Keating as Prime Minister in November 1993 for the unknown Australian soldier.
- I said to Paul Keating recently that not only will it stand the test of time, it already has.
- The magnificent leadership and work which he gave for that speech, and the craftsmanship put into it of course, by Don Watson, has given our nation a legacy of which all of us can be proud, irrespective of our political allegiances.
- What we are doing with the Keating eulogy for the unknown Australian soldier is it's now being struck in bronze.
- Paul Keating has accepted my invitation to give the commemorative address on Remembrance Day this year at the Australian War Memorial.
- We will also, on that occasion, be officially inaugurating, permanently, this remarkable eulogy which he gave to us - our nation.
- Amongst those 102,700 names are several thousand Indigenous Australians who to their immense credit when you think of the First Fleet in 1788, you think of the diseases and all of the things Paul Keating described in his Redfern speech so eloquently, and you think of the consequences of our European ancestors arriving here, building the nation as they did from remarkably difficult origins, the cost borne by Indigenous Australians, in particular, is a story that has to be told.
He had a kind word for Gough Whitlam
- I think that Australia has managed its relationship with China extremely well from Mr Whitlam's early recognition, through our successive governments.
And even found had a little place in his heart to remind us all that Tony Abbott is not without potential competitors - here's Dr Nelson volunteering his view on Malcolm Turnbull:
- Mr Turnbull is a particularly ambitious individual
Nelson's elevation of Keating's speech at the repatriation service for the Unknown Soldier to the status of greatest in history was a bit of a stretch. It's a good speech, but the first minute and a bit are, I think, a bit tortured in the endless list of ways in which we don't know the Unknown Soldier. And it's from that first minute of the speech that Nelson chose the words to replace Rudyard Kipling's economical, elegant and historically connected Known Unto God.
Here's the speech Dr Nelson rates as "one of the most significant speeches given by any Australian Prime Minister in any era since Federation".
No wonder Tony Abbott stepped in to correct Dr Nelson's stars-in-the-eyes mistake.
PM says he halted tomb change
TONY Abbott says the retention of the inscription of "known unto God" on the Tomb of the Australian Unknown Soldier has been satisfactorily resolved after he personally intervened.
The intervention occurred after the Australian War Memorial's governing council decided at its meeting in August to replace two inscriptions on the tomb with words from a speech by former prime minister Paul Keating. Mr Keating's eulogy to the Unknown Soldier was delivered on November 11, 1993, when the remains of a World War I soldier recovered from the Western Front were interred at the memorial. The reference to God was to have been replaced with the words: "We do not know this Australian's name, we never will."
The change was announced by War Memorial director Brendan Nelson on the day Mr Abbott was sworn in as Prime Minister. It was several days before Veterans Affairs Minister Michael Ronaldson was notified about the plan in an incoming briefing by his department.
The "known unto God" inscription was retained after Mr Abbott called Dr Nelson.
However, the inscription at the southern end of the tomb -- "He symbolises all Australians who've died in war" -- will be replaced with words taken from Mr Keating's 1993 speech: "He is one of them, and he is all of us."
Brendan Nelson's speech on 18 September 2013 is just plain weird and awfully self-serving. In his first Press Club speech as head of the Australian War Memorial, we learn that:
Brendan Nelson feels the need to congratulate Kevin Rudd quite a lot
As we emerged from the global financial crisis, Kevin Rudd, then as Prime Minister and, I think, to his immense credit, played a significant role in seeing that the existing G20 at Finance Minister's level became a grouping of 20 at leaders' level for global economic governance, which would see Australia as the 13th largest economy in the world as being a part of that G20 grouping. The European Union itself has a seat at the G20 table, the President of the European Commission and the President of the European Council.
I said to then Foreign Minister Stephen Smith in early 2010 that I thought we Australians had two threshold questions in relation to the European Union. The first was whether we should seek a tier one relationship. The Europeans were attracted very much to Kevin Rudd's early ratification of Kyoto which was strongly supported by the Opposition led by me at the time. The real head-turner was the parliamentary apology to forcibly remove generations of Indigenous Australians in February 2008, and Kevin Rudd's early visit as Prime Minister to Brussels enunciating a vision for the future of the relationship.
Dr Nelson took the AWM job for Dr Nelson - would be nice to do it for the diggers
Almost every day when I was in Brussels someone would ask me Brendan, what are you going to do when you go back to Australia? And I thought a bit about it and the closer it got to the end of my deployment there it became more front of mind and the government, the previous government very generously offered me the opportunity to stay longer, but I felt that almost three years would be enough. I said to the person who spoke to me that I didn't think I would be able to achieve anymore for Australia if I stayed another year and it was time to think about what would come next.
I then had a conversation with my wife Gillian, one of those things, and I said, look, whatever I do next I've got to do something meaningful. The medical profession and the taxpayers of this country have invested a lot in me and if I simply take what I've done and turn it into money I'm not going to be happy. I need to do something that is worthwhile. And through complete serendipity I discovered that Steve Gower, my predecessor, his towering contribution was ending and I immediately applied for the job. I went through the process. No one had tapped me on the shoulder and said Brendan, do you want to be the director of the war memorial? I went to interviews. I did all those things.
Nelson can quote Bean's vision for the AWM - to guard the record they made (unless a future PM's speech is the greatest, then you can forget about the record they made.
And so in terms of the Australian War Memorial, it is about our past, it is about our history, but more importantly it's actually about our future. A people that neither knows and nor, more importantly, understands its history, in my view, is dangerous.
And then he set the vision for the memorial in 1948. What informs leadership, of course, is vision. Management is about getting results, vision is what informs leadership. What are we trying to achieve, why do we want to do this? And he said, here is their spirit in the heart of the land they loved and here we guard record which they themselves made.
And the Australian War Memorial, in my view, represents the soul of our nation.
The staff are good, but Brendan Nelson runs the show and makes the good decisions
In addition to that, when I first arrived I asked the staff, when are we going to present Afghanistan? And the staff, very professional, very diligent said well basically it will be a few years away. I said we're doing it now, we're doing it this year. And there are two reasons we have to do it - first we've got to educate Australians about what's been done in our name over the last decade. But importantly, whilst not being captive to history, we have to learn from it.
Nelson's reasons to discard the record they made and replace it with Keating's
It may seem - what I'm about to say to you might seem surprising to some of you, but I regard one of the most significant speeches given by any Australian Prime Minister in any era since Federation as the eulogy given by Paul Keating as Prime Minister in November 1993 for the unknown Australian soldier. I said to Paul Keating recently that not only will it stand the test of time, it already has. The magnificent leadership and work which he gave for that speech, and the craftsmanship put into it of course, by Don Watson, has given our nation a legacy of which all of us can be proud, irrespective of our political allegiances.
What we are doing with the Keating eulogy for the unknown Australian soldier is it's now being struck in bronze. And it will be placed on the Hall of Memory, on the left hand side as you walk into the Hall of Memory. The Hall of Memory of course being that magnificent byzantine dome designed by Napier Waller, and which houses the unknown soldier reinterred from the Adelaide Cemetery in France in 1993. In addition to that, the surround around the tomb of the unknown Australian soldier, at one end currently has 'Known unto God'. At the other end it has 'He symbolises all Australians who've died in war'. We are removing those, and replacing, from the same quarry stone, and into one end we will engrave 'We do not know this Australian's name, we never will'. And at the end as you walk into the hall it will say 'He is one of them, and he is all of us'.
Paul Keating has accepted my invitation to give the commemorative address on Remembrance Day this year at the Australian War Memorial. And we will also, on that occasion, be officially inaugurating, permanently, this remarkable eulogy which he gave to us - our nation.
A leader so flawed is not up to the job at the Australian War Memorial. I know many of our readers have written to Dr Nelson about his decision to discard Rudyard Kipling's historically relevant inscription and have it replaced with Keating's words. I've seen dozens of your emails, thank you for sending them in.
Here's the last word on Dr Nelson's judgement and the regard in which he holds the veteran community. The letters to Dr Nelson I've seen express a range of views and talk about different aspects of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier controversy. Some mention God, some don't.
But Dr Nelson's response to each is a form email, unaltered to address each correspondents' concerns. Insult after injury.
Thank you for your correspondence of 29 October 2013 regarding the removal of the word ‘God’ from the marble surrounding the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier at the Australian War Memorial.
The Council of the Australian War Memorial reviewed this matter in mid-October and resolved to retain the phrase Known Unto God on the beveled marble surround of the Tomb in its present form and place. The Council has also agreed to permanently recognise the Eulogy to the Unknown Australian Soldier by replacing the printed version, which has been displayed outside the entrance to the Hall of Memory since shortly after the interment in 1993, with a bronze cast.
I thank you for your interest on this important matter.