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Australia Day Honours 2016: War Memorial director Brendan Nelson fought for change

Brendan Nelson has pushed change at the Australian War Memorial against opposition from the community as well as the governing council.

Brendan Nelson with Prince Charles at the Remembrance Day National Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra ...
Brendan Nelson with Prince Charles at the Remembrance Day National Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra in November 2015 Photo: Andrew Meares

After becoming director three years ago, he began a Last Post ceremony which tells the poignant stories of the men and women on the roll of honour.

The event draws hundreds of visitors every day and is becoming a must-do for visitors to Canberra.

Australian War Memorial director Dr Brendan Nelson
Australian War Memorial director Dr Brendan Nelson  Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Dr Nelson has given the Anzac Day dawn service at the memorial a radical make-over and witnessed the crowds grow in the lead-up to the centenary of Anzac.

Attendance grew from 15,000 in 2012, the year before he arrived, to 37,000 in 2014 and 128,000 last year, the centenary of Anzac.

He has added peace keepers to the roll of honour, established an Afghanistan exhibition faster than expected and arranged the nighttime projection on to the memorial's wall of the names of the 62,000 Diggers who died in World War I.

"With Anzac Day [proposed changes[, there were people writing to The Canberra Times in 2013 complaining and angry that I was introducing readings before the [dawn] service, and projections on the memorial, and screens so people could see [the service]," he said.

"In fact, a number of those people actually approached me on Anzac Day 2013, apologising after having seen it, saying it was wonderful."

Dr Nelson becomes an officer (AO) in the general division of the Order of Australia for distinguished service to the Parliament of Australia, the community, the advancement of Australia's international relations and to major cultural institutions.

He was president of the Australian Medical Association before entering politics. He became opposition leader after the Howard government was defeated in 2007. The Labor government appointed him ambassador to the European Union.

During his time in Brussels, he frequently attended the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate war memorial in Ypres.

"I would look up at those names, rows and rows and rows of names, and as the Last Post was playing, I would always ask myself, why don't they tell us something about one of those people?" he said.

On his second day as war memorial director, he was standing near the roll of honour when he decided to introduce a Last Post ceremony that included the story behind one of the names.

Dr Nelson said his mission as director was to make the memorial's history live.

"One of the most powerful ways of doing that in my opinion is to tell and bring to life the stories of everyday Australian men and women who served and have served our country, so the Last Post ceremony is obviously one of those."

The reading of the life story of a young Australian who died for their country often draws tears among the hushed crowd.

After a recent Last Post ceremony, Dr Nelson asked a young boy what the event meant to him.

"The boy said, 'I now know they were real people, not made up'," the director said.

Dr Nelson was passionate about establishing an Afghanistan exhibition as soon as possible, despite being told it would take years.

"I take the view, if the Australian War Memorial had been able to tell the story of our engagement in Vietnam, broadly and reasonably deeply, in 1973 or 1975 even, I think some of those men might not have suffered quite as much as they had," he said.

"One junior naval officer wrote to me and said, 'thanks for explaining to my 11-year-old son in ways that I never could, why his father has been away for so long'."

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