Nelson flying wrong flags

Nelson flying wrong flags

The Australian War Memorial, like Anzac Day, has a powerful pull on the Australian imagination. Every year it becomes more popular; it has been particularly effective at attracting the imaginations of the young.

Even as participation in marches declines, young women and men, many without ancestors who actually fought for Australia, gather to recognise, revere, mourn and salute those who rendered the nation service. The backdrop – at once a mausoleum, memorial and museum as well as, by now, a part of the national insignia as well recognised by Australians as the Sydney Opera House – punctuates our national story of the nobility and futility of the sacrifice it honours.

Images were projected on to the War Memorial during Anzac Day commemorations this year.

Images were projected on to the War Memorial during Anzac Day commemorations this year.

Photo: Rohan Thomson

Every generation has had its feelings about, and empathy with the suffering and sacrifice, glory and gloom of war.

The last generation of an Australian citizen army is now in its 90s. Perhaps 5 per cent of the nation have a living family member who has actually been in active service. It was once close to 100 per cent.

The relationship between citizen and military service is now fundamentally different from 20, 40 or 60 years ago. Yet the rites and rituals of Anzac move more people every year, with the next four years, which include the centenary of Anzac two years hence, likely to continue the trend.


Politicians and military leaders have not caused the movement. But they are now seeking to harness it, to channel and discipline it, and, with some, to have it play a part in a war some regard as equally important – the culture wars.

Who could be better as appointed stepfather to the new Anzac than Brendan Nelson, the former minister for education who wanted to make it compulsory for every school to have a flagpole and a flag raising ceremony, former minister of defence and one of the Cabinet who sent young Australian men and women into harms way in our latest futile and meaningless wars?

Dr Nelson, director at the war memorial, is busy inventing new rituals, rites and ‘‘traditions’’ for the memorial. On its face, his activities have seemed innovative, with-it and imaginative.

They have attracted praise. But Nelson, at the end of the day, has always had a tin ear for the national mood. Many of the ideas his energies involve should be resisted. They falsify and dishonour the real purpose of the commemoration. And they are conscripting our genuine feelings into something that is fake, for injection into national cultural and ideological wars in a way that will be destructive both of national unity, and national purpose.

I hope we are still commemorating Anzac Day 100 years from now, and with somewhat the same sort of dynamic combination of grief, recognition, respect, and resolve which has always been a part of the day. But I do not believe that it was ever intended to be used to create a religious festival that has become, in these Godless days, more significant to most folk than Christmas or Easter.

Nor do I believe that it ought to be allowed to be harnessed into a cult of ostentatious pseudo-patriotism and nationalism, whether of the over-the-top hand-on-the-heart type shown by Americans, or a Triumph of the Will style-tattoo (replete with soldiers, rather than survivors).

Brendan Nelson is now working up for his third pension from Australian taxpayers. One of his old political tricks was to tell some anecdote of something honest and personal told to him by some named ordinary decent citizen, in the process seeking to make some dubious larger point it was difficult to refute without belittling the subject of the anecdote. He’s conscripted the technique for his memorial function too.

Nelson, at the end of the day, has always had a tin ear for the national mood. Many of the ideas his energies involve should be resisted. They falsify and dishonour the real purpose of the commemoration.

His idea of enlivening and reimagining Anzac Day for a new generation runs the risk of turning the Australian War Memorial into a fun park, and appropriating a simple love of country into a wallow of flag worship, and giving a place to professional military service at odds with the national tradition of civilian volunteerism in times of war.

Nelson is like me in that he has never spent a day in a military uniform, nor ever put his life at hazard for his country. That doesn’t disqualify him from a right to a view about war or sacrifice. But, given the apolitical nature of the memorial, the public can be sceptical when a politician is put in charge.

Nelson is using the imagery, liturgy and symbols of Anzac to promote that fake and tendentious patriotism he tried to instil as education minister. Anyone who disagreed could be called, of course, unpatriotic, perhaps the purpose of the exercise.

He threatens to make a national institution controversial. Along the way, he is indulging, at our expense, both his appetite and flair for self-publicity to the max. Sceptics about Nelson – they have never been wanting – are entitled to wonder if they are being had.

Nelson, former Catholic seminarian, doctor, medical-politico, Howard government minister and Labor government ambassador abroad can hardly be accused of being naive. As minister for defence, he delighted in being in the presence of uniforms and was a soft touch for military toys. As minister for education, he marked himself on the faux-patriotism stakes by his insistence that every school have a flagpole, and a daily orgy of worship of it.

Flag ceremonies have long been controversial. While 99 per cent of the 100,000 plus names on the Hall of Remembrance were losing their lives, about a quarter of them had come from Catholic schools, which had consciously refused to engage in the patriotic manifestations of honouring God, serving Kings or Queens and saluting flags. Only those in the public schools did. That was not some peculiarly Irish thing, though there were elements of that. It was also part of a sensible reaction against the sort of jingoism and aggressive nationalism that had produced the effusions of blood in World War I. Catholics and protestants alike believed in ‘‘love of country’’ stuff – but they feared ‘‘my country right or wrong’’ stuff.

Australian Catholics and Irish-Australians fought for King and country in the same proportions as anyone else. But they were never happy about stay-at-home politicians reading political meanings, especially about the reasons for their sacrifices, from lakes of the blood of others. Nor were others who served. Contempt for politicians has long run strong among the other ranks.

In both world wars, those with the education to know that conservative politicians represented all that was true and decent, including roast mutton, the vicar and the job at the bank, were of the officer class. This class, which founded the RSL and ever afterwards pretended to be representative of the feelings of all who served under them, has never been famous for its feeling for the national mood.

I am sure that Dr Nelson was sincere in his belief that he was doing his duty to his country in sending Australian men and women into danger in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Then most people did not agree with him about the need for these interventions; time has not increased their appreciation of his vision, judgment or responsibility for those dead, wounded, bereaved or lost as a result.

Whether sending our soldiers was wise or not, all Australians have long understood the difference between judging the leaders who cause such sacrifice, and respecting and revering those who served, those who suffered, and those other Australians who have had to share the sacrifice these men and women made.

Nelson ultimately failed in politics because he could not persuade people that he had any abiding belief or principles. He was liked, but could never inspire, never convince, never cut through. He was never less credible than when he put on his sincere, or angry, or patriotic face.

That a board made up mostly of members, present and former, of the military officer class, has visited a former politician on the AWM, as we prepare for the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli was amazing. It is perhaps in pursuit of some agenda and ADF-Labor politics of its own.

That the ADF has allowed to be conscripted for AWM purposes the good names and reputations of genuine heroes to a theory of what will make the memorial even more popular, fashionable, or ‘‘cool’’ is likewise a mystery. Soldiers, above all, know how unromantic service and sacrifice is, and how shameless politicians can be in wanting to stand beside them.

Australian soldiers, of all periods, did love their country, and its institutions, including, even when they were Irish, its heritage of British freedoms, represented, in part, by the Union Jack on the flag. But most were never semi-religious or reverential about such matters, or about insignia of it, such as flags, politicians, or senior officers. They were cynical, openly derisive and dismissive of those who were, or those wanting showy and bombastic occasions of ceremonial worship of patriotic idols.

Study after study has shown that what inspired men to hard fighting, risk and sacrifice, including suicidal charges at machine guns, was not God, or King, or Billy Hughes, or duty, love of mum, Madge and the kids. It was comradeship and a firm determination not to let their mates down.

Part of the trauma and grief so many experienced after the war was a fear that they had. For some this might be only by inexplicably surviving when others hadn’t. Their fellow survivors – mates – could understand, up to a point. Others, particularly those, such as Dr Nelson, given to unconvincing bombast, couldn’t and were resented when they tried.

John Howard was a master of appropriation of images Australians have about themselves into an intensely political (and false) narrative of our society and relationships with each other. His particular genius was inversion, and the use of words and phrases such as mateship, fair dinkum, a fair go, irreverence, fair play, a classless society and an egalitarian streak that once seemed to belong to a Labor Party which had, however, lost much of its sense of moral purpose. Inject into such phrases words about honour, duty, sacrifice, or commonplaces about love of sport, families and friends, dubiousness about politicians and public servants.

Soon one has created from the adjectives not a tale of group survival, a man who stood by and with his mates but a rugged individualist – probably anti-union to boot – of some sort of Ayn Rand mould. One whose frustrations with the world can safely be channelled, as in the US, into bogus worries about the safety and security of the nation, the stability of our ‘‘traditions’’, the fitness of non-British people to lead or represent us, and the creation of relentless and scratchable itches about invaders, strangers and outsiders.


All the better, in these Godless days, if it uses the rhythms, cadences and other tricks of homiletics to create secular rituals of a type organised religion seems to have forgotten.

The capacity of the military to put on a good ceremony, and their shamelessness about using rhetorically strong Christian hymns makes the message seem more powerful. The populace starved of spiritual sustenance. The priests and pastors hardly resist. The average Australian could tell you more about what Anzac means to her than what Christ’s message, or sacrifice was all about, or why we celebrate Easter.

Jack Waterford

Jack Waterford is the former Editor-at-large at The Canberra Times and writes a regular column

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