Alister Henskens portrait
Alister Henskens portrait

Tribute to Dr Brendan Nelson

Dr Brendan Nelson AO

Mr ALISTER HENSKENS (Ku-ring-gai) [5.15 p.m.]: We are all here to make a difference in our lives; that is why we are in this place as representatives of our constituents. Today, however, I pay tribute to a man who spent a considerable period of his life serving the people of the Ku-ring-gai electorate and who recently received due recognition on Australian Day. Wherever he has travelled in his professional life—whether it be in the fields of medicine, politics and ambassadorial service or as the guardian of our proud military past—he has acted with true style. The man I refer to is Dr Brendan Nelson, who today holds the position of Director of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. His vast knowledge of our military history made him the perfect choice as Director of the Australian War Memorial and it is heartening to know that our proud military record on the international stage is being preserved for current and future generations.

To suggest that Dr Nelson's career has been both distinguished and varied would be an understatement. He first came into the public spotlight in 1993 through his role as the President of the Australian Medical Association. He was elected unopposed as he worked as a medical practitioner in Hobart—the youngest person ever to hold that position. Dr Nelson's strong advocacy for Aboriginal health, immunisation and the importance of private health insurance, and his campaigning against tobacco advertising in sport would see him enter the world of politics as the Liberal member for the Sydney seat of Bradfield in March 1996. Bradfield is the Federal seat that encompasses all of the State electorate of Ku-ring-gai together with additional areas on the upper North Shore of Sydney.

Brendan Nelson's 1996 preselection is legendary in the Liberal Party as a whole as well as in my local Liberal Party branches. I joined the Liberal Party shortly after Dr Nelson became the local Federal member and I became a member of the same branch—the Saint Ives branch. As a fellow branch member, I came to see at close quarters the integrity, intelligence, depth, passion and humanity of Dr Nelson. After the 2001 election, Dr Nelson was promoted to Cabinet as the Minister for Education—an incredibly important portfolio and one that he handled with great skill. It was his idea to give government grants of up to $150,000 to individual Australian schools. It was a well-run, value-for-money improvement to Australian schools, which provided a strong contrast to the later, wasteful Labor Building the Education Revolution program.

However, tough decisions soon had to be made for our nation on the international front, and Dr Nelson was called upon to help steer our military presence on the world stage as the Minister for Defence in 2006, when the decision was made once again to commit Australian troops to Iraq, as well as to Afghanistan, East Timor and the Solomon Islands. I believe Dr Nelson was certainly the right man for the job at that time. In 2007 Dr Nelson became the eleventh leader of the Federal Liberal Party, a position he held until September 2008. He would step away from political life in 2009, when he took up an ambassadorial appointment to the European Union, Belgium and Luxembourg and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), appointed by then Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. In 2012 Dr Nelson would resign as ambassador to return home and take up the position of Director of the Australian War Memorial. If ever there was a perfect "duck to water" fit, this was certainly it.

Dr Nelson would use his time as Ambassador to Belgium to forge deep links with the communities of Flanders and bring that great knowledge to bear in his custodianship of the Australian War Memorial. His deep passion for our military history, including our tragic World War I sacrifices, would teach us all—and, importantly, young Australians—that our military story was not just on the beaches of Gallipoli but also on the muddy and bloody battlefields of the Somme, and bring to our attention place names such as Passchendaele, Fromelles and Pozieres. Of course, it was at this time 100 years ago that Australia was midway through World War I. Dr Nelson and his team have been instrumental in keeping that horrible but important period in our history in the minds of all Australians, through commemorations both here and overseas and revamped displays at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

I think it is fair to say that in every position Dr Nelson has maintained, he has undertaken that position with a great degree of hard work, intelligence, passion and self-sacrifice, as well as a deep love for Australia and his fellow Australians. So I was delighted to see that in January this year Dr Brendan Nelson was named in the Australia Day honours as a recipient of an Order of Australia award for his services to the community, the Parliament of Australia, diplomacy and cultural leadership. I thank him and his wife, Gillian, for their contribution to our country.