Any questions?

Writers’ festivals are always entertaining and educational – at least until the question time.

You hear a fascinating discussion of someone’s work or their background and then….. the floor is thrown open to questions and there is a procession of people who preface questions with an identify signifier and then launch into some long statement. The session chair starts to politely ask about where the question is and the audience starts to groan. Eventually the ‘questioner’ sits down.

But the blog – for once – is sorely tempted to go along to a literary event and ask a question. Next Tuesday (April 30) The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne is hosting a debate on Anzac Day on the topic of whether it is more puff than substance. If you want to go you can book at The speakers include Professor Marilyn Lake and Jeff Sparrow on one side and Dr Brendan Nelson and Brigadier Nick Jans on t’other. Readers are invited to guess which side is which. The blog served in Vietnam with Nick and he is a good bloke – intelligent, brave and perceptive. But the person the blog would really like to ask a question of is Brendan Nelson.

Some readers may recall that Brendan Nelson is a former Education Minister, who as well as setting out to destroy the Victorian College of Arts by drastic funding cuts, was the Minister who wanted every school to display a poster about Simpson and his donkey and also, despite his scientific training, mused as to whether there was a place for creationism in the school syllabus.

As the blog has written elsewhere about the Howard Government and history in the context of the ‘last Anzac’ and radical trade unionist, Alex Campbell: “This tendency to airbrush history, to erase the personal reality and replace it with a commemorative legend, was also seen with John Simpson Kirkpatrick, the famous Simpson and his donkey who survived 40 days at Gallipoli. In August 2005 the then Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, announced a program to teach Australian values to students. It featured a poster showing Simpson and his donkey and a set of values – care and compassion, a fair go, freedom, honesty, trustworthiness, respect and tolerance – which Nelson said were key Australian values. Nelson told the ABC on 24 August that teachers not prepared to teach Australian values ought to “clear off.”

“The problem for Nelson, as many historians and journalists quickly pointed out, was that Simpson was not strictly what he appeared and, while he may have represented some of the values in the list, was most certainly not the sort of citizen the (Howard) government was trying to encourage.  Alan Attwood in The Age (27 August 2005) and Ben Cubby and Jordan Baker in The Sydney Morning Herald (25 August 2005) summarised the facts. While there was some disagreement about the precise background it was generally agreed that Simpson was not the man’s name (it was Kirkpatrick); that he was Geordie, a drinker and a brawler; jumped ship and came to Australia as an illegal immigrant; was a bit of a slacker at times and probably acquired the donkey as a way of avoiding working with anyone else; was in favour a revolution to ‘clear out millionaires and dukes’; and, had enlisted so that he could get back to his family in Britain. Once again the reality was stripped out in favour of a sanitised version of reality designed to promote a political agenda. As Alan Attwood asked: ‘Who is the real donkey, Dr Nelson?’” (see How PR Works on this site)

Now I have no problem with any of those things in Simpson/Kirkpatrick’s background and you must respect anyone who served in a combat zone for even one day. But that doesn’t mean respect is due to those who misuse his service and his memory. So my question, if you could get the nod at the Melbourne Town Hall Wheeler Centre event, would be: “Dr Nelson – do you think your Simpson poster and your musing about including creationism in the curriculum were political fluff or matters of substance?”

The blog’s views on Anzac Day, by the way, can be seen in a number of contributions on the website – particularly the Topical commentary section. But, as with every April 25, the blog urges you to remember why it’s an important date: It’s the birthday or that great democrat and republican, Oliver Cromwell.