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Brendan Nelson’s gravy sandwich

Jan 28, 2020 • 15m 51s

As minister for defence, Brendan Nelson controversially spent $6.6 billion on Boeing fighter jets. Now he is running the company’s Australian division.

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Brendan Nelson’s gravy sandwich

150 • Jan 28, 2020

Brendan Nelson’s gravy sandwich

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, the host of 7am.

[Theme music]

As minister for defence, Brendan Nelson controversially spent 6.6 billion dollars on Boeing fighter jets. Now he’s running the company’s Australian division. In this episode, Mike Seccombe looks at the links between our government and the global weapons trade.

Mike, you covered Brendan Nelson during the Howard years. Can you tell me what he was like?

MIKE:

He was as different from John Howard as it would be possible to find in the Liberal Party. I think he could say, you know, Howard was dower. Nelson was all charm. He rode motorcycles. He had a diamond stud in his ear. He loved electric guitars.

RUBY:

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

MIKE:

And for the guitar tragics out there who was a Fender man. He got a Stratocaster for his fiftieth birthday and he was known around the parliament as Dr. Smoothie.

RUBY:

Why was he known as that?

MIKE:

Well, just because he was so smooth. I mean, he was smooth as a gravy sandwich. I mean, he was just all smiles and twinkles. You know, he was definitely a charmer. So that was what he was like personally.

In the Howard government, he filled a number of ministerial portfolios. He was minister for health and generally considered to have done a reasonably good job in that role. Then he became minister for defence and was not considered generally so favourably.

One of the most controversial decisions during his tenure as defence minister was the decision to spend six point six billion dollars purchasing a fleet of 24 Super Hornet jets from Boeing. That was back in 2007.

RUBY:

Why was that controversial?

MIKE:

Well, the purchase of the Super Hornets was very controversial because it was done against the advice of the Australian air chiefs – the military people – and one of the retired air commanders, Garry Bates, described it at the time as unprecedented in contemporary defence procurement for the minister to overrule the departmental experts in this way. And at the time, a lot of reports suggested that Nelson had been subject to a very concerted lobbying effort from Boeing and that perhaps that had something to do with it. So so anyway, that that was his time in defence. And then after leaving politics, he went off to a diplomatic life for a while, became our ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg, the European Union, and and significantly to NATO. So he maintained some kind of a defence connection through the NATO ambassadorship. And then in 2012, he came back and became director of the Australian War Memorial, a position that he held until the end of 2019.

RUBY:

So can you take me to Brendan Nelson's time at the War Memorial?

MIKE:

Yes. Well, he took the role very seriously and came in with big plans to expand the buildings, to have bigger exhibitions, made a big thing of playing the last post every day, became very somber about the whole thing and quite serious. And he brought in a lot of money. He greatly accelerated the sponsorship arrangements for the war memorial from lots of companies, but most controversially, from defence weapons makers. And, you know, there have been quite a number of critics of this over the years suggesting that to have weapons manufacturers sponsoring the war memorial is, you know, a little like a tobacco company sponsoring a cancer institute. You know, that these people sell the products that kill and then subsidise memorials to the dead. So it was very, very much criticised over the years and continued to be right up until the end. And in fact, this played out again not long before his time came to an end at the war memorial where he appeared before a defence estimates committee.

The new Greens representative on the committee, Senator Jordan Steele-John, came in and confessed his, quote, great surprise, unquote, to learn that the war memorial took money from the makers of military weapons.

Archival Tape -- Senator Jordan Steele-John:

“The Australian public are currently unable to tell exactly how much corporate weapons manufacturers are contributing to the maintenance of our national war memorial.”

And he asked Nelson exactly how much had been given during the seven years of his tenure in the job. And Nelson replied that he didn't know for sure. And to quote him, it varies between 300,000 to 500,000 dollars a year and then said he wasn't aware of the specific total sum but would take it on notice.

RUBY:

So which companies were these donations coming from?

MIKE:

I think about 6 of the top 10 weapons manufacturers in the world were donating substantial sums to the war memorial. In the estimates committee, Nelson name-checked only a couple of them.

I can tell you certainly that since I arrived Boeing has contributed a million in total. Lockheed Martin has contributed a million.

He went on much greater length about Boeing. He praised Boeing effusively for putting in 500,000 that had enabled the war memorial to mount an exhibition about Australia's troops involvement in Afghanistan. And then he added, It's slightly, slightly defensively, I would suggest, by suggesting that quite not a single person had criticized Boeing's involvement.

RUBY:

And so what was the reaction from everyone in the estimates hearing to that?

MIKE:

Well, Jordan Steel John, was clearly furious about this sort of free advertising of these companies

Archival Tape -- Senator Jordan Steele-John:

“I personally find the involvement of weapons manufacturers in the war memorial to be morally repugnant.“

And as soon as he said that there was an immediate pile on from other people on the committee,

Archival Tape -- Jacqui Lambie:

“Seriously! I find it really disrespectful, I’m sorry but
I’m with you. I just find it really disrespectful.”

one of the liberal members, Senator David Vann, called Steele-John's views repugnant three, three separate times,

Archival Tape -- Senator David Vann:

“Those views are repugnant.”

also shouted that they are rubbish.

Archival Tape -- Senator David Vann:

“Oh, rubbish!”

And the committee chair, Eric Abetz, hastened to assure Nelson that, quote, everyone here, unquote, disagreed with what the Greens senator had to say.

And then there was this sort of series of statements of praise for Nelson from both coalition and Labor members of the committee

Archival Tape -- Senator:

“As inadequate as it is, on behalf of us all, Dr Nelson, to you and your team, but particularly to you I thank you very much. On behalf of everybody to whom the War Memorial means so much, thank you.”

Before Abetz wound the whole thing up by inviting all present to join in a round of applause for Nelson, given that it was his last, last appearance before the committee.

Archival Tape -- Senator Eric Abetz:

“Because ‘thank you’ is inadequate, can I suggest we put our hands together”

RUBY:

So, Mike, why are we talking about this now?

MIKE:

Because just three weeks after that, a week ago, Brendan Nelson was announced as the new president and chairman of the board of Boeing, Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific.

RUBY:

We’ll be back after this.

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RUBY:

Mike, Brendan Nelson who bought 6.6 billion dollars worth of Boeing fighter jets when he was the defence minister and he took money from Boeing to Mount Exhibition's War Memorial, he’s now president of Boeing Australia. How significant is that job?

MIKE:

Well, when most people think about Boeing, I suspect they think about passenger jets, you know, like the 747 and all the other enormous fleet that they run with various airlines around the world. But they're actually the world's second biggest defence weapons manufacturer as well. And they flog weaponry all over the globe. And the Australian subsidiary, which Nelson is now heading up, is the largest division of Boeing outside the US. It employs more people in Australia than anywhere except the United States. So it's pretty significant.

RUBY:

So compared with other countries, is Australia heavily involved into arms manufacturing?

MIKE:

Well, we would like to be. I think we're inside the top 20 now. The government would like us to be inside the top 10. And it didn't always used to be the case. I mean, Australia has always made weapons, but in the past, we were very circumspect about who we would sell them to. I spoke to Paul Barratt, who's a former head of the Defence Department, who told me that early in his time in the public service, in the government bureaucracy, they were very leery of the global arms trade. And while Australia manufactured some weapons, we wouldn't sell them to anyone, essentially, except our closest allies, the Brits, the Americans, the Canadians, the New Zealanders, perhaps a little bit to some of the NATO people. But we certainly didn't flog them to Africa or Asia because of concerns about where they might end up and how they might be used.

RUBY:

And that's changed now?

MIKE:

Oh, that's changed dramatically. Yes. In January and 2018, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull unveiled a new defence export strategy in inverted commas, which was underwritten with a three point eight billion with a B export facility to finance Australian manufacturers and help them sell overseas.

Archival Tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:

“What we’re talking about this morning is Aus jobs, and Aus innovation and Aus technology. And ensuring that the brilliance of the men and women in this building and many others like it around Australia results in more exports of our defence industry products… “

So now, when Australia's defence manufacturers want to try and flog their weapons, the Australian government goes off to arms fairs, sets up stalls, helps with marketing. All they have to do, all the weapons manufacturers have to do, essentially is buy their tickets, go over there and give their presentations. And the government even helps coach them on how they should present. So it's very, very hand in glove with the defence industry in Australia. And we will go anywhere in the world basically to try and sell our weaponry.

So anyway, at the time he was launching it, Turnbull lamented that Australia only in inverted commas, sold between one point five and 2.5 billion dollars worth of military kit overseas per year. And now, of course, we're trying to get into the top 10 arms trading nations. And to be honest, in the past financial year, we've roughly trebled the amount we're selling overseas. It's up to around five billion dollars, very close to five billion dollars.

RUBY:

So the weapons that we're selling, do we know where they're going?

MIKE:

We don't have much clue, to be honest. No. The government is extraordinarily secretive about where they're going. We know that in 2018 19, there were 100 export permits granted relating to weapons to go to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of Congo. All these countries are very dubious. They've been accused of war crimes. Saudi Arabia in particular, as we know, is is now engaged in combat in Yemen, which is cost a large number of lives and has been roundly criticised and has seen a number of other nations suspend their armaments sales. That hasn't happened in this country.

RUBY:

So what does it matter that Brendan Nelson is now running one of these big companies?

MIKE:

Well, it goes to the question of the closeness of politicians and the defence industry and what we expect of our public officials. I mean, in general, we have prohibition - is not very strong winds, but cooling off periods, that are supposed to stop former politicians using their contacts to lobby for private sector employers after politics. You know, Nelson obviously has been out of politics per say for a long time, but he's been in the you know, what you might call that the industrial military political complex throughout. And so he serves as a very interesting case study of the way in which defence manufacturers seek to curry political favour by employing former senior politicians. You know, and we shouldn't just pick on Nelson either. I mean, there are quite a number of them.

Kim Beazley, the former Labor leader, former Australian ambassador to the United States, went on the board of Lockheed Martin, the world's biggest defence manufacturer, in June in 2016. And then he left to become governor of Western Australia. And he was replaced by a Liberal former minister, Amanda Vanstone, with no background in the defence portfolio, I might add. So you can see that politicians, former politicians and the defence industry are very much hand in glove these days. And there's a lot of them. I mean, a former leader of the Liberal Party, Andrew Peacock, once had the role that Brendan Nelson has now heading, Boeing as someone told me. Peacock knew a great deal about racehorses, but not much about defence. So the question is, why was he there? And then of course there are people who actually do know quite a lot about defence and they're making the jump too.

Like who?

MIKE:

Well, the recently retired chief of defence, Air Chief Marshal David Binskin, parachuted into a job with BAE, the big British weapons manufacturer. The former Army chief, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lay, found a place on the board of EOS Systems, an Australian firm that we know was exporting weapons to the United Arab Emirates, which is another country that's been accused of war crimes. So there's a big, big revolving door – Jordan Steele-John, called it a bloodstained revolving door – between the public and private sectors in this area.

RUBY:

What's your view on this Mike?

MIKE:

Well, I think that we have a ministerial code of conduct that governs post separation careers. It's very weak. That code needs to be much more rigorous. There should be much stronger constraints on their post public sector careers, particularly in defense, because the global weapons trade is so notoriously corrupt. We need to regulate these things much more carefully because it really is fraught with the possibilities of corruption and people dying.

RUBY:

Thanks so much for your time today, Mike.

MIKE:

No problem. Thank you.

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Elsewhere in the news:

A whistleblower in Bridget McKenzie’s office has revealed that the Sports Minister’s chief-of-staff was warned that the controversial sports grant scheme could damage the government. McKenzie’s administration of the scheme was heavily criticised in an Auditor-General’s report. According to the whistleblower, the minister’s chief of staff responded to concerns by saying “this is how the minister wants to do it”.

And anti-violence campaigners have spoken out against the decision to appoint author and activist Bettina Arndt to the Order of Australia. In 2017 Arndt interviewed a convicted paedophile for a segment she called “feminists persecute disgraced teacher”. Former Australian of the year Rosie Batty has said she is “dismayed” by the decision to reward work that pits men against women.

I'm Ruby Jones. See you tomorrow.

As minister for defence, Brendan Nelson controversially spent $6.6 billion on Boeing fighter jets. Now he is running the company’s Australian division. In this episode, Mike Seccombe looks at the links between our government and the global weapons trade.

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

Close ties between government and military industries in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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150: Brendan Nelson’s gravy sandwich