Back in May 1995, I was one of 200-odd Liberals sitting on what was without a doubt the preselection of the year. Former AMA President Dr Brendan Nelson took on the Opposition’s spokesman on superannuation and retirement incomes, David Connelly, in the federal seat of Bradfield, a seat Connelly had held for years.
Some weeks before the preselection, Nelson had kept me on the phone for an hour, providing me with all sorts of reasons to vote for him. He must have made certain presumptions from my name, and proceeded to slam Israel for its ongoing occupation of the West Bank. He also slammed what he saw as a far-Right cabal within the Liberal Party who seemed to be opposing his chances at winning.
What someone had forgotten to tell Nelson was that I was at that time part of the same cabal! Indeed, I was one of the people busily spreading the fatwa issued by Sheik David Clarke (now MLC) that Nelson was way too wet for good "mainstream" conservatives to support.
Today, of course, Nelson has jumped into bed with that same cabal. He recites all their mantras about Australian values.
In August 2005, as Education Minister responsible for the funding of independent schools, he blew his dog whistle hard, publicly lecturing Muslim independent schools to teach Australian values or "clear off".
Nelson’s suggestion? During a doorstop interview in August 2005, Dr Nelson made these remarks:
... the Australian Government announced last year a $30 million program for values to be formally taught in every Australian schools including the thirty Islamic schools throughout Australia. I have sent to every school in the country the National Values Framework and the nine key values: responsibility, care for one another, tolerance, understanding, fair go, doing your best – a whole range of values, and over the top of it I have superimposed Simpson and his Donkey as an example of what is at the heart of our national sense of emerging identity. We are also going to be providing funding to all Australian schools to actually sit down with their parents, their teachers and their broader community and talk about the values they teach, how are teachers going to actually reflect the values we want taught in Australian schools, and more specifically, I will be meeting very shortly the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils and I will be discussing with them how we can formally develop programs to ensure that not just in Islamic private schools, but also in government schools, we make sure that all children and Australian Islamic children fully understand Australian history, its culture, its values. We believe in giving every person a fair go. We don’t care where people come from; we don’t mind what religion they’ve got. But what we want them to do is to commit to the Australian Constitution, Australian rule of law, and basically if people don’t want to be Australians and they don’t want to live by Australian values and understand them, well they can basically clear off.
That interview continued ...
JOURNALIST: How much of an impact on values can Muslim schools have? For example, the mosques that they attend and obviously not all Muslims would go to Islamic schools.
DR NELSON: Well, all schools are about teaching children how to read, write, count and communicate and teaching kids how to learn. But education is also about building character, and the virtues that inform character must be taught in all Australian schools. They need to be explicit. It is a requirement of the Australian Government funding that not only will every school fly the Australian flag, but it will prominently display the National Framework for Values Education, superimposed over which is a silhouette of Simpson and his Donkey, which is at the heart of our sense of national emerging identity. And what’s important in the end is that we all love people that are talented, it doesn’t matter what school our kids go to, but in the end it is character that really counts. And the Islamic Council and the Islamic schools have been working very hard to teach very good values for their children. We want to make sure that not just those schools, but all schools that educate Australian children including Islamic children are focused on Australian values to make sure that – it’s not just the students but also the teachers – fully understand our values, our belief and the way they relate to one another and see our place in the world.
Now we know that hardly 12 months earlier, he was providing schools run by the Exclusive Brethren with exemptions from testing computer literacy for Year 6 and Year 10 students, despite this being made a condition of Federal Government independent school funding. Here's how The Age broke the story on 15 February 2008:
MORE evidence has emerged of the power of the Exclusive Brethren's lobbying in Canberra, with the sect's world leader giving thanks for the "unexpected recognition" from former federal education minister Brendan Nelson.Once again, a Howard Government Minister has been caught doing dirty deals with the Exclusive Brethren and bending law and government policy to assist them with non-integration. Nelson obviously thinks it’s OK to provide $6.6 million in funding to schools that teach their students that computers are instruments of the devil.
The Age has obtained a 2004 passage of Brethren "ministry" — transcribed words of Sydney-based world leader Bruce D. Hales and other sect figures — in which they discuss their schools.
"(The schools were) set up to deliver the young people from the world," Mr Hales told followers on July 24, 2004.
"We don't want to go back to it, we don't want to be stupid enough to go back to the world, otherwise the Lord might take away our liberties, might take away what the Government has given us. The Government is very favourable; been favourable to us this week, hasn't it, Mr David?"
Another senior Brethren man, David Stewart, replies: "Yes, very clearly. … Very ready support from the Minister for Education."
Mr Hales: "Yes, well, we need to be thankful for it. You get the unexpected recognition of what the saints (the Brethren) represent. You don't expect it, and then they give it to you, they're compelled to give it to you."
Mr Hales' words make it clear that Brethren lobbyists, including Mr Stewart, had met then education minister Dr Nelson in the preceding days.
The Education Department has confirmed that, during 2004, Dr Nelson had representations from the Brethren, and agreed to give them an exemption from testing the computer literacy of year 6 and year 10 students.
That year, computer literacy was made a condition of Federal Government funding of private schools, but at the time the Brethren shunned computers, believing them to be instruments of the devil.
Brethren spokesman Tony McCorkell said yesterday that the ministry reference merely recognised the responsive hearing given to the delegation by Dr Nelson at the 2004 meeting.
He said the Brethren's concern at the time had been that paperwork associated with its private schools would need to be lodged with the department electronically. Dr Nelson assured them they could still lodge returns on paper.
Brethren are now allowed to use computers on a restricted basis.
Then again, Nelson’s admirers from this non-integrated sect might have a point. After all, Simpson and his donkey never used computers.
An edited version of this story was first published in Crikey on Thursday 15 February 2007.