Brendan Nelson knew precisely what gravitas was required of him when called to give evidence for Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith. After all, as a former Defence Minister, former director of the Australian War Memorial, former ambassador to NATO and patron of several veterans’ charities, he knows a thing or two about military matters.
And, barrister Bruce McClintock, SC, asked, was he not also a member of the Order of Australia?
“Privileged to be so and surprised to be so,” Dr Nelson solemnly replied.
Mr Roberts-Smith is suing The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times, along with three journalists, for defamation after they published stories that he says made him out to be a war criminal and murderer. The media organisations are defending the action on the basis the stories were true.
Dr Nelson wore a black face mask into the witness stand and took it off uncertainly when assured that would be allowed.
He recalled that, upon being sent several citations for awards for gallantry as Defence Minister in 2006, he had read through the one for Mr Roberts-Smith three times, so struck had he been by the courage that had been exhibited by the SAS soldier. In fact, he recalled a conversation —
Nicholas Owens, SC, representing the media organisations, objected on the basis that a nest of new issues may need to be examined if that conversation was allowed into evidence. Mr McClintock did not press the issue. But he asked Dr Nelson whether he maintained contact with Mr Roberts-Smith afterwards.
“No I didn’t and it would not have been appropriate for me to have done so other than in my capacity as Defence Minister, having responsibility for members of the Defence Force.”
Later, however, during his diplomatic posting in Brussels, Dr Nelson said he’d had the privilege of taking Mr Roberts-Smith through Flanders, where 13,500 Australians were buried.