Is Brendan Nelson our next Governor-General?

BRENDAN Nelson will this weekend steer Australia through the solemn and emotional commemoration of the end of World War I a century ago.

His performance is encouraging the view there could be a further national leadership role for the chief of the Australian War Memorial.

Incumbent vice-regal representative General Sir Peter Cosgrove will retire in March and one of the key decisions by Prime Minister Scott Morrison before the election will be to name a replacement.

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Amid the collection of possibles-and-probables is Dr Brendan Nelson, a former Liberal leader with Labor admirers and a record of commitment to public service.

We have had one Governor-General with a collection of earrings — Dame Quentin Bryce.

Might we expect another? Dr Nelson’s ear-jewellery, first adopted in the late 1970s to impress a girlfriend, was a constant reference point during his time in parliament, but his credentials extend well beyond what he wore in his lobes.

He is fit and active at age 60 and is already an untainted national figure.

Dr Nelson also has republican tendencies and if not appointed to the vice-regal post might loom as an elected president in a hypothetical constitutional change.

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This could be the weekend which seals the prospect of Mr Nelson becoming Her Majesty’s representative — or even replacement — in Australia.

Most recently, Dr Nelson helped package and announce a $500 million expansion of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra to accommodate displays honouring overseas deployments which at present have no fixtures, and to upgrade the technologies and visitor interactions of the building.

Director of the Australian War Memorial Dr Brendan Nelson with an artists impression of the proposed upgrades to the War Memorial. Picture Gary Ramage

Director of the Australian War Memorial Dr Brendan Nelson with an artists impression of the proposed upgrades to the War Memorial. Picture Gary RamageSource:News Corp Australia

The AWM has had an increased national prominence since Dr Nelson became director almost six years ago exactly.

Before that he was Australia’s ambassador to the EU and NATO, Belgium and Luxembourg from 2009-2012.

Most Australians would know him from his brief time as Liberal leader of the Opposition, after Labor defeated the Howard government in 2007.

He gave way to Malcolm Turnbull’s first leadership romp after just 10 months.

Before then he held important portfolios from defence to education after entering parliament in the 1996 election which made John Howard prime minister.

But there was a national leadership role before that political and diplomatic career.

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Dr Nelson was president of the Australian Medical Association from 1993-95, around the time then Labor prime minister Paul Keating called the AMA the most powerful trade union in the country.

Mr Keating and Dr Nelson have patched up their relationship since, which caused the latter some problems.

Dr Nelson is a great fan of a Keating eulogy to the Unknown Soldier, and in 2013 proposed using a line from it on the nameless soldier’s AWM tomb.

He wanted to replace “Known unto God” with Mr Keating’s words, “He is one of us, he is all of us”. There was outrage and then prime minister Tony Abbott barred the new words.

Despite this, Mr Keating once scoffed at Dr Nelson’s Liberal leadership saying, “I liked him better when he had an earring.”

That earring took up so much of the Nelson profile he gave a detailed explanation in his 2009 farewell to parliament.

“The truth of it is that, at the age of 17, my then girlfriend suggested I should get an earring,” he said.

“I thought, ‘If that’s what it takes, I’ll get an earring’.”

And it stayed despite a growing band of critics and warnings his career would suffer from the ear stud. Until his second wife Gillian told him: “Blokes your age look stupid in earrings.”

— Malcolm is national political editor of news.com.au. Continue the conversation on Twitter @farrm51.