Even before he became director of the Australian War Memorial, the doctor and former politician had a passion for history (and fishing).
Bruny Island, Tasmania
1969: I grew up in Launceston and each January my family would holiday on Bruny Island, off the south-east coast of Tasmania. We’d take a small boat, a tent and our two dogs and camp at Adventure Bay on South Bruny. We’d swim, ride pushbikes, go fishing and set craypots.
We ended up moving to Adelaide but when I finished my medical training, I went to Hobart to live. I wanted to get to Bruny regularly. Depending on where you are on Bruny, you can find rainforest, long white-sand beaches or rolling surf. There are penguin rookeries in the hills and sand dunes and great views back to North Bruny from Mount Mangana.
The island hasn’t changed much since I was a kid. That said, there’s now a winery with an eatery, an artisan cheesemaker and oyster tastings – things Tasmania is renowned for. My wife would never live on Bruny but if I had to retire there, I’d be very happy.
1999: My first trip to Washington was to attend the National Prayer Breakfast as a backbencher in the Federal Parliament.
On my many trips since – as minister for education and for defence as well as Opposition leader – I’ve always visited the Holocaust museum. I’m a Catholic but to be reminded of man’s inhumanity is a transformative experience.
As well as the Smithsonian, which I love, I discovered another magnificent museum – called the Newseum – that presents the history of democracy in the United States and the role of a free and independent press.
I never miss the Jefferson Memorial and the excerpt of the Declaration of Independence on the wall: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It’s more important than ever for visitors to DC – including Americans – to go there.
2006: At the end of the First World War, the British built a stone edifice, the Menin Gate, in Ypres to honour the 90,000 Commonwealth soldiers killed in Flanders.
Every night at 8 o’clock since 1928, volunteer fire-brigade buglers sound the Last Post there – sometimes wreaths are laid and the Ode is recited. The ritual stopped during the German occupation in World War II but on September 6, 1944, when Ypres was liberated, they started sounding it again. I’m told the buglers [had been drinking and] were “over-refreshed” so it wasn’t as crisp.
The first time I went, I was minister for defence. By 2012, after three years as ambassador to Belgium, NATO and the EU, I’d been 74 times. I’ve been each year since because of my current job.
For Australians – even those who don’t know about it, don’t understand it or don’t think they’d be interested – it’s a spiritual experience and one for the bucket list.