April 2008


Leaders roll

By Mungo MacCallum

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Banker-turned-politician-turned-commentator Professor John Hewson is very cross with the Australian media. He thinks journalists have become infatuated with Kevin Rudd and will probably continue to back him uncritically "until long after he's relevant".

"Enter poor Brendan Nelson," Hewson wrote in the Australian Financial Review last month. "He'd struggle even if he were Nelson Mandela."

This is something of an exaggeration; I am sure that had Dr Nelson spent 27 years in prison and then emerged as the saviour of his people and his country, even the Canberra press gallery would accord him a certain amount of respect. As things are, though, its members can only report what they see; and what they see is a neophyte leader floundering in the opinion polls and being treated with contempt even by his own side. The veteran conservative John Stone's line about Nelson being a political chameleon like Andrew Peacock, but without the substance, was far more devastating than anything that has come from the commentariat.

However, there is no doubt that Hewson's basic premise is right: the coverage of the current leader of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition has been uniformly unkind. But this does not mean it has been unfair. In writing off Nelson's chances of becoming prime minister, the pundits can legitimately claim that history is on their side.

Since the end of World War II, Australia has had 17 different federal Opposition leaders, four of whom (Gough Whitlam, Andrew Peacock, John Howard and Kim Beazley) have held the position on two separate occasions. Between them they have contested 25 elections, not counting separate polls for the half-Senate. And just six of them actually won, and one of those (Malcolm Fraser) was appointed prime minister before doing so.

So the odds on Nelson, or for that matter anyone else, joining that exclusive band are not good. Clearly it takes a rare combination of talent and circumstances to prevail, and at present the circumstances are not in Nelson's favour. And even if things do change, here is the killer: not a single first-up Opposition leader has ever won a federal election. Of the two defeated prime ministers who came back to lead their parties from Opposition, Ben Chifley and Gough Whitlam, the first lost badly in the 1951 election and the second was humiliated in 1977. The other first-up Oppositions leaders all came fairly close to winning, but no cigar: Bill Snedden in 1974 (when he proclaimed "We didn't win, but we didn't lose," an analysis that has gained a deserved immortality), Andrew Peacock in 1984, and Kim Beazley in 1998 - and Peacock and Beazley each went on to defeat at another election.

And it usually takes more than one change of leadership before an Opposition party can finally move to the treasury benches. Labor had four leaders between 1949 and 1972, three between 1975 and 1983, and four between 1996 and 2007. The Coalition only had two between 1972 and 1975, but the circumstances were exceptional; it went through four between 1983 and 1996. It is no more than realistic to suggest that Nelson's chances of success in 2010 are, at best, somewhere between Buckley's and none.

Furthermore, Australians are reluctant to change governments after a single term. Even the Whitlam government was given a reprieve in 1974; and Howard, despite losing a majority of the vote in 1998, was saved by the marginal seats. Barring monumental incompetence or total economic collapse, it is hard to see the pattern changing now.

The former appears unlikely: while Rudd's government is by definition lacking in experience, to date it has been vigorous, focused and disciplined. The latter is a possibility, but a fairly remote one: while Rudd has inherited a number of nagging problems from his lackadaisical predecessors, whose idea of fiscal policy was a steady stream of tax cuts, welfare payments and handouts, the domestic economy remains, as it has been for the lifetimes of all those now in parliament, basically sound. Even if the American economy goes into meltdown, the Asian appetite for our raw materials is not going to decline. Rudd's long-term planning for a second, and perhaps a third, term is unlikely be in vain. Nelson's only hope would seem to be a statistical anomaly of the magnitude of Old Rowley winning the Melbourne Cup at 100-1 - and that has already happened once in the past century.

Seen from this perspective, the Coalition has handed Nelson a poisoned chalice, thrown him a hospital pass, installed him in the death seat. Yet by all accounts he fought ferociously for the privilege of being leader, as did his rival, the even more manically ambitious Malcolm Turnbull. Nelson was elected mainly as a result of the determination of the party's right wing, headed by the Grey Eminence Nick Minchin, to stop Turnbull at all costs. He succeeded only by a narrow margin, and there are already suggestions that some of those who followed Minchin's advice are having second thoughts. Nelson's parliamentary performances have not been all bad, but they have reinforced John Stone's claim that he lacks substance. He presents as a policy lightweight, wavering between the views of the hardline conservatives to whom he owes his election and the liberalism which better accords with his own instincts.

Worse, he comes to the job carrying a lot of baggage from the Howard years. His time as defence minister is being forensically examined by his successor, Joel Fitzgibbon, leading to accusations of neglect, incompetence and lack of due process. So far there has been nothing as effective as the "$10-billion black hole" line with which Peter Costello berated Kim Beazley during Beazley's first term as Opposition leader, but it is early days. And Nelson's early stint in education may also be fertile ground, if only for ridicule: his panacea for schools of a flagpole in every yard and a poster of Simpson's donkey in every classroom almost defies parody.

As it happens, his successor in education, Julie Bishop, is now his deputy and is seen by many, especially by those on the party's Right, as his possible successor as leader. For those who regard Turnbull as a dangerous lefty (and those who simply can't stand the man - a substantial minority), Bishop would be an acceptable alternative, less immured in the Howard years than Nelson and potentially attractive as the first woman to lead a major party. And if the worst comes to the worst, there is always the amiable Joe Hockey, Howard's "great big bear of a man". His ursinity is not an unmitigated advantage; he may be just a bit too warm and cuddly for some of the hardheads of the Right. But he is there if an emergency arises.

Turnbull is not the only one breathing down Nelson's neck. However, he is certainly the main threat: the polls show he is more electable than Nelson, and - whatever doubts the Minchinites might have about his ideological purity - in the end, winning is what counts. The likelihood is that Turnbull will contest the 2010 election, hoping to join Kevin Rudd, Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser (well, sort of) in the select group of politicians who have become prime minister at their first attempt. But when will the transition occur?

There are two main schools of thought. One is that there should be a quick, clean kill: the longer Nelson remains, the more time will be wasted in trying to salvage the unsalvageable. Sooner or later he is going to become an object of derision, much as Alexander Downer did in 1995, and it would be both sensible and merciful to act before that happens.

The other side counsels patience: Nelson will probably have to go eventually; the voters are never going to prefer him to Rudd and will eventually stop listening to him altogether, as they did to Simon Crean, to Beazley and finally to Howard. That will be the time to replace him with the fresh and dynamic young Malcolm. To throw Turnbull in at this stage risks wasting him as well; there's a long time until the next election and there is no guarantee that Turnbull, still something of a political learner, would survive. So let Nelson cope with the honeymoon period, the months when the commentators are still fascinated by Rudd's novelty. Let him cop the flak that comes with the triumphalism of the newly installed ministers, let him face the accusations of sour grapes and negative carping, leave him dangling in the breeze until the strategic moment arrives. In this scenario Nelson plays the role of a hapless John the Baptist, whose only function is to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah - a part which Turnbull is only too ready to take on. What happens next - crucifixion or new world - is not stated.

All of which may give the impression that Nelson is completely without support in the party room, but this is not so. There are also loyalists who insist that he has to be given time to prove himself; and there are others, a few, who will always remain true to the leader, whoever it may be - until, of course, that leader loses an election. Then he will be cats' meat. Only one Liberal, Andrew Peacock, has ever been given a second chance after losing an election, and that was only because he wasn't John Howard. If Nelson somehow survives to fight in 2010, he will not survive afterwards if he loses - which, as we have seen, history suggests he inevitably will.

A grim prospect, you would think; but it's not all gloom and doom in the Coalition ranks. Asked in March about Nelson's single-figure rating as preferred prime minister, frontbencher Bruce Billson replied cheerfully, "Yes, it's good that we're not peaking too early." With that sort of resilience, there has to be hope.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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