July 2005

The Nation Reviewed

The doc, the vet, the matrons

By John Birmingham
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Brendan Nelson, John Howard’s education minister, did a funny thing a while back. Funny strange, that is, not funny ha-ha. He apologised to an opponent. Even stranger was the choice of enemy upon whom he bestowed this rare benevolence: Tony Windsor, independent MP for New England and bête noire of Nationals leader John Anderson. Most days, if what was left of Windsor’s hair caught fire nobody in the government would cross the chamber to piss on it.

Windsor had complained because Nelson’s parliamentary secretary for education, Pat Farmer, had bruted him out of a gig at O’Connor Catholic High School in Armidale, New South Wales. A new science block was in need of a grand opening and the school had asked Windsor to do a little stand-up because nobody from the government was available. When word of this impertinence reached Farmer he leaned on the school to disinvite the local member, saying it was against “protocol” to have Windsor snip the ribbon. After a bit of rough-housing behind the dressing sheds, Windsor was allowed to do his bit and Nelson delivered not one apology but two: one to Windsor and another to the school itself. It may be that Windsor’s threat to complain to a Senate inquiry motivated this rare backdown – or it may be that Nelson was genuinely embarrassed and sorry. It’s never easy to tell with the Doc.

Labor’s wheelchair-bound war veteran Graham Edwards would love an apology from him. Edwards was banned from conducting a flag-raising ceremony at a school – his office, probably wisely, won’t divulge which one – in Western Australia. Having lost both his legs while fighting under the flag in Vietnam, Edwards was a tad offended to be told he couldn’t hoist the old girl for the children at this nameless school. According to Nelson, only government MPs and senators are allowed to do that. Hopefully they won’t blow their entire travel budget on European tours this winter. With school funding now dependent on having a flagpole, thousands of them are scattered all round the country, and it is going to require a mighty effort to ensure none are interfered with by the likes of Edwards.

Not that Nelson, one of the government’s most active and effective ministers, is likely to have time even if he stays home. Following Nelson’s trail of press clippings gives rise to an image of the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, rushing hither and yon and crying out: “I’m late, I’m late, I’m so very, very late.” Last year he rescued a huge and complex package of tertiary education changes that his more ideologically driven predecessor, David Kemp, had been unable to wrangle through a truculent Senate. Some of Nelson’s redrafting of Kemp’s reforms amounted almost to a reversal of intent. Where Kemp was looking to cut the universities free of government regulation, Nelson has increased Canberra’s control, gathering to himself the power to set student numbers in certain areas and to withdraw funding for various “cappuccino courses” – degrees in surfboard riding, aromatherapy, the whereabouts of Elvis Presley, and the like.

As frustrating as some found his habit of bringing every discussion back to The Fascinating Fellow Who Is Brendan, he was credited with driving the negotiations to a successful conclusion. As a result, and for the first time, his leadership ambitions are now being taken seriously. Not for the first time, the question is being asked: what goes on inside that wonderfully photogenic head?

Generous and willing to compromise in order to achieve passage of his tertiary education reforms, Nelson has seemed entirely obstinate on a related matter – the introduction of voluntary student unionism on Australian campuses. Student unions, though they might look from the outside like Stalinist hangovers, spend most of their money on useful things like sporting and club facilities, basic welfare, cheap food, childcare and free medical and legal services. In a regional centre like Armidale, crippling the student union at the University of New England means diminishing the quality of life for the wider community, who currently enjoy access to the sort of facilities most small country towns can only dream of. Aside from the predictable howls of spotty student politicians, a scarifying array of grown-ups has predicted madness, desolation and despair unless Nelson backs down.

The Doc remains unmoved. Likewise with his plan to introduce a national school-leaving exam. While the rest of the education system moves towards progressive assessment, Nelson appears determined that every little Vegemiter should endure the same one-chance-only Nietzschean death-match that makes the Higher School Certificate in New South Wales such a standout rite of passage. Recently he told the Sydney Institute that “some universities would receive no research funding” under his new arrangements. He even pondered whether they should be allowed to call themselves universities at all.

It would seem to speak of an ideological obsession. Except that nothing in Nelson’s past – which includes a couple of years as president of the Australian Medical Association – marks him out as an ideologue of any sort, let alone of the right. On occasion he still likes to remind people he is one of the good guys in Cabinet, sticking up for refugees, Aborigines and middle-class women who’d like a bit of publicly-funded IVF treatment. He seems to be managing a neat trick, establishing his street cred as a true liberal while quietly assuming a much tougher persona than, say, Treasurer Peter Costello, one of his rival leadership aspirants.

Could Nelson be a contender? He is an assiduous networker of the Liberal backbench. He is probably the second-handsomest man in parliament, behind John Anderson. Beneath that smooth surface, however, they say he can be a tough and bare-knuckled opponent when challenged. The polish fades and the working-class kid he once was is there in front of you, bristling and working his jaws like he could eat rocks for breakfast. Politics has aged Nelson considerably. Permanent bags now gather under his eyes. His face looks increasingly pouchy. He is given to rushes of blood when angry or frustrated, lending him a mottled appearance that he perhaps needs to control, in the same way that Costello has had to practise smiling without looking as if he has just dacked you in front of the whole school.

None of this will necessarily get in Nelson’s way. After all, he has overcome plenty of scepticism to get where he is now. Running for parliament in 1996, he had to jump two major hurdles. The first was that he had, until recently, been a member of the Labor Party. The second was that at that point he was still wearing an earring.

This might not be a big deal to most people born after the introduction of colour TV. But in his chosen electorate of Bradfield, on Sydney’s well-to-do North Shore, it is possible that nobody else matched that description. When Nelson sent out a brochure about himself, he says around a thousand came back with the offending ear either cut out or circled, as if quietly encouraging him to do a Van Gogh. Soon after he received a delegation of formidable North Shore matrons, who pointedly asked whether he was homosexual. He reassured them that this was most certainly not the case, at which point one leaned across the table, banged her fist down and said: “Yes, but can you prove it?”

The story seems to delight the Doc, who has used it publicly to telling effect. It takes little effort to imagine his wry grin as he takes out this small narrative gem and polishes it up for just the right audience. With one cheeky anecdote he gains an instant connection with the sort of people who would once have been drawn to the younger Brendan Nelson – the one who championed homosexual law reform and environmentalism, while hounding the tobacco industry and hotels which plied young women with free drinks to attract big-drinking young men. Not the older Brendan Nelson, who recently floated the idea of Australia investing in a national nuclear power scheme, and who still won’t let Graham Edwards get his hands on that flagpole.

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is an author, a columnist and a journalist. His books include He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney.

@JohnBirmingham

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