Dead man walking

Sunday, 13 April 2008 

Nature might abhor a vacuum but that doesn’t mean she can necessarily fill it, and Nelson is living proof.

Rumours that Nelson could be replaced are not coming to the surface because the alternatives are any more credible than they were five months ago when he was elected, but as a gut reaction to the political bankruptcy that Nelson has helped to bring to the open since then.

The political bankruptcy of both major parties is not new, it has been a feature of Australian politics for the last fifteen years. Howard managed it through the War on Terror and the tease of a Costello succession. But even he began struggling near the end as the War on Terror unravelled over Haneef and the leadership went into paralysis, culminating in Howard’s disastrous decision to announce his retirement.

The difference since the election is that now both major parties have openly acknowledged that bankruptcy. However, while Rudd has the apparatus of the state and his own diplomatic skills to fill the gap with his tour overseas and his call to the best and brightest at home, Nelson has nothing. The fact that Rudd’s advantage over Nelson is ultimately in his ability to use the power of the office rather than anything in either leaders’ program underpins the skewed polling. It is not surprising that Nelson’s approval rating on its own is not that bad (36% in the latest Newspoll), it’s not as though he stands for anything that would upset people. But when it comes to a direct comparison to Rudd, Nelson’s unprecedented low rating reflects the advantages the office of Prime Minister now confers in the absence of political alternatives.

Unfortunately, against that unfavourable background, Nelson’s tactics have not helped. Stoking up the possibility of a merger with the Nationals was a useful distraction. However, like Howard’s turn to the states, Nelson’s Listening Tour was a disastrous move. He exposed the party’s political bankruptcy but without the anti-politics edge that Rudd employed on his tours in opposition. More worryingly for Nelson, by making such a big deal of himself and his past and how much he cares, and listens etc. etc., he has personalised the bankruptcy of the party and turned it into an issue about him.

Despite this, there is a sense the Liberals know that this is not just about Nelson and that the problem goes much deeper. Certainly it is possible to get a feel for that listening to the trouble Greg Hunt had in putting forward a distinctive party line on just about anything on Friday night’s Lateline. There was a telling point in Greg Sheridan’s report in The Australian when he noted that some Liberals were concerned that they will reach the same point as the state Liberals where they are no longer considered as an alternative to government. The 2007 election campaign obscured the electoral impact of the Liberals’ crisis at the federal level but Peter McGauran’s resignation has brought home the fear that the forthcoming by-elections will begin to expose it.

It is a sense that this is not just about Nelson that may give him some time. What also might help are the alternatives. There was little real understanding in the press why Nelson won the leadership in the first place. It was mainly seen as a matter of numbers after Abbott dropped out. However, Abbott’s sacrifice was for the greater good to prevent a Turnbull takeover and it highlights why Malcolm’s succession is not necessarily an inevitability. For the old leadership, discredited after the election loss, Nelson was a necessary stop-gap until it could recover.

When exactly that will be is looking further and further into the distance as Rudd re-makes the political landscape. The old leadership represents what is recognisable as the centre-right party that dominated Australian politics for the last 60 years. Their inability to gain control over their own party is a sign of the irrelevance of that party’s historical agenda. Nelson has been politically dead from day one. He is a leader who never won a mandate in his own right but because the party’s leadership is suffering from the implosion that started under Howard. For them, watching the Liberal ‘brand’ erode under Nelson is preferable to seeing it disappear altogether under Turnbull’s Keating-esque agenda.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Sunday, 13 April 2008.

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