Nelson’s lesson for Turnbull

Thursday, 27 August 2009 

For an awful moment, it almost looked as though we were going to have tears again as Nelson explained why his wife wanted him out of politics now and so forcing his party to do just what it does not want to do at the moment, face the electorate. No one likes to second-guess personal motives but it does seem as though spouses and families exert a powerful pull on politicians just when they might feel inclined to stick it up their own party.

Labor of course is not contesting the by-election to ‘save money’. The media are asking whether Labor is being cowardly but surely the question is why it would need bravery to run a candidate in the first place. Labor is comfortably ahead in the polls and the by-election is happening for little more reason than the pique of its member, so you would think Labor might consider saving its pennies to run a campaign with the aim of getting a large enough swing against the Liberals to demoralise the party and undermine Turnbull’s leadership even more.

Or maybe it won’t. Labor’s avoidance of safe by-elections is following a fashion largely set by the previous government which, facing mid term polling slumps, went out its way to avoid seeing them exposed. Labor, while polling strongly, seems to be uncertain how solid those leads are, and has state election results and a Gippsland by-election to add to those doubts.

Such uncertainty is a sign that Labor’s polling is no more translating to a real political dominance than the Howard government’s did, merely that it has been better at adapting to the current political conditions. It is these conditions, which are most starkly seen in the Liberal party, that undid Nelson and is undoing Turnbull now.

Nelson’s problem was not so much Rudd, as Peter Hartcher claims, but that his party would not let him follow the route Rudd has taken to adapt to current conditions. While Rudd’s agenda was only possible once the power of the factions was broken and the links with unions made redundant, Nelson led a party that still has not yet fully abandoned its historic role and cannot give its leader full free reign. Commentators like saying how leader-focussed the Liberal party is, well they clearly aren’t looking at the Australian Labor Party right now. The usurping of Labor’s platform by Rudd’s personal values, and whoever he happens to feel like bringing in to come up with some ideas, follows in the line of Latham but with conditions much more favourable to do so.

From day one for Nelson, however, he faced an old leadership that may have been discredited by its 2007 loss but had still not let go of the party and still seemed to have the most coherent answer of what the party was for. Including in its number the Grey Eminence on the telephone from his suite just down the corridor from Nelson’s, the old guard not only reminded the party what those values were (many of which conveniently abandoned by Howard himself in the dying months of his government) but counter-posed themselves to the one who typifies the vacuum that threatens, Turnbull. It was the need for Anyone But Turnbull that led Abbott to withdrawing in the first leadership contest that allowed in Nelson in the first place.

Having a fine clear set of principles is all fine and dandy – except for the fact it was unpopular, and this unpopularity rested on the fact that it may have made some Liberals feel good about themselves, but was redundant because business had no real need for it. This was the dilemma Nelson was caught up in and tends to colour any assessment of his leadership. For example, Nelson was criticised for being a wimp but actually Nelson’s adoption of the New Sensitivity allowed him to give the government one of its few uncomfortable periods, over petrol prices, carers’ bonuses and pensions. The problem for some senior Liberals, however, was that it was seen to be eroding the ‘brand’, so Nelson tried to compromise and we got the Shrill Wimp, which satisfied no one.

Stuck between a lack of real base and an old leadership that was demanding he adopt an agenda that was electoral death, Nelson went down. Anyone who was going to replace him would have had to deal with this by taking on the old guard. Given that they were still the only ones articulating a clear agenda for the party this would not have been easy. But there were some signs that Turnbull was starting to do so. Turnbull’s problem was that in his rush to take the leadership he walked into a vacuum before such a political battle had been waged and found himself in exactly the same position as Nelson. Even worse in fact, because now we have an old guard that seems less interested in trying to convert him, as with Nelson, but politically destroy him.

Nelson’s leadership showed that there is no basis for a stable leadership of the party until the old guard has been dealt with. Turnbull has tried to compromise but it has got him nowhere, and forced him to break out of the dilemma by taking the type of risks that exploded so spectacularly with Utegate. There are some signs coming through that Turnbull may be finally doing something of the sort, certainly there is no one else with the ego that could fill the gap left by the side-lining of the old guard. It’s either that or another piqued Liberal leader forcing a by election before the next election. At least we know there will be little threat of tears on the next occasion.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 27 August 2009.

Filed under Political figures

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Comments

7 responses to “Nelson’s lesson for Turnbull”

  1. RalphC on 27th August 2009 11:46 am

    Nice work, as usual. Perhaps the old guard isn’t really interested in getting back into government just at the moment. I think they just want to validate their beliefs so that they can pat themselves on the back and tell themselves that they stand for some principles, even if those principles are currently electorally unpopular. Perhaps after another election loss, they’ll see the need to start to retune their principles into the new anti-political environment so that they can sing from the same song sheet and appeal to the masses again.

  2. Scott on 27th August 2009 1:05 pm

    Nelson, despite his clear unsuitability for any sort of useful or meaningful leadership, played an important role for the coaltion (taking the first sips from a poisoned chalice) but his decision to depart right now and force a by-election was silly and can only hurt the party he claims to loves. I hope whatever job he plans on taking is worth it.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 27th August 2009 1:18 pm

    Pay back probably. Where else are the ‘ritual humiliations’ his wife speaks of, coming from?

  4. Nigel on 27th August 2009 6:03 pm

    Being such a safe Liberal seat, Idon’t see that a by-election will hurt the Liberal Party greatly, so long as the Greens don’t pick up to many extra votes (or any one else for that matter.. a high profile right leaning independant?? can’t think of one) they could almost claim a win. The other advantage, if they play it right is to get the right candidate in who may be able to round up the old guard and put them to the wall.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 27th August 2009 8:32 pm

    It may probably not, but I think given the febrile state of the party there is the potential for things to get out of control either in pre-selection (especially in NSW) or through an independent. Labor’s tactical excuse for pulling out is that the Liberals can’t really claim any ‘win’, the risks are all on the down-side, as they say.

    I certainly think the party would have rather Nelson (or his wife) hang it out a few more months.

  6. James on 28th August 2009 10:39 am

    With the right Independent, it is certainly possible to engineer a Kororoit-style
    by-election result for the Libs, which would make the result look worse for them than it really is.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 28th August 2009 12:06 pm

    The pre-selection should be interesting enough (not) .

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