Brendan Nelson – now officially “embattled” – appears to have seized on a Liberal-National merger as a lifeline to bolster his leadership.
While his colleagues are all chorusing that Nelson should be given a fair go – and after only three months it’s hard to argue with them – it’s clear that a perception is taking hold that, nice bloke that he is, he is too weak for the job. The perception is coming through both in polling, and in the indiscipline of backbenchers and some shadow ministers.
Driving a fundamental reform like a merger of the conservative parties would give Nelson a chance to demonstrate leadership, and show he’s got the vision thing. And if it was more a takeover of the Nationals than a genuine merger, then all the better from the Liberals’ point of view.
Nelson probably never expected to be the last leader the Liberal Party ever had, but that’s currently his ambition.
But his much-vaunted consultative style will remain a problem. However much his partyroom wants more of a say than it had in the Howard years, Nelson’s emphasis on consultation contributes to perceptions of weak leadership – even though it has been effective in shifting the party closer to the centre on issues like the Stolen Generations apology and IR.
With a stronger profile or greater weight in his party, Nelson might be able to sit back and let 100 flowers bloom and then intervene at the appropriate moment to get what he wanted. But as a new Opposition leader with limited experience and terrible polling numbers, he’s in no position to impose his will.
And all that is doubly true on an issue like the very future of the party. Every MP, Senator, official and member will have a strong view, and the ensuing debate will make the Opposition look self-obsessed. Meanwhile, the Government will get on with the business of governing.
More charitable souls might observe that if you can’t have a debate about fundamental structural reform three months into a long stint in Opposition, then when can you have one.
But it doesn’t help when there’s distractions like Joe Hockey’s move to NSW state politics about. It probably has about as much substance as Malcolm Turnbull being mooted for the same job, or Alexander Downer’s suggested move into SA politics, but it doesn’t contribute to a perception of stability or a desire to fulfil the responsibilities of Opposition.
We’ve had the benefit of the views of plenty of Liberals and Nationals on a merger. But Malcolm Turnbull has kept a low profile on it. While Turnbull worked closely with key rural stakeholders like the National Farmers Federation on water, the God, Queen and Country types in the Nats might not take to kindly to being led by such a prominent republican. And if grassroots opposition to a merger starts to mount within the Liberals, Turnbull might be well-placed to ride that to the leadership.
Nelson’s unlikely to be the only one assessing what a merger means for his leadership.