Judging by his performance at the National Press Club yesterday, Brendan Nelson is angry. Very angry. (See the YouTube here)

It’s not very clear what he’s angry about. And the anger appears to come and go at random, sometimes seizing hold of him mid-sentence, lowering his voice and adding a brief waver. But even so, look out. He’s furious and he’s not apologising for it.

And like many an angry person, he’s quick to take offence even where none is given.

“I am accused of being an idealist by my numerous critics,” he declared.

I searched high and low for criticism of Nelson’s idealism and couldn’t find any, but I’m happy to take Nelson’s word that he is regularly mocked and jeered for it, particularly when couched in a manner that suggested he’d knock your block off if you disagreed.

And, he said punchily, if you don’t like him sitting in a gutter with a young man at 3am, you’d better get used to it. I didn’t even know he was prone to hanging out with Yoof late at night, but good on him.

Maybe Nelson is angry because he’s seen so much human misery. His speech was a grim catalogue of cot deaths, suicides, miscarriages and the terminally ill. In what seemed a gratuitously unpleasant moment, he appeared to justify the Howard Government’s first round of IR reforms with reference to a man who had taken his own life and that of his children because he had lost his job.

Which brings us, really, to the irony of it all. Brendan Nelson was a Minister in the Howard Government for two full terms and a member of it for its full duration. If he’s so damn angry about things, what on earth was he doing about it for the last eleven years?

To assuage his anger, Nelson will be pursuing a five–point plan, focussed on prosperity, a better Federation (apparently Kevin Andrews is hard at work on a reform plan for the Federal system), the environment, defence of Australian values and a rather nebulous – but assuredly very heartfelt – targeting of social problems.

Now, to be clear, this isn’t strictly a plan – instead, it will provide the framework for the policy development process being undertaken by the Liberals over the next year.

Problem is, of course, Nelson doesn’t have a year. Taking a year out from the political cycle to get your head straight about what you stand for makes sense, but isn’t tenable, especially not for a leader with M. Turnbull watching his every move.

Nor will it help perceptions that Nelson doesn’t really stand for anything. Nelson’s leadership, his “brand”, has already been damaged by bad polls and perceptions of weakness. His five points in search of a plan won’t do anything to improve that.

Nelson’s other problem is that for him, politics is a means to end. He professes only to be in politics in order to achieve better outcomes for Australians. Nothing wrong with that, at all, even for the most cynical of us. But you get the feeling that Nelson, with his displays of emotion, is a little too much like Kim Beazley for his own good: a decent man, in politics for one thing only – to fulfil his burning desire to better the lives of Australians.

Where’s the problem? Well, Successful leaders have a tendency to end up believing that political power is an end in itself, that their possession of power is innately beneficial to the community, not least because it prevents their opponents from holding it. Brendan Nelson seems to lacks the sort of self-obsession that drove Howard, Hawke, Keating and Fraser — and which drives the ferociously focussed Kevin Rudd. Kim Beazley lacked it too.

Malcolm Turnbull, on the other hand, doesn’t lack for self-obsession of any kind.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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