So there is “blood in the water” says Christopher Pyne today in his defence of Brendan Nelson. The “sharks in the media” are circling.
It might help if Pyne himself wasn’t chucking offal in the water. According to the Nelson camp, Pyne was behind much of the off-the-record leadership talk on the weekend.
Whatever, Nelson is, by common consent, finished. So let’s turn to the future. Does the answer for the Liberal Party automatically start with M? Or is The Man Who Never Was, Peter Costello, ready to finally seize what he has coveted for so long? And what about Nelson’s deputy, the formerly high-flying Julie Bishop?
The last part is the easiest. Bishop has, according to party sources, done herself no favours as Deputy Leader. One of the intriguing things about the change of government has been watching both former Ministers and senior staffers making do with virtually no resources. Some, like Bishop, suddenly look lightweight and directionless without a bureaucracy behind them.
Admittedly she has been up against a formidable opponent in Julia Gillard, but Bishop’s other problem has been an apparent unwillingness to fill out the deputy’s role, preferring to confine herself to industrial relations. And she hasn’t helped the party’s stocks in Western Australia. Yesterday’s Westpoll shows the Coalition’s vote in freefall in what was their stronghold last November.
In contrast, others like Andrew Robb and, to a lesser extent the terrier-like Greg Hunt, both of whom were junior ministers or Parliamentary Secretaries under Howard, have made the most of their limited opportunities. In Opposition you live off scraps and make do with the materials that come to hand. There’s a lot of former Ministers who have yet to work that out, including Bishop. At this stage, a Bishop-Robb rematch for deputy would probably go in the latter’s favour.
Given pretty much everyone thinks Nelson is finished, don’t expect Peter Costello to leave politics any time soon. But don’t expect him to run against Turnbull either, and not just because he doesn’t seem to like a fight. Defeating Turnbull won’t be enough. While ever Turnbull is in the party, he will crave the top job. Under Nelson, sources say, he has not for a moment refrained from putting his view that he should be leader instead of the incumbent. And Costello knows all about ambitious deputies. He may prefer to wait, given he’s already waited more than a decade. And he’ll be aware that Turnbull’s CV suggests that he never sticks at anything for very long.
But Turnbull would deliver two key things for his party. The first is media coverage. He has courted the media for most of his many and varied careers – in fact, really, Turnbull has only ever had one job, and that’s promoting himself. But unlike Nelson, whom the media has disliked from day one, Turnbull will find only open doors in the Press Gallery and management levels of media companies. The second is money. Turnbull is also an assiduous and very experienced fundraiser. Unless the Government goes all the way and joins Morris Iemma in banning political donations, the Liberals will need someone who can squeeze the maximum out of potential donors.
The problem with Turnbull is that, like the both the current and the former Prime Minister, his idea of leadership is pretty much limited to himself. He is not, as one colleague observed with monumental understatement during the election campaign, a team player. The Liberal Party is only just starting to breathe again after a decade in which they kept silent and endured John Howard’s top-down leadership in exchange for electoral success. It may not be so easy to return to that model, particularly while long years in opposition loom.