Despite the breathless reports of who leaked what to whom and why — and I write as one who filed exactly that yesterday — it’s time to take a step back from the Nelson-Turnbull business and put it in perspective.

We’re six months into a three-year term. Historically there’s little chance the Government will lose the election that will be held, most likely, at the end of that three-year term. Who leads the Liberal Party currently doesn’t matter a great deal.

A senior Liberal MP — who voted for Turnbull — explained to me today the critical things that they believe need to be done by the Liberals over the long-term to maximise their competitiveness. They are: put in place sound policies; sort out who is staying and who is going; and give a young team time to establish itself.

And, they say, those things are happening. It is expected that Peter Costello will be moving on once it is clear his seat is not in danger, although no-one really knows. Speculation continues about Alexander Downer — his consultancy with Ian Smith and Nick Bolkus is apparently ready to start. McGauran has left. Andrews, Ruddock and Vaile are staying.

And on policy, they argued, the Coalition is slowly getting runs on the board. Support for the apology to the stolen generations. The burial of WorkChoices. And even the excise decision.

“I’ve never believed we should tax petrol at a differential rate to other goods,” the MP explained, “but we impose a massive excise in addition to the GST. And petrol consumption is inelastic so it doesn’t make a difference to the environment anyway. Reduction of excise will make a big difference to the so-called ‘working families’. It was good policy and good politics.”

The key thing the party needs is stability and a chance to enable a young, though not inexperienced, team to master their briefs and get some profile. Who specifically leads the party is, from this point of view, not especially important.

As the MP said, “if Nelson doesn’t cut through, he doesn’t cut through, and we’ll do something about it. But Malcolm’s and the party’s best interests are served by everyone doing their job.”

The media, however, can’t help itself with leadership speculation, especially Gallery members who consider themselves players rather than spectators. There’s also the sense that, given their preferred candidate lost out following the election, they’re going to keep battering Nelson until Turnbull gets the job. Playing leadership favourites has always been a Gallery game — remember the Bronwyn Bishop bubble after the 1993 election?

There is press talk of Nelson “damaging the brand.” Well, perhaps. But Mark Latham did a pretty good job of trashing the ALP brand when he was leader and they still managed to win comfortably last year. Funny thing about politics — winning an election suddenly makes massive problems seem pretty irrelevant.

There are only two groups who are eager to stoke leadership tension in all this. Malcolm Turnbull and his small group of hard-core supporters, and the media. No wonder many Liberals think they’re working together.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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