There’s nothing wrong with Brendan Nelson engaging in a bit of me-tooism on the tactical front. Given Kevin Rudd handed the Coalition a lesson in innovative Opposition tactics last year, they’d be fools not to copy whatever they reckon could work for them.

So Nelson has a female deputy. He had his own listening tour, just like Rudd. And he’s done plenty of FM radio — a part of the electro-magnetic spectrum of which John Howard, whose interest in technology apparently stopped at crystal sets and bakelite phones, was entirely unaware.

It has rarely been an edifying spectacle — self-deprecation is the key for politicians doing popular media, and Nelson can’t do it anywhere near as charmingly as Rudd, who is a total master despite patently not believing a word of it. But points for trying.

When it comes to summits, however, the Liberals need to rethink their approach.

Rudd quickly mastered the art of summits. He used them to look like he was serious about issues the Howard Government had gone MIA on, like housing affordability, without ever committing to their outcomes. They gave the impression of gravitas and a fresh approach to policy. He was so good at them he saved the biggest summit of all until after he was elected.

Nelson’s effort on binge drinking yesterday left an awful lot to be desired. In the event that Malcolm Turnbull or Peter Costello decide they want to have a summit once they’re running the show — and, frankly, neither look the summit type, do they? — here are some tips:

Do not criticise the government for holding pointless talkfests yourself before announcing your own such event.

Do look like you have an open mind on the issues being debated. Declaring the whole alcopops tax issue more or less off limits because you’re going to block it, and that the whole alcohol abuse thing is overstated anyway, doesn’t look like a readiness to engage in new thinking.

Do not leave out major stakeholders who might disagree with you. Particularly when they’re former Liberal Party ministers (John Herron) or were ministers in Liberal Governments (Michael Moore). It looks much more statesmanlike if you have people there who violently disagree with you.

Do try to maintain some consistency in your rhetoric. For example, best not to claim in the morning that the alcopops tax is leading kids to try drugs, but then say it isn’t in the afternoon. Of course, when it comes to Dr Nelson, lasting all the way to the afternoon without a change of position isn’t doing badly at all.

Do not yell “I care, I care, I care, I care” at the press conference afterwards. Even if you do, you know, care so much you just might burst.

 Summits are hard to botch. People usually show up with goodwill and a readiness to consider new ideas. The media won’t give you a hard time because you’re apparently opening yourself to the possibility of new and innovative policies. You can walk out and say “hmm, that was really interesting, plenty there for us to work through and we’ll be developing a policy based on everyone’s contributions in the fullness of time.”

Alas, Nelson managed to botch it. He’s a nice bloke — and he really does care — but he should get in that truck and keep on going.

Peter Fray

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