“Real power cannot be given, it must be taken” was the tagline of The Godfather Part III.

As a rule, it is best not to look to movie taglines for wisdom and life lessons, especially not from weak sequels, but there’s a certain truth to it beyond the macho posturing it embodies.

While we breathlessly wait to be dripfed extracts from Peter Costello’s memoirs on the weekend, it seems his primary critique of Liberalism is its “cult of the leader” in contrast to Labor’s “cult of the party”, which makes leadership transition difficult on the conservative side.

This somewhat confuses Costello’s quite sensible analysis of his particular circumstances — that he was partly hostage to the “class of ‘96” — Coalition MPs like the execrable Jackie Kelly who were first elected that year and knew no other Liberal Party than one dominated by John Howard.

History suggests Labor and Liberal aren’t that different in handling leadership, even if Labor talks about its history and identity a lot more. Both parties will endure a great deal for and be reluctant to replace a leader who is a winner, but don’t have much tolerance for losers. It’s simple politics.

That’s why there are few successful challenges to Prime Ministers — because by definition they’ve demonstrated electoral success, and their challenger hasn’t. It was only the meltdown of John Kerin that really put the skids under Bob Hawke, long after it was clear that the latter was unable to work out how to respond to Fightback.

What Costello is really saying is that the Liberal Party should’ve planned its leadership transition — to him — better. “Leadership transition’ and “succession planning” are examples of management-speak that have crept into politics, the sort of concepts you can attend $500 day-long seminars in hotel conference rooms to learn about, with Minties, filtered water and tepid coffee.

Labor is ostensibly better at managing “leadership transition” than the Liberals. Neville Wran, Bob Carr, Peter Beattie, Steve Bracks, all got out on top, and were replaced in orderly, managed processes. In contrast, John Howard clung to power until it had to be prised out of his cold dead hands.

Look a little closer, though, and you wonder how much “leadership transition” has given Labor. It gave NSW Barrie Unsworth and Morris Iemma. It’s made previously hopeless Oppositions in Queensland and Victoria suddenly competitive. Federal Labor never had a leadership contest between Keating’s resignation in 1996 and Beazley’s challenge of Crean in June 2003.

The appeal of a “leadership transition” is that it is bloodless, that everyone stays friends, there’s no party division to scare the public. But history suggests it doesn’t yield good leaders, but rather safe choices, choices unlikely to deviate too much from the style and substance of the previous leader.

This tends to get punished by the electorate if the Government has been around for any length of time.

They do things a bit differently in the United States. In fact most of their political process is devoted not to general elections but to party primaries, which are frequently every bit as nasty and divisive as the real thing. The idea that candidates should be determined by party elders sitting around working out who they think is the safest choice would strike most politically-engaged Americans as profoundly anti-democratic and politically unwise.

Primaries, as you might have noticed, make for much excitement and limitless opportunities for journalists to comment, speculate and talk rubbish, which is what we most enjoy doing. There’s no doubt that contests of any kind are far better for the media than orderly transitions, and don’t forget that while reading and watching the death of Brendan Nelson over the next days and weeks.

Malcolm Turnbull is, some say, waiting to amass a sufficiently large level of support in the Liberal Party that his replacement of Nelson is accepted even by party conservatives. This assumes that the likes of Nick Minchin will ever be happy to see Turnbull in the top job. They won’t, and if Turnbull fails to perform as leader, it won’t matter how he got the job or by how much, they’ll undermine him.

Turnbull might reflect — in fact it would be strange if he hadn’t already — that the winners of Australian politics are those who let nothing get in the way of their ambitions. Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd — all would’ve done whatever it took to get the top job, including actively undermining or challenging their own leaders.

There’s a sense in which the electorate will only reward with the Prime Ministership those who have demonstrated just how badly they need to possess it, who seize whatever serious opportunities arise to get it, regardless of the timing or damage they do along the way. We seem to like our political bloodsport and are happy to reward the victors.

The media would far prefer that Turnbull strike quickly, rather than sit back and wait for a consensus to develop that he should be leader. The media — it is doubtless unnecessary to add – don’t have the interests of Turnbull, the Liberal Party or even the electorate at heart, merely the desire to sell advertising. But maybe power really must be taken. Sitting back and waiting to be given it didn’t help Peter Costello.

Peter Fray

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