So how should we assess the Nelson era — assuming, that is, that you can call nine months an “era”? Did he leave the Liberal Party and the Opposition worse off? And was he worse than Alexander Downer, whose portrait is two behind his on the Liberal partyroom wall? Downer lasted nine months, too.
Well, Downer was facing an ageing government, albeit headed by Paul Keating before he descended into fully-fledged Captain Wacky mode. And he benefited from a huge surge in popularity when he replaced John Hewson. Nelson, in contrast, was starting what history suggests will be a lengthy stint in opposition, against a new government and Prime Minister.
Nor did it help that, after 11 years of Howard’s autocratic leadership style, his partyroom colleagues were demanding a far more consultative style from their leader.
In short, Nelson had it about as tough as it gets in politics. Despite that, he managed to drag the Coalition, somewhat reluctantly, back toward the political centre. Workchoices was taken out and shot, although Julie Bishop insisted on holding a candle-lit vigil beside the corpse. Despite some recalcitrants, the Coalition backed the Stolen Generation apology. And John Howard’s refusal to ratify Kyoto was abandoned post-haste.
Unaddressed, each of these issues could have inflicted substantial damage on the Coalition in the eyes of an electorate looking for evidence they had got the message from last November.
Nelson also put in train a long-term review process for Coalition policy. It was inconvenient, because you can’t take a year off from politics while you work out what you stand for. Nelson filled the space with his own emotive brand of populism, in which wheelchair-laden Taragos competed with suicides and tins of baked beans in an effort to strike a chord with the electorate. While that merely attracted derision, that’s not to say the long-term review isn’t critical to the Opposition’s future. You have to change — and show that you’ve changed — when you lose an election.
But that’s pretty much it for the good stuff. One of Nelson’s most serious failings was his inability to generate donations from business. Cash from business is the party’s lifeblood. Under Nelson, it slowed, posing a serious threat to the party’s capacity to compete with Labor. Turnbull — a former party treasurer — will turn that around quickly. And a Liberal staffer pointed out that if Andrew Robb is elevated within the leadership team, it will mean the party will have senior personnel based in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth — the three biggest sources of cash.
There’s also the damage he did to the party’s economic credentials. Commentators have made much of this but, it will be easily repaired by Turnbull if he performs well. The media over-dramatise the reputational impact of things — remember what a disastrous state Labor was in when Mark Latham pulled the pin? Well, the electorate didn’t when it voted last November. Or if it did, it chose to ignore it.
The more serious aspect is that on Nelson’s watch, Wayne Swan was permitted to overtake the Coalition in perceptions of economic management, in the area that should have been Labor’s weak spot. As shadow Treasurer, Turnbull shares some responsibility for this. The Coalition can recover its own credibility, but damaging the credibility they gifted Labor will be far harder.
Which brings us to the biggest problem Nelson has left. All Governments get a honeymoon, but Rudd’s has been extraordinary. He and his team have been allowed to settle in and get their feet under ministerial desks without pressure from the Opposition. One of the biggest risks for Labor was that, given the virtual absence of ministerial experience from their frontbench, the transition to government would have been botched as new ministers and staffers confronted complexities and difficulties they’d never dreamed of in Opposition. It hasn’t run perfectly but the lack of pressure from the other side has made the transition easy.
Governments go through cycles, and the Rudd Government has a long way to go before it reaches its peak. The Opposition, meanwhile, has had to hit the reset button and start again.
Apropos of nothing, except perhaps that politics is an unsentimental business, the Opposition Leader’s suite is on the ground floor, looking out on the courtyard (named, with remarkable creativity, the Opposition Leader’s Courtyard) outside the House of Reps chamber. Walking from the Press Gallery to the chamber, you can see down into the suite, and Nelson always had the blinds and curtains open, as if content that the world could see him at work. In Nelson’s own office, some seven or eight photos adorned the window sill. I don’t know who or what the photos were of, but I imagine they were of Nelson’s family.
Yesterday morning before events got underway, I noticed that the blinds and curtains were, for the first time that I’d seen, shut tight. They stayed that way all day, and remain that way now. And yesterday afternoon, the photos were removed. Nelson said he was looking forward to spending more time with his wife. All defeated politicians say that, but I reckon Nelson meant it more than most.