Brendan Nelson is a decent, intelligent, moderate and generally rational politician, so his departure from Parliament is a loss to the Liberal Party, which appears increasingly lacking in such qualities.

Nelson did a reasonable job as the patsy who had to pick up the pieces when Peter Costello decided the job was too much like hard work, and would probably have done a better one if he had not been constantly and viciously white-anted by Malcolm Turnbull, who made it clear from the start that he believed the leadership was his by divine right.

Nelson had intended to remain unobtrusively on the back bench until the next election, but after enduring life under Turnbull for almost a year he decided enough was enough. However, before leaving he reverted to his previous incarnation as medical practitioner and gave Peter Hartcher in the Sydney Morning Herald a free diagnosis of his supplanter which deserves wider circulation.

Turnbull, reported the doctor, suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a complaint defined by “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), need for admiration and a lack of empathy”. There follows a list of more or less unpleasant symptoms culminating in “arrogant, haughty behaviour or attitudes”. Nelson elaborated from his own experience: “At first I though he was demanding, emotional and narcissistic, using his wealth and charm for seduction and always with a sinister threat just below the surface … most of the people who supported him (in the leadership ballot) voted for him to get rid of him.” In other words they assumed he would crash and burn, and they may yet be right.

Nelson himself, it must be said, has left little in the way of a political legacy. He supported Pauline Hanson; as education minister he believed the problems of under-funded state schools could be solved with the provision of a flag pole and a poster of Simpson’s donkey; as defence minister he was one of an ineffectual procession ritually bastardised by the military brass; and as opposition leader he manifestly failed to pull the coalition together into anything resembling an alternative government.

Yet for all his failings he had one thing going for him: he was not Malcolm Turnbull. And there are many in his own party who already miss him.

And speaking of past leaders … John Howard bobbed back up in the bowl last week to give us a bit of advice on, of all things, human rights. Truly the man has no shame.

The Prime Minister whose government incarcerated innocent children behind razor wire until they literally went mad and abandoned its own citizens to illegal imprisonment and torture by a foreign power now warns us that judges and lawyers should not be allowed to tamper with decisions made by politicians elected by “ordinary” people. Any attempt to change our unsurpassable current arrangements would represent the final triumph of elitism and be an abrogation of the very idea of the sovereignty of the people.

This is presumably what has happened in just about every other democracy on earth, where bills of rights are incorporated in the legal system or in many cases in the constitution. The model most often proposed for Australia would be comparatively mild: the bill would not have the force of law and the most judges could do would be to advise that apparent breaches had occurred. The politicians would retain the power to act or not as they saw fit.

But even that is too much for Honest John, fearless defender of the common man (and of the monarchy, but we’ll let that go for the present). Australia must stand alone, a bulwark against the creeping tide of international enhancement of liberty. He knows. Trust him.

And finally, a rare foray into state politics. The New South Wales Premier Nathan Rees, the latest in a long line of ring-ins, is apparently also headed for the tip as the godfathers of New South Wales Labor search vainly for someone — anyone — who can con the voters into not delivering too humiliating a thrashing in 2011. A win, of course, appears out of the question, but it would be nice to save a few seats as the basis for some sort of regrouping for next time around.

The problem is that it is not actually the leader who is the obstacle. Rees and his predecessor, Morris Iemma, are not exactly charisma machines, but both are presentable enough and, with a modicum of unified support, could have made as good a fist of it as anyone. It is the whole party that is well and truly on the nose after far too long in government and it is the party, not the leader, the electorate will punish on due course.

But if the public loathing had to be more precisely focused, the target would be not Rees, but the factional bosses and in particular the gruesome twosome of Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi. Rightly or wrongly these two are perceived as personifying everything that is wrong with the government: the arrogance, the thuggery, the croneyism, the lack of accountability, the manic desire for power and spoils of office, the unprincipled imperative of winning at any cost, whatever it takes.

Obeid and Tripodi have developed their own version of King Midas’ curse: everything they touch turns to excrement. But it is believed, at least in the party and in the media, that they are still the men; they cannot be challenged or crossed. So we have the paradox: no one can become leader without their patronage, but their patronage makes the leader unelectable.

It happened to Rees last week: Obeid denied he had withdrawn his support from the premier. The kiss of death. Rees will now sink still further in the polls and Obeid and Tripodi will have to find another protégé, another victim. Their political euthanasia is long overdue.

Peter Fray

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