Brendan Nelson: Bejewelled Interloper or Future PM?


Some weeks back, the Sydney Morning Herald‘s token conservative Miranda Devine identified a bunch of nasty reds under her cyber-bed, referring to ‘the jejune Leftists of the online magazine New Matilda.’

She’s absolutely right. Just look at the Castro-worshippers on this site! That John Hyde-Page fellow looks particularly radical. His nasty Young Liberal training manual having been launched by that scion of socialist economics, John Hewson.

Then there’s that Yusuf chappy. OK, he has an aversion to thick-Sheiks, but fancy writing all that stuff critical of Opus Dei? You’d think he’s one of those chardonnay Liberals who voted for peacenik, ear-stud-wearing communists like that Aborigine-loving pro-homosexual Brendan Nelson in pre-selections!

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In fact, the kind of Liberal that Devine loves is precisely the kind that was lecturing me not to vote for Brendan Nelson when he faced the pre-selection panel in May 1995 for the Sydney seat of Bradfield.

Nelson was regarded as an upstart, a Labor Party turncoat who was famous for standing up to a protesting crowd in 1993 and declaring: ‘I have never voted Liberal in my life!’

Until his pre-selection, Nelson had little or no involvement in the NSW Division of the Liberal Party. In his recently published The Liberals: A History of the NSW Division of the Liberal Party 1945-2000, ANU historian Ian Hancock devotes only 1 paragraph of his 388 pages to Nelson. The entire paragraph is devoted to Nelson’s controversial pre-selection win.

Compare that to 40-plus pages in which John Howard’s name is mentioned. Even Fred and Elaine Nile score more mentions.

Today, Nelson loves to beat his chest, showing what a tough ultra-conservative Defence Minister he is. When it comes to supporting the USA’s war efforts, marginalising minorities or cosying up to the Exclusive Brethren, Nelson wants to look more like Howard than Howard.

But some of us have long memories. I was one of the fortunate 80 or so Liberal Party State Council delegates picked out of a hat in 1995 to sit on Nelson’s pre-selection. There were another 80 local branch pre-selectors as well as some 30 or so people from State Executive and Parliamentary reps. And what an exciting pre-selection it was.

Future PM Nelson?

Bradfield is the Liberal Party’s second safest Federal seat. Howard loyalist David Connolly had been the sitting member since 1974. He was also Shadow Minister for the sensitive areas of superannuation and other retirement incomes. Howard had just won leadership of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party after his predecessor, Alexander Downer, had a political gun put to his head and was forced to stand down.

As new leader of a faction-ridden and demoralised Party, Howard needed to be seen to be in control. The Bradfield pre-selection was to be a key test of his leadership.

Howard made no secret of wanting Connolly to win. He made sure his wishes were communicated to all conservative Libs on the panel, including myself. In the weeks leading up to the pre-selection, I received three phone calls from factional hacks (including a staffer in Tony Abbott’s office) telling me that Nelson had to be stopped. We were ordered not to allow ourselves to be charmed by this smooth former President of the Australian Medical Association.

We ignored the orders. Instead, we behaved in the same manner as most Indian Muslims do when Christian missionaries set up shop in their village: ‘Wow, thanks for the hospital, the education, the food, the hard cash. What was that you said about getting to know Jesus? Woops, better go. That dude screaming over the mosque loudspeaker tells me it’s prayer time. But thanks for everything! Allah-bless!!!’

Conservative Young Libs shamefully (or should that be shamelessly?) allowed themselves to be wined and dined by the Nelson camp, feigning interest in everything Nelson had to say as Nelson pretended to agree with everything they had to say. Like all seasoned political operatives, Nelson had the kind of flexibility that enabled him to both support and oppose identical policy proposals and still sound completely credible. Issues didn’t matter. What mattered was who was listening and how many votes they could swing.

Some of the more adventurous conservative Young Libs tried to play it both ways pretending to support Nelson so as to ride David Connolly’s gravy train. Connolly duly obliged, pouring the champagne while his staffers telephoned Abbott’s office to report the potential conservative rat.

I’m not sure if I was principled or just plain stupid, but neither Nelson nor Connelly offered me expensive lunches or a set of steak knives although Nelson did spend an hour on the phone, telling me what he thought I wanted to hear.

Nelson’s numbers were being done by two arch-Wets, one of whom was a former adviser to both Howard and Hewson. Nelson also had the full backing of the NSW Young Libs, dominated in those days by the Wets. Little wonder many conservatives regarded him as the official small ‘l’ liberal candidate.

But Nelson also had some backing from some high-profile conservatives including former AMA President Dr Bruce Shepherd, who described Nelson as a possible future Prime Minister. (Although Shepherd had also endorsed that other political moderate, Joh Bjelke-Petersen.)

Among those implacably opposed to Nelson was Peter Costello. 12 years on, we all know why.

Nelson’s pre-selection campaign material featured a logo with the slogan ‘Bradfield Put Your Heart In It!’ Such feel-good stuff was enough to give geriatric conservative pre-selectors cardiac arrests. They went into overdrive, sending out a host of letters supporting Connolly or at least reminding Party punters of Nelson’s impeccable ALP credentials.

I was living with my parents at the time. One day I got a plain paper envelope in the post. It contained a VHS video cassette. Mum was furious: ‘Vye yoo order biloo moovee in my house!’ she shouted in her crisp Delhi accent. It wasn’t until she watched the 20-second clip of Nelson screaming, ‘I have never voted Liberal in my life!’ that mum decided not to cross my name off the will.

The pre-selection itself was a grand affair. We all gathered at the Hornsby RSL. Well, almost all of us. One conservative powerbroker and staffer for Senator Bill Heffernan did a no-show. At least one of his branch members voted informal or abstained. Their votes cost a Howard loyalist and Shadow Minister his pre-selection, undermining Howard’s leadership. The final vote was 96 votes to 93 in Nelson’s favour.

Immediately after the results of the ballot were announced, I found myself standing next to Tony Abbott. He was just getting past the 5th second of his ‘Irfan, maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate’ when one of Howard’s more geriatric campaign volunteers came screaming: ‘This is disgraceful! Wait till I tell our future Prime Minister about this!!’ She then looked at me and asked why I was at the pre-selection, before telling me how much I reminded her of ‘that Aborigine who my great grandfather shot dead for trespassing onto his property.’

Nelson’s Wet credentials were soon dealt a blow when he told reporters how much he hated Medicare. Today, the idea of abolishing Medicare has become fashionable among some free-market muftis at a certain think tank. But back in those days, it was regarded as heresy.

Nelson wasn’t trusted by many rank-and-file members. As Hancock notes:

Nelson’s victory over Connolly provoked a number of branch members to send protest letters to [Liberal Party HQ]. They complained about the dumping of a loyal foot soldier for a Labor ‘turncoat’ whose ear ring inspired one outraged Liberal to call Nelson a ‘bejewelled interloper’ of ‘questionable integrity.’ John Valder, the former State and Federal President, objected to the selection of someone he considered to be a confirmed Labor voter and a long-time Labor Party member who had admitted lying about his voting pattern.

Nelson has, of course, climbed the greasy pole. His recent admission that the Iraq war was about oil upset the PM, Alexander Downer and even Gerard Henderson.

And now Nelson looks like a front runner to replace Howard for the top job. Sitting on such a huge electoral margin, Nelson can afford to pursue his ambitions without being distracted by unnecessary interruptions from constituents. Other aspirants (like Malcolm Turnbull) don’t share this luxury.

I guess a good way to end would be to reproduce a letter to the editor, published by Sydney’s Sun-Herald on 21 May 1995, a week after Nelson pre-selection:

The selection of long-time socialist Brendan Nelson as the Liberal Party candidate for the seat of Bradfield proves that the Liberal Party is just another bunch of crazy socialists like the Labor Party. Why the two Parties don’t combine and call themselves The Lunatics Galore Party is difficult to understand after consideration of their policies.

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