So far, the Liberal Party leadership has not been kind to Brendan Nelson. Languishing in the polls, Nelson’s approval ratings have dived so low he gained the ironic moniker of "Brendan 07" for his 7 per cent approval rating as preferred Prime Minister – the worst in history.
When things can’t get any worse, there’s at least some chance they will start to get better. That’s what Nelson must be hoping after yesterday’s surprisingly impressive speech to the National Press Club.
It’s unfortunate that the part of his speech the mainstream media has latched onto is his suggestion that the Commonwealth Maternity Payment – Peter Costello’s famous "baby bonus" – be withheld from Aboriginal mothers. Overall Nelson performed rather better than many would have expected – and certainly far better than he did in his cringe-inducing apology speech to the Australian Parliament.
Beginning with an appeal to that perennial favourite of politicians who have lost the middle ground – "values" – Nelson filled in some biographical details before sketching a strangely inconsistent Liberal policy agenda for the current term.
A leader who until 1993 had famously "never voted Liberal", Nelson used the speech to rewrite his personal history to stress his ‘small l’ Liberal credentials: his lower middle-class Tasmanian childhood, his good fortune in receiving a free medical school education courtesy of Robert Menzies’ 1960s university initiatives, and his successful career as a GP and small businessman running two medical clinics.
He also showed a modicum of understanding of why the Coalition lost government last year, advancing industrial relations and the environment as reasons alongside that old favourite: "longevity". Nelson is apparently on Joe Hockey’s team in believing that the original WorkChoices Act should have included a no-disadvantage test.
Finally, he advanced a mud-map of policy directions for the Liberals over the next three years, including reforming federalism; defending Costello’s inflationary fiscal policy; attacking Rudd on the hard realities of climate change; national security; and finally, a ringing call to a more liberal Coalition social policy encompassing things like tax reform for same-sex couples, "social justice" and a "cohesive society". Liberal Party supporters must be gravely concerned to find that Kevin Andrews, the man most responsible for the WorkChoices and Haneef debacles, has been put in charge of coming up with the Opposition’s policies on reforming federalism.
Nelson is at his strongest when he shows his obvious compassion. When he speaks about his career as a suburban doctor – delivering babies, being called to attend suicides, and talking to struggling carers – it’s clear that he really does care about the concerns of ordinary people. Nelson is an emotional man – much more emotional than he ever let on in John Howard’s cabinet, and perhaps rather more emotional than many in his party room realised.
In this respect, Nelson presents a markedly different image to John Howard’s "man of steel" front. Nelson appears to be trying to reposition the Liberal Party on social issues as a party of compassion and idealism. It’s not a bad bet – so far, the carers payment has been the only issue where Nelson has been able to cut through against Rudd.
The problem is, as razor-sharp Australian Financial Review journalist Laura Tingle pointed out in a question yesterday, it’s still not quite clear what Nelson really believes in. If Nelson had believed in signing Kyoto, in an Aboriginal apology and in a no-disadvantage test for WorkChoices, why did he stay in John Howard’s cabinet? If the Baby Bonus for Indigenous mothers is really so destructive, why didn’t he say so five years ago? Did Nelson experience a sudden conversion on November 24 last year, or did he actually disagree with Howard’s policies all along?
Many of Nelson’s economic and social policy positions are inconsistent. Vigorously defending Howard’s record on middle-class welfare, Nelson argued that "if you do well in life, because you’ve worked damn hard, shouldn’t you receive some kind of encouragement and reward for doing so?" Well, quite. But if payments to carers are good, why are payments to Indigenous mothers bad?
Further, Nelson’s strong defence of big-government conservatism pits him against the fiscal conservatives in his own party, not to mention in the Treasury and the Reserve Bank. Nelson seems quite happy with Howard and Peter Costello’s record as tax-and-spend conservatives who oversaw strong growth in tax revenues and public sector employment. Now Nelson seems to be suggesting that the Reserve Bank’s interest rate rises and Labor’s fairly tame attempts to reign in this expansionary fiscal policy will tip the economy into recession.
So, does he support the independence of the Reserve Bank or not? Abandoning the high ground on economic policy poses real risks for a Liberal Party leader, as Malcolm Turnbull will no doubt be whispering to his colleagues.
In some senses, all of these points are moot. In all probability, Brendan Nelson will never get to face the Australian voters as Opposition Leader. However, by moving the Liberal Party closer towards the centre of politics on the social issues where Australian voters have clearly rejected it, Nelson can sow the seeds for Malcolm Turnbull or Joe Hockey’s success in 2010 or later.
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