Malcolm the Inevitable


So that’s the end of Brendan Nelson.

While the last couple of weeks have demonstrated that there are very few certainties in politics, the eventual demise of Nelson as Opposition Leader has happened exactly as everyone predicted.

It is almost surprising just how unsurprising it all is.

While it’s traditional to pay respects to a fallen leader, and take a moment to recognise the contribution that leader made to the great institution of our democracy, with Brendan Nelson it’s a little harder than usual.

Commentators are being circumspect in their reflections over the Nelson legacy. Really, there’s not a lot to point to. In its kinder moments, history may record Nelson as the bloke who did it tough in the first 10 months after losing office, leading a Liberal Opposition that could have done a lot worse.

But there’s no way anyone can say he was wasted in his role as shock trooper in an impossible situation. He was never going to get a lot further than he did.

Malcolm Turnbull seems to see his elevation as the next logical step in manifesting his prime ministerial destiny.

In seeing his leadership of the party as inevitable, as with so many other things, Turnbull seems to be in spooky agreement with the majority of Australians – another big change from Nelson.

In his acceptance speech in the Liberal Party room, Turnbull was keen to portray himself as a man who knows what financial adversity feels like, to undercut this idea shared by many that he’s a jet-setting born-to-ruler with a silver spoon in each cheek.

Whatever. The fact is there’s nothing about Turnbull’s history, or that of the party he’s leading, that suggests he has much interest in social justice issues, at least not as most people who use that term understand it to mean.

The real effect of Turnbull’s assumption of the leadership will be to end the political sideshow that Neslon’s stewardship had become, and bring some genuine policy debate back into focus. That’s the best-case scenario here.

On issues like climate change and the republic, Turnbull has a much sharper understanding of where the public is at. This is partly because he shares these concerns.

While the republic may be a symbolic issue of little real importance to the daily lives of Australians, we do seem to care quite a bit about it, and we’ll get talking about it again, given the opportunity.

Climate change is another matter entirely. Nelson never grasped that most of the country smells the suicidal self-interest behind the denialism and the foot-dragging of the business lobby and the right wing. Most Australians aren’t interested in holding the go-slow lobby accountable for the fact that so little is being done, they just want to see some action. They’re out there in their millions making decisions all the time with climate change in mind. The fact that Nelson chose not to respond to this was an appalling and unforgivable miscalculation.

But that’s in the past now.

From Turnbull’s point of view, the outlook is pretty good. He can’t easily do any worse than Nelson in the polls – he’s already ahead – and he’s pretty safe between now and the next election. While it’s always been clear that there are quite a few in his own party who profoundly dislike him, any further challenges are unthinkable.

From Kevin Rudd’s point of view, it looks like things are about to get a fair bit harder. The free ride Labor enjoyed at times thanks to the fact that the public had very little respect for Nelson is over.

Against someone who actually agrees climate change is a serious issue, he can’t hold himself up as our sole eco-defender. If we’re lucky, Turnbull will actually engage with Rudd on this, and the debate may become more about who’s doing the most in the face of the crisis, rather than who can keep the business lobby happiest.

So, welcome, Malcolm. As you said in acknowledging the contribution of your predecessor, the role of Leader of the Opposition is crucially important in the health of our democracy. We hope you’ll try to do the right thing by the country.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.