CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Could Costello unite demoralised Liberals?
, April 26, 2008
Four months into Opposition and the Liberals risk tearing themselves apart.Less than four months into the job and the knives are apparently out for Dr Brendan Nelson.
Senior Victorian Liberal Andrew Robb has been forced to come out in support of his leader, urging parliamentary colleagues to "give him time".
The speed with which destabilisation has set in inside the parliamentary Liberal Party says more about the party itself than Dr Nelson's performance.
Being Opposition leader after a change of government presents a diabolical challenge, requiring the person in question to be both a healer and a talent-scout, and to be able to attack the government while knowing his real enemies are on his own side.
Dr Nelson, in particular, has to hold together a team of politicians who have been shattered and demoralised by the sudden evaporation of power and privilege.Future direction
He cannot disown the past, but has to map out a future direction; he has to find a way of spoiling the new government's honeymoon, without it sounding like sour grapes.
He has to sound "relevant", without possessing any actual power to do anything, and has to use the meagre resources of Opposition against the might and main of the Public Service.
In short, it is a tough job with little likelihood of success at the next election.
Few people would say Dr Nelson has done a brilliant job. He has sounded confused at times, contradictory at other times, and has been exposed quickly for his fundamental flaw — that is, he has been found to be a politician who has no clear set of beliefs other than ambition.
His approval ratings are still below 10 per cent against a Prime Minister whose popularity is on a par with, if not higher than, Bob Hawke when he was first in power.
Nevertheless, the idea that replacing Dr Nelson with Malcolm Turnbull will boost the Opposition's stocks in any significant way is fanciful.
Dr Nelson needs time to get a feel for the job, to make some key speeches and to travel and develop the policies he would implement were he given the reins of power.
Mr Turnbull is more pugnacious, and has plenty of energy and verve.
But he is also the richest man in the federal parliament, and his libertarian ideas — more aligned to his cosmopolitan Sydney electorate of Wentworth than the wider community — will quickly make him a leader who can be portrayed as being out of touch with mainstream values.
Mr Turnbull will have no more hope of defeating Kevin Rudd than will Dr Nelson; but if the new PM does indeed hold the middle ground, Mr Turnbull will shift the Liberal Party dramatically to the left, in a philosophical sense, on issues such as the environment and homosexual rights.
Is there an alternative?
There is one, though he would be a reluctant accepter.
Peter Costello has said he wants to quit politics for the private sector.
However, if rumours are correct, a plumb job in the corporate sector or one as CEO of a national company may be proving harder to come by than was first thought.
The former Treasurer, who has said nothing about his future since the declaration of the election, could be playing a waiting game.
If the world economic slide continues, if Wayne Swan stumbles at his first Budget and if general unhappiness sets in among the voters, the Coalition may yet become competitive.
Could Mr Costello be staying around to see if an opportunity to lead the party becomes more palatable?
Most people inside the Liberal Party say no, that he has made up his mind and will go at a time of his own choosing.
But Mr Costello should consider whether he sees politics as simply a vehicle to becoming Prime Minister or as a vocation.
If he believes it is the latter, he would be well-served (and admired) if he decided to stay in the political arena and offer his services to the party.
Mr Costello remains a highly talented, experienced and impressive political performer, with youth still on his side.
Despite all the talk about "Costello challenges" over 11 years of John Howard's rule, there was never a likelihood of Mr Costello becoming PM during that period.
The only chance he ever had was after the collapse of Dr John Hewson and Alexander Downer, but he chose then not to seize the leadership.
If Mr Costello thought long and hard about this reality he would come to the conclusion that he is better placed now than at any previous time to becoming Prime Minister.
But it would require a lot of patience and self-denial for him to forgo the allures of the private sector and to decide to dedicate the rest of his life to serving the people.