The forthcoming byelection for Bradfield is widely viewed as the last chance for Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership. Certainly it will be a test for the Liberal leader. However, Brendan Nelson’s resignation from politics also provides Turnbull and the Opposition with an opportunity. A reasonable result in Bradfield would give Turnbull the chance to re-establish some authority in the lead-up to the next federal election.
Also, the likely preselection field indicates there are several relatively young, talented and well-qualified people who are prepared to become a Liberal MP, even though the MPs’ superannuation entitlement was whittled away by John Howard when he was prime minister after a campaign by the then Labor leader, Mark Latham. It was convenient for Latham that this superannuation scheme’s revisions were not backdated since, these days, he lives on generous taxpayer-subsidised superannuation benefits.
The NSW division of the Liberal Party has antiquated rules which prevent members from discussing matters relating to preselections so it is difficult to know who will be in the field to replace Nelson until nominations are formally called. The indications are that the candidates will include the lawyer Sophie York, the businessman Paul Fletcher, the Menzies Research Centre director Julian Leeser and the former journalist Tom Switzer, who worked briefly on Nelson’s staff when he was Opposition Leader.
All four would add much-needed youthful talent to the Opposition frontbench. Switzer stands out because he has the intellectual clout and the courage to take up the battle of ideas not only with the mainstream social democrats in the ALP but also with the broader left. Switzer has served time in a frontbencher’s office and was the opinion page editor for a major newspaper. The Liberals desperately need younger MPs who can take a high-profile position across a range of issues.
The recent preselection of Joshua Frydenberg for the relatively safe Liberal seat of Kooyong in Melbourne is a plus for the Coalition. His work experience in Howard’s office and in business entitles him to a frontbench position after the next election. Switzer would also be entitled to similar preferment if he manages to replace Nelson.
Unlike Labor, too few Liberals read widely on policy before they enter politics. And too few have a political experience which extends back to when they left school. In this regard, the qualifications and experience of a Frydenberg and a Switzer are much closer to that of a Kevin Rudd, a Julia Gillard, a Wayne Swan or a Lindsay Tanner than to most of their Liberal contemporaries.
The essential strength of modern Labor at the federal level is that it has at least a dozen really impressive performers on its frontbench and even a few (including the Melbourne Ports MP Michael Danby) on its backbench. The Coalition’s essential problem today is not that it is in opposition but that it has never had such depth in government.
The Howard government had only a few ministers who were subsumed in politics since their schooldays and who had the conviction and the intellectual courage to take on all comers in the political debate. This group included Howard, Peter Costello, Alexander Downer and Tony Abbott. Howard and Downer have left politics and Costello says he is about to depart. This leaves Abbott who, on his own admission, had a poor 2007 election campaign and is regarded by some colleagues as a risk. There are some Liberals in the next generation of talent but their numbers are significantly fewer than in the ALP.
Nelson was a competent performer in the Howard government and a fine education minister. Yet he was never leadership material. He was too inclined to emote in public and wobble on policy. Turnbull was Nelson’s obvious replacement. His essential weakness is that he lacks experience.
Turnbull entered the House of Representatives in late 2004 and became Opposition Leader four years later. Rudd was elected in 1998 and took over from Kim Beazley eight years later. Also, Rudd was deeply involved in government, broadly defined, during his time in the public service and the Queensland Premier’s office.
It’s almost two years since the Coalition lost the election and its prime minister lost his seat. The years have not been kind to Howard’s refusal to hand over to Costello in his final term. The opportunity of a Costello leadership is now lost. The task is to rebuild the party with young, articulate political conservatives who believe in their cause. Traditionally, the conservative intellectual political tradition has been weak in Australia. There is no reason why this should remain the case.
Bradfield offers the Liberals a chance to demonstrate that they are willing to engage in the battle of ideas with a view to returning to government.