Ratting on his leader at expense of taxpayers
Before considering the impact which Brendan Nelson’s sudden and petulant departure from politics will have on Malcolm Turnbull’s flimsy leadership, it’s worth noting its cost to you, the taxpayers.
By refusing to serve out the (very short) remainder of this parliamentary term, Brendan Nelson has forced the public to underwrite the significant expense of a completely unnecessary by-election.
OK – so it’s not going to send the country broke. The estimated cost is somewhere in the range of $500,000. But it’s a totally unnecessary bit of expenditure, brought about by one thing only – Nelson’s refusal to honour his contract with the people of Bradfield by serving for three years.
Nelson can argue that because he is off to take up some job in the defence industry that the position could not have remained open until next year’s federal election. He can also argue (insincerely) that his departure from politics gives Malcolm Turnbull some clear air, as opposed to the reality that he’s created a shocking political nightmare for the man who seized his job last year.
The people of Bradfield are hardly battlers and are unlikely to suffer anything other than minor inconvenience at having to go to the polls for a frivolous by-election, and then return again next year for the big one.
But given the size of the pension and super entitlements which can be accesseds by a veteran MP such as Nelson - who served as a minister and opposition leader – it seems a bit rich that none of the costs of this by-election of his own making will be borne by him.
As for Malcolm Turnbull, if it were legal, he’d probably be prepared to pay good money to make this hideous state of affairs go away. The dangers to Malcolm Turnbull from the Bradfield by-election are two-fold.
The first threat is that, even though the seat is held by the Liberals with a 13.5 per cent margin, and has never gone to preferences, any swing away from the Libs will be interpreted as a slight on his leadership. Labor is lying doggo by refusing to field a candidate meaning that a vociferous local Greens campaign can capitalise on any protest vote over the Coalition’s vacillation on climate policy, while also simply capitalising on the fair go factor as voters try to even up what in Labor’s absence is a one-sided contest.
The second threat to Turnbull is an all-in brawl over pre-selection for this blue chip Liberal seat, set against a backdrop of already toxic factionalism in NSW, where the Right Faction has split into Judean People’s Front/People’s Front of Judea groupings, and effete Young Liberals are slapping each other’s faces at karaoke bars in juvenile intra-factional squabbles.
The best hope for the party is that a potentially unifying figure (such as John Howard’s former chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos) can emerge as a consensus candidate and sweep the field. In his absence it may well be a moshpit, and one that takes place in Turnbull’s backyard.
Whatever happens, the events of yesterday confirm that when you’re luck is running against you in politics, the smallest glimmers of hope are generally blown away by a whopping great storm cloud.
As was the case earlier in the year, when the smile on Malcolm Turnbull’s face over Peter Costello’s retirement was wiped away by a fellow called Godwin Grech, the Opposition Leader would have been feeling uncharacteristically chipper yesterday when Newspoll found that he still has a pulse after all. It was hardly a scorching comeback – his satisfaction rating rose four points to 30, his dissatisfaction fell one point to 56 – but when you’re going as badly as he is you take what you can.
But the warm afterglow lasted about three seconds courtesy of Nelson. And it’s hard not to conclude that Nelson – whatever he says about the urgent timing of his private sector job opportunity – knew that it would also come with the happy bonus of letting him skewer the man who shafted him.
So where does it leave Turnbull?
In short, it’s underscored the widely-held public belief that the Libs are indeed an unelectable rabble.
The problem with stories like this for politicians isn’t that the public devours them. On the contrary. They absorb just enough of them to draw a steadfast conclusion which is hard to reverse – such as “gee, what a shambles that lot are” – then shake their heads and move on to reading something more interesting.
After the low-rent vaudeville from the nuttier elements of the Coalition over the ETS in the final fortnight of Parliament, the distractions of Tony Abbott’s book, the Andrew Robb speculation, the well-sourced story over Malcolm Turnbull’s expansive flirtations with the ALP, the conservatives do not currently look like an alternative government.
They look like some kind of broadly-based conservative think tank, where on any given day one of their number might advocate a policy, go forth with an idea, not because the party believes in it, just because it seemed like something interesting to say at the time.
There’s no authority, there’s no discipline, there’s no sense of camaraderie or unity. There’s no direction. And as Brendan Nelson showed yesterday there’s no respect either, not for Malcolm Turnbull, nor for the mug voters who will foot the bill so that Dr Nelson can sashay off into the political sunset with a big bucket of super, and leave the public with the bill for this indefensible by-election.
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