A Tale of two Defence Ministers

When Brendan Nelson snared the Liberal Party leadership back in November 2007, it came as a surprise to some. Although a competent Defence Minister his leadership credentials seemed dwarfed by high flyers Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Costello. Of course this was to be expected from the good Doctor, unlike Turnbull and Costello he was not seeking to present himself as an alternative leader to Prime Minister Howard, but as his successor. After the departure of Howard, and particularly after Costello declined to contest the leadership, Howard’s supporters naturally would promote one of their own as a leadership candidate and therein had a choice between Nelson and Tony Abbott.

Abbott had a higher profile than Nelson, had been a more senior minister in the Howard government and had deeper roots within the liberal party. He was also gaffe prone and suffered for a perceived extreme conservatism compared with Nelson’s more measured and disciplined message. This steady hand style of politics proved sufficient for Nelson who won the ballot and set about framing himself as a calm, intelligent and competent alternative Prime Minister of Australia. Unfortunately for him; Kevin Rudd was the most popular Prime Minister of all time and despite Nelson wrong-footing Rudd as frequently as anyone ever did, disastrous opinion polling undermined his leadership and his party soon turned to the high flying Shadow Treasurer.

Move forward to the present day and there is another softly spoken Defence Minister with nice hair who currently appears miles from the leadership. Between Gillard, Rudd, Wayne Swan, Greg Combet and Bill Shorten there are a few more obvious contenders. But the Gillard government does appear headed for electoral defeat. Presumably this would mean the end of Gillard’s leadership and probably Swan’s too thanks to the way he has tied himself to this Prime Minister ever since he turned on the previous Prime Minister. Despite his popularity it will likely mean the end of Rudd too; the former leader has long since lost the confidence of caucus and was probably only made Foreign Minister to ensure he doesn’t resign his seat in this hung parliament.

Shorten and Combet should still be around and it wouldn’t surprise me if either became leader following the parties defeat, both of them are articulate, well connected and ambitious but factional bosses have copped a bit of a whacking since they orchestrated the leadership change in June 2010. They’re also both relative latecomers to the party, both elected in 2007, neither have spent a day in opposition before whereas Smith has been in the parliament since 1993. With Rudd, Gillard, Swan and Linday Tanner all finished, Smith would come to have a seniority in the lower house which ,compounded with his calm and serious demeanor, makes Combet and Shorten like callow little kiddies at the grownups table.

It’s also possible that Shorten or Combet will pass on the job; historically it’s been a poisoned chalice of sorts and particularly Shorten has plenty of time on his hands. By contrast Smith will be fifty-seven in 2013, if he does indeed want to be Prime Minister 2013 will be his only chance to take the leadership. As a member of the dominant Labor Unity faction, Smith would also have an advantage over Combet in any leadership ballot.

But leading the opposition straight after an election is ugly business. Like Nelson, Smith would get the leadership because he wasn’t seen to be part of the reason they lost the election, only to face the most debilitating part of the political cycle imaginable. He’d have a plan to just keep plugging away at the government in a disciplined fashion but after a few diabolic opinion polls there would be enormous pressure on him to try something different. Then come the shrieking censure motions and the silly stunts at shopping centers, generally speaking: things that don’t play to Smith’s strengths. (They don’t play to anyone’s strengths; if they’re your strengths you shouldn’t be leading a political party.) Amidst the press speculation, the ambitious opportunism of other colleagues and some post government depression, clinging on to the leadership becomes a momentous task and poor Smith will probably lose it before ever contesting an election.

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