Since John Howard left office the political narrative has centred around four individuals, a former Labor Prime Minister, a current Labor Prime Minister, a former Liberal leader and a current Liberal Leader. The story goes that the two former leaders have endeared themselves to the public and voters want them back but they alienated their party rooms who now are willing to risk defeat to keep their current leaders in place. There was of course a fifth leader in the post Howard era who history seems to have forgotten, but I have a strange feeling that the man the Liberal party chose to succeed John Howard as the leader of the Liberal party could well have succeeded him as the next Liberal Prime Minister if only he’d hung around.
Contrary to received wisdom, Dr Brendan Nelson was not an unpopular Leader of the Opposition. His approval rating was generally positive which Tony Abbott’s almost never is, Julia Gillard’s often isn’t and after the Godwin Grech affair Malcolm Turnbull’s certainly wasn’t. Nelson’s image in the public eye could best be described as a “harmless nice guy.” He was right wing but in a measured sort of way, his conservatism seemed to be limited and contained unlike Abbott who seems to give off the impression he wants to make being poor a capital offence. Dr Nelson seemed smart, competent and good natured; his problem was the he seemed wholly incapable of dealing a wounding blow to Kevin Rudd. By contrast Peter Costello who had dealt many a damaging blow to Mark Latham and Kim Beazley in the past, and Malcolm Turnbull who also seemed quite tough courted public support until the party finally caved and replaced Nelson with Turnbull.
Twelve months on Turnbull still hadn’t delivered that wounding blow to Kevin Rudd and his colleagues were growing impatient. Whereas Nelson was genuinely well liked within the coalition, Turnbull was given the job because they thought he could beat Rudd and he was losing. Joe Hockey was performing quite well in treasury so most of the focus revolved around Hockey replacing Turnbull, but Hockey baulked at the opportunity and the Liberals went into a tailspin. Andrew Robb and Peter Dutton were countenanced but both of them declined to run too. Finally Kevin Andrews became the first person to put his name forward, and then Tony Abbott did shortly thereafter.
History may have vindicated the decision to vote for Abbott but at the time he was not installed to win the election. Abbott was made leader so that the coalition could at least go down fighting for something they believed in rather than for Malcolm Turnbull’s megalomania.
Now imagine if in 2008 when he was usurped by Malcolm Turnbull if Nelson had decided to apply for a position on the Liberal frontbench. There’s no doubt he would have been given a high profile position, given his experience as Minister for Defence I imagine he might have been made Shadow Foreign Minister. Dr Nelson is a competent political performer and now that the responsibility for winning the election was no longer his, coverage would have been on his performance in the Shadow Ministry which would have been, like most things Nelson did, high profile and well organized. Just as Turnbull had appeared comparatively assertive and dynamic when Nelson was leader, Nelson would appear likeably constructive and positive as a senior shadow minister, but bear in mind as the Leader of the Opposition, Dr Nelson wanted to resolutely oppose Rudd’s emissions trading scheme.
So we come back to December 2009, Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberals are on the verge of moving a confidence motion against him, Joe Hockey has just told everyone that he doesn’t want to be leader, the party are scuttling about trying to find an alternative, enter Brendan the likeable. As I mentioned before, the fact that Nelson had seen so incapable of beating Rudd in 2008 would have been of little consequence because at the time Tony Abbott was given no real chance of beating Rudd either. Nelson would have been the most senior Liberal prepared to vote against the ETS and would likely have had a swell of supporters back him. Presumably after reclaiming the leadership and blocking the ETS, Rudd would have again hit the panic button and deferred it and set in train a spiral of dysfunction culminating in the government removing Rudd and rushing to a snap election.
The difference though is whereas in reality the coalition entered the 2010 election with a man perceived to be erratic and unreliable by the public, in this parallel reality they would have had the friendly and competent Dr Nelson providing a safe, inoffensive option to a government which was standing on its head and eating its own young. And with those pieces in play ladies and gentleman, I believe Brendan Nelson could have been Prime Minister.