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Brendan Nelson's high risk strategy

By Patrick Baume - posted Thursday, 31 July 2008

You can’t blame Brendan Nelson for taking the stance he did on an emissions trading scheme (ETS). He knew he only had one shot to become Prime Minister, if he was lucky, and he is probably right in thinking his only chance of winning was to wholeheartedly embrace those both in his own party and the wider electorate who think this whole climate change hoo ha is a plot by the latte set to try and force us to eat mung beans instead of beef and start driving poncy little Peugeots instead of good Aussie V8s.

It’s exactly the same strategy that Kim Beazley took to the 1998 election. As a political veteran without the charisma of Hawke or the presence of Keating, Beazley probably thought he would only get the one chance, or possibly two if he did extremely well at his first try. The decision to oppose the GST was therefore a given, even though most on his side of the Labor Caucus knew it was a significant improvement on the shambolic indirect sales tax regime Paul Keating had tried and failed to get rid of in the ’80s.

Beazley duly did better than most thought he would, even winning the popular vote and falling just a handful of seats short of making John Howard the first oncer Prime Minister since James Scullin in 1932. Yet he did fall short, and in that defeat he set the stage for two far worse Labor losses and a total of 11½ years in the wilderness.


John Howard’s courage in taking a new and complicated tax to the public at his first election was repaid many times over after the Labor Party’s predicted economic Armageddon not only didn’t happen but, following the bedding in period, the GST was shown to be much ado about nothing, and certainly no inhibitor to increasing personal wealth.

In one bold stroke Howard had shown himself to be both courageous and correct, undoubtedly the best possible combination for a political leader in the public’s eyes, while Kim Beazley flopped about talking about a “rollback” of which even his most ardent supporters did not believe a word. It took nine years and three more leaders for the ALP to finally neutralise the economic management dominance Howard had established, and even then it was by claiming to be more conservative than Howard on economic issues.

The emotive response to the ETS before its commencement could well be as strong as it was to the GST, and Dr Nelson and his supporters on the right of the Liberal Party seemed likely to try and wring out every last little bit of that emotional response in an attempt to win the next election. There are quite a number of outer suburban and rural seats on narrow margins and you’d get a short price on the Coalition picking up quite a few at the next election if they took a hard line against unilateral action.

But what would have happened if, as history strongly suggests, the electorate in the end were simply unwilling to knock off a first term government? Dr Nelson may not have been too concerned as he would have almost certainly run his race, even a narrow loss will probably not be enough for the Liberal Party room to give another chance to a man who was always seen as a stop gap.

The greater casualty would have been the Liberal Party’s economic credibility, when the slow, low and soft ETS (or CPRS - carbon pollution reduction scheme - or whatever else the Labor spin doctors want to call it) comes in and the Australian economy does not collapse in a screaming heap, prices are not massively affected and people find themselves with the inevitable big income tax cut in their pocket.

In one stroke Dr Nelson and his supporters would have destroyed a lot of the work of 11 years of solid economic management by the Howard government and given the economic high ground to Kevin Rudd. Not only would they have seemed like antediluvian scaremongers unable to deal with the modern economic landscape, but they would also have destroyed their only current effective argument against Rudd, that he is all blow and no torch.


That’s the reality that caused the Shadow Cabinet to slam the door shut on Nelson’s attempt to harden the Liberal stance against action on climate change, and almost certainly spelled the end of any chance he had of remaining leader until the next election.

There are many in the Liberal Party room who will remain unhappy that they are not focusing their attack on this new greenie tax, as they see it. But the Shadow Cabinet has taken the clever and conservative option, and their best bet remains to neutralise the climate issue in philosophical terms and keep chipping away at the management credentials of Kevin Rudd, painting him as Bob Carr reincarnate, a do-nothing offend no one media manager who will slowly fritter away the good management of the Coalition, just as state governments around the country have done.

It won’t be easy and it will take a lot of hard work, something the Coalition is not renowned for in Opposition, but that is the ultimate road to success. Dr Nelson’s apparent strategy, on the other hand, was as high risk as it gets. His colleagues were clearly not willing to jump off the cliff with him. He now has to take that walk alone.

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Patrick Baume is a Media Analyst who blogs on politics and sport at

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