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Nelson, Turnbull and other political sprinters

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Nelson too good a bloke for hard truths of politics, The AgeLeadership contest casualties leave large holes for parties to fill. That is becoming more and more obvious with the Liberal Party at the moment. Brendan Nelson's retirement raises the question of the consequences for the Liberals of his early departure.

Defeated Leaders of the Opposition are of two types: fragile and sensitive sprinters and robust and durable stayers. The sprinters rise quickly and briefly shine before losing their position and then leaving Parliament. Apart from Nelson, other recent sprinters are Mark Latham and John Hewson.

Hewson became an accidental Liberal leader in 1990. He had never been a minister, having only entered Parliament in 1987; though he had been a promising shadow Treasurer. Had he not become an unsuccessful Opposition Leader, defeated by Paul Keating in 1993, Hewson would have served in the next Liberal Government. He may even have become Treasurer in the Howard Government instead of Peter Costello.

Latham also became a sprinter after he lost to John Howard in 2004. First elected in 1994, he became Opposition Leader in 2003 and left parliament early in 2005. If Latham had retired gracefully to the Labor shadow ministry in January 2005 he would have subsequently become a minister in the Rudd Government.

Stayers remain in Parliament, reconciled to their more junior status, to serve their party even after losing the leadership. The obvious stayer has been Howard. But there are others.

Labor's present Minister for Trade, Simon Crean, was an unsuccessful Opposition Leader for two years from 2001–2003. He has demonstrated extraordinary staying power since he was first elected to the Parliament 19 years ago.

One of the consequences of leadership contests and party defeats is that they often inflict deep casualties on the leadership group. Nelson is retiring at 51 in his political prime after only 13 years in Parliament. He could easily have served his party in a senior capacity for another decade and still retired as a relatively young man.

One consequence of Costello declining the Liberal leadership after the defeat of the Howard Government was that Nelson became Opposition Leader for less than a year. Now less than two years into the new Parliament he is leaving politics altogether.

Yet under Costello Nelson would have served as a successful senior shadow minister, probably in Defence or Foreign Affairs. Instead the Liberal Party has lost yet another experienced, but still relatively youthful, member of its leadership team.

That would be bad enough but the Liberals are facing yet another big leadership loss. Its current leader, Malcolm Turnbull, may turn out to be yet another sprinter, another consequence of Costello's withdrawal from leadership.

Like Nelson, Turnbull would have had to wait his turn if Costello had accepted the leadership. He would have been Shadow Treasurer. If Costello then led the Party to victory in 2010, both Turnbull and Nelson would have had to wait indefinitely for the leadership, but they would both have become senior ministers.

It is likely that the Rudd Government will be returned next year. If Turnbull remains Liberal leader until then, he will have the choice of either resigning after defeat or fighting to retain his position. If he is given a second chance, as Hewson was in 1993, he might face being deposed mid-term if Liberal fortunes do not improve.

Turnbull will probably resign from Parliament to pursue other interests if he loses the leadership. If he does this he will have served only about six years in Parliament despite rising to the heights of Opposition leader.

If this happens it will further damage the Liberal leadership team. The Liberals still hope for a Turnbull electoral victory. But if that does not occur then the party should urge him to stay on in a lesser role, like Alexander Downer did when he was deposed in 1995, possibly to serve with distinction in a future Liberal Government.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Flinders University and a columnist with the Canberra Times.

Topic tags: liberal leadership, Brendan Nelson, John Hewson, Mark Latham, John Howard, Simon Crean, sprinter, stayer



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Existing comments

John's interesting piece illustrates one of the problems of what we might call the 'presidentialisation' of the role of Prime Minister. Instead of the PM being the 'first among equals' in a collegiate leadership (collective noun) s/he has become the (singular) leader and all the rest are necessarily followers. In such an arrangement, it is in the interests of the Leader to suppress any other budding leader and so there is inevitably a vacuum when a leader goes or is removed. The longer the so-called leader is in place, the larger is the vacuum, the less capable are the potential successors, and the longer the time required for the party to regroup.

When will the 'leaders' of our political parties realise that, if not their first, then their second most important role is to develop and nurture a group of potential successors anyone of which could take over at any time?

Tom Jones | 08 September 2009  

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