How many times have we heard that ‘being Opposition Leader is the hardest job in politics’? Almost since the day Brendan Nelson was elected we have heard this mantra from Coalition members, increasingly in recent months as Nelson’s performance failed to improve. There seemed to be a need to excuse his performance by pointing out how hard his job was. But is the mantra true? Is being Opposition Leader inherently as hard as has been asserted?
Let’s look back. We can still remember the days of Simon Crean. Coming as he did from the position of Shadow Treasurer, he carried the baggage of that position, a position in which he was often carping about what the Howard Government was doing. Although a thoroughly decent person well versed in his shadow position, he was characterized by the media as whining, lacking charisma and not up to the job. It wasn’t long before one could see the writing on the wall. The media began to write him off. He was unable to meet the expectations people had of him. Eventually he succumbed to the pressure. But was this because his was ‘the hardest job in politics’? No. It was because of his unsuitability for the position and the media’s realization of this.
Take Kim Beasley. He had two stints as Leader of the Opposition. He suffered electoral defeats. He was well liked by the public, his fellow parliamentarians and by most of the media. During the years he exhibited competent leadership no one mentioned that he had the hardest job in politics. But because he was seen as verbose, and eventually boring, people stopped listening. He was, to use a media cliché, no longer ‘cutting through’. A reason to replace this nice man was needed. It turned out to be a couple of small verbal blunders – we all remember the Rove McManus – Carl Rove gaffe. From then the mood for change crystallized. But was his political demise the result of him holding down ‘the hardest job in politics’? No. It was of his own doing, with help from the media and some of his colleagues.
Remember Mark Latham. His early days as Opposition Leader generated great excitement. He was someone ready to take on John Howard. We all remember his successful attack on parliamentarians’ superannuation. He was riding high. No one said he was labouring in the toughest job in politics. It was not until he began to make tactical mistakes, beginning with the surprise ‘we’ll bring the troops home by Christmas’ announcement that he was increasingly seen as erratic, too emotional and angry about media intrusion into his family life, too unpredictable. He lost the election and retreated. But was his departure because the job was too hard? No. It was because he proved to not have the temperament, the judgement and the wisdom a leader needs, and his colleagues, the media and the public had lost faith in him.
Reflect on the Rudd period as Opposition Leader. From the day he was elected, his popularity was high and Labor’s standing in the polls, already ahead of the Coalition, rose further. Did we hear anyone saying he was wrestling with the hardest job in politics? No. He certainly didn’t appear to be struggling under that impediment.
Then along came Brendan Nelson. When Peter Costello surprised everyone by declining leadership, Malcolm Turnbull was widely tipped as the obvious leader and was thought to have the numbers. But some outspoken comments about Kyoto, climate change and the apology induced the hard-line Howardites, Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott to swing some Turnbull votes to Nelson to give him a 45/42 victory. Almost from the outset the media and many in the public saw him as a stopgap leader, keeping the seat warm for the real leader. Brendan Nelson is a thoroughly decent person, consultative, empathic, a doctor at heart, but his populist politics (5c per litre excise reduction on petrol), his too-ing and fro-ing on alcopops, his advocacy for alcopops-drinking ute drivers, his simulated rage about the owner of a 20 year old Mitsubishi with five kids in the car and the man with a wheelchair in his Tarrago struggling to pay for their petrol, and his theatrics in Question Time with his can of baked beans and jar of jam, single pensioners’ fare, evoked disdain and amusement rather than political kudos. His fluctuating position on climate change caused dismay in the party room. His attempts to straddle the conservative – liberal divide saw him pulled this way and that, and gave an impression of indecision.
His lack of charisma and consistently sound policy positions left him and the Coalition floundering in the polls, month after month. People in his own party began to erode his position, chief among them Tony Abbott who pleaded, even prayed for Peter Costello’s return to leadership. His performance failed to improve, his support dwindled despite demands that he be given a fair go, clear air, to get on with the hardest job in politics, Leader of the Opposition after an election defeat.
Finally, he tired of the appalling situation in which his colleagues placed him, called a spill and lost. But was his departure inevitable because he had ‘the hardest job’? No. It was because of his own ineptitude, the disillusionment of his colleagues, and the increasing heat applied by the media who wrote him off on several occasions, only to see him survive a little longer.
My proposition is that being Leader of the Opposition, even after an election loss, is not the hardest job in politics, one that invites almost inevitable failure. It can be managed well. Beasley did it after election losses, Latham managed it well initially, and Rudd managed it all through his year as Opposition Leader. Nelson failed not because the job was hard, but because he was not up to it, because his colleagues white-anted him relentlessly, because the media and the public were eventually fed up.
Let’s see how hard being Opposition Leader is for Malcolm Turnbull – I’ll lay long odds he doesn’t see it as ‘the hardest job in politics’