Reports of the Aussie Right’s Death…

by John O’Sullivan

Within a week of losing the election, the Austalian conservative party (confusingly named the Liberals) has elected a new party leader following the resignation of John Howard. It was a surprise victory for the former defense minister, Brendan Nelson, who defeated the favorite Malcolm Turnbull by 45 to 42 votes.

Nelson is a really unusual mix. Ten years ago he was a member of the Labor party. He’s a guitarist, a weekend biker, and a former doctor with a social conscience who rose first in medical politics to become head of the Australian Medical Association. There’s a rumor that he joined the Liberals because the Labor party refused to fast-track him to parliament. That makes him sound like the usual fashion-crazed opportunist who’ll move steadily leftwards. But there are signs that point in exactly the opposite direction. He supports the teaching of intelligent design in schools if the parents want it; he has supported conservative causes usually shunned by ambitious pols such as voluntary student unionism (against mass university protests); and when he was education minister, he fought firmly against credentialism and the education establishment. To learn more about him, take a look at this portrait.

It’s two years old but still pretty revealing. His victory against the odds is interesting. Many observers think that he’s a stop-gap figure who will keep the seat warm either for former national Treasurer, Peter Costello, who sat this contest out, or for the man he defeated, Malcolm Turnbull, a highly successful lawyer who was also head of Australia’s Goldmann Sachs. Both men are tough, shrewd and underneath yesterday’s protestations of loyalty, highly ambitious politically.

There might be another Liberal leadership election before the next general election. Party leaders get defenestrated in Australia quite often. One contender, Tony Abbott pulled out of the contest hours before the vote yesterday but said that he might seek the leadership at some later date.

All that said, Nelson is such an unusual mixture–driving ambition plus wayward bursts of principle–that he shouldn’t be written off in advance. He’s come far and fast. And he may have political star quality. Certainly he’s ten times more colorful than the new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, who is tough and able but with a slightly grim and determined personality, about as far from a guitar-playing biker as can be imagined. So the Australian Right, yesterday flat on its back on the canvas, has suddenly leapt up and started swinging.