Dust to dust
Brendan Nelson would have been a stronger leader if he had stood up to support the apology to the Stolen Generations.
Yes, it is time to talk of Brendan Nelson in the past tense.
There are two groups within the Liberal Party who oppose the very idea that we should apologise to Aborigines who were removed from Aboriginal families as children. The first is the National Right, and the second are a bunch of shellbacks from WA. Neither have much to offer the future of the Liberal Party, and none will play an role in maintaining, let alone boosting the Coalition vote in 2010. If Brendan Nelson stood up to them over this issue, he would demonstrate a moral courage he had lacked since he joined the Howard Cabinet. On a pragmatic level, he would strengthen his leadership: these jokers might get their noses out of joint, but where would they go? Turnbull? Abbott? Either Bishop? Staring down that lot would have given Brendan Nelson a reputation for strength and conviction that could make Rudd's equivocation a weakness rather than a strength.
Oh well. Too late for that now.
It's hard to deal with unexpected events, to react in such a way that works to your longterm benefit. It's easier if you have some forewarning, so that you can react effectively: the ALP have been saying for a decade that they would apologise to the Stolen Generations. It's stupid to be 'wedged' by such an eminently foreseeable issue. It's poor leadership, and it makes it
The whole idea of the apology is to set Aboriginal policy on a new footing. The whole idea of the Nelson leadership is to recast the Liberal Party ready to govern Australia again. In theory, both could work: but if one is pitted against the other then it is Nelson that will go down.
The government is not obliged to release the text of the apology ahead of time. First, Howard used to insist that Labor support its policies without releasing the details. Second, it would rob the occasion of any impact. Third, people who are not clearly and fully committed to the principle of that being discussed could not be expected to negotiate in good faith.
Brendan Nelson could've had a role in reshaping a troubled relationship that has always stunted this country: his flaws in the Education and Defence ministries could have been rendered trivial in the face of such leadership. With that sort of leadership you could blow off the crusties that stand between the Liberals and the government of this country, and hammer any slips that Rudd
But, let us have no more of that. There is no way his response to Rudd's apology will be impressive, or even adequate. The task of younger Liberals who would reshape popular opinion of the Liberal Party to make it suitable for government, already difficult, has been rendered next to impossible.
To invoke an image of reconciliation for an earlier generation, imagine that picture of Gough Whitlam pouring red dust into the hand of Vincent Lingiari. Now imagine Brendan Nelson doing the pouring, with prevailing winds blowing the dust into his silly face. Imagine the empty black hand extended toward someone who can't deliver. That is the image of the Coalition today.