A column about quokkas

Wikipedia tells me that the quokka (Setonix brachyurus), the only member of the genus Setonix, is a small macropod about the size of a large domestic cat. And the only reason I know this is because the poor animal became this week the latest twist in the strange saga of Troy Buswell.

No situation better illustrates the terrible plight in which the Liberal Party finds itself in 2008 than the hapless WA Opposition Leade,. On taking office earlier this year, he was forced to admit to snapping the bra strap of a Labor staffer during a drunken party in Parliament House. Last month, he confessed to having sniffed the chair of a Liberal staffer. This led to a leadership spill, and, in what can only be seen as an indictment on every other MP in his Party, he survived.

How does this lead to the quokka? Well, he was accused of drunkenly playing ‘quokkaball’ along with a bunch of his fellow MPs. It turned out to be a hoax started by a blogger, which was good news for the poor animals, which were endangered enough as it was. And I’d argue that it speaks poorly of Buswell’s reputation, rather than of the journalistic standards of Australian newspapers, that the allegations were printed.

And yet despite all this, Buswell’s approval rating remains higher than Brendan Nelson’s. Really, Nelson must be tearing his hair out in frustration. And that’s probably a good thing – it would only improve it.

There is effectively no political competition anywhere in Australia at the moment. So politics junkies must turn their interest to America, which has conveniently turned on a compelling contest. Sure, it’s about time the campaign shifted gears to being a competition between the two parties that will actually contest the election, instead of between the two leading Democrats. But reflecting on the Obama-Clinton epic has made me reflect on something Troy Buswell would do well to learn. In politics, there is one important principle that virtually no-one gets right. And that is that it’s crucial to know when to leave.

John Howard, the most successful politician of his generation, made a hash of it. He won four elections, and dominated the country for eleven years. But he failed to realise that the tide of public opinion was finally turning irrevocably against him. Much as Troy Buswell has failed to realise that there is no way the voters of Western Australia want to be led by a person for whom a recently-vacated chair represents an irresistible sexual opportunity. There was no way back for Howard, and there’s no way back for Buswell. When you’re gone, you’re gone. And if I may be so bold as to offer a tip to those readers who may be considering a political career, the day you issue a press release denying improperly interfering with a quokka is the day you should be issuing a press release announcing your retirement, effective immediately.

So too, Hillary Clinton is rapidly eroding what little goodwill remains towards her in American politics by refusing to abandon her campaign to tarnish Obama’s reputation. There is now practically no way she can defeat him for the nomination, yet still she refuses to depart gracefully. There was a time when she had a genuine chance of sealing the Vice-Presidency to form the much-vaunted “dream team”, although of course her dreams had the ticket in a somewhat different order. But now even if she gets it, she is guaranteed an icy relationship with her boss. As another strong woman, Gretel Killeen, once said, it’s time to go, Hillary. It’s been great. Actually, it hasn’t. But in any event, vacate the house immediately or we’ll send in the security guards.

There is only one situation in politics when the writing is on the wall, and yet retirement is not the right option. And that is Brendan Nelson’s. Clearly, he will never be Prime Minister. But he can serve as Kevin Rudd’s punching bag for a few years yet, perhaps even through an election, until the next Liberal with any credibility as an alternative Prime Minister emerges. Kevin Rudd needed a Kim Beazley to soak up the blows, and while Nelson won’t win an election on popular vote the way Beazley did in 1998, it’s not yet time for him to leave. Brendan Nelson’s party needs him in the job, and the rest of us do as well. Because while he is Opposition Leader, there is no technical way that Tony Abbott can become Prime Minister. And for that reason alone, he must stay.

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