On Wednesday, Liberal federal director Tony Nutt announced his resignation after a year and a half in the job.
The timing was a surprise, but pre-empted a likely highly critical report in the Coalition’s disastrous 2016 campaign by former minister and federal director Andrew Robb, the man who propelled John Howard to victory in 1996.
The consummate political consigliere, the man John Howard says knows where all the Liberal bodies are buried, Nutt in a gracious media statement called time on his almost 40 years in politics, with generous praise for not only Malcolm Turnbull but Tony Abbott and, above all, John Howard, whose political right arm he was in Howard’s prime ministership.
But the generosity of his words shouldn’t hide the fact that Nutt has not only scapegoated himself, but he is being made a scapegoat for the lacklustre and unimpressive election campaign of the prime minister himself.
Last year’s near-defeat was a presidential campaign centred on Turnbull. It was badged the Turnbull team, not the Coalition government. It was Turnbull whose campaigning day mostly ended by lunchtime. It was Turnbull who was responsible for the policies – or rather near-total lack thereof – and approved the piss-weak Jobs and Growth slogan. It was Turnbull whose calling a double dissolution created a larger Senate crossbench, having just passed legislation that would have otherwise cleaned it out. It was Turnbull who wouldn’t get his hands dirty calling out Bill Shorten’s chequered union and political past aired in the Trade Union Royal Commission, inexplicably letting the Labor leader get off scot-free. Worst of all, it was Turnbull who failed to recognise Labor’s pernicious, deceitful Mediscare was not only biting with voters, but becoming an existential threat to the government.
And Nutt certainly did not script Turnbull’s angry and unbecoming spray late on election night.
Stories about the management of the campaign, including Nutt’s tendency to micromanage and hold too much polling and other data close to his chest, have foundation. Nutt himself is a very shy man, not given to the sort of schmoozing and suffering fools gladly federal directors must do. But Nutt’s innate sense of deference to the Leader meant he would not have willingly questioned the prime minister, Lucy Turnbull and their closest advisers.
Let’s be honest. Any federal director would have struggled with the package that Nutt was given to sell. He has some responsibility as the campaign director for last year’s mess, but for him to shoulder the blame alone is unfair and wrong. It’s up to the prime minister to accept his leading role in the election result, acknowledge his less than stellar contribution, and atone by governing better, getting better political advice and, above all, having sound policies and an overall strategic vision for the nation’s future to offer the Australian people.
Tony Nutt is too loyal a servant of the Liberal party he loves to say as much.
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