The wolves are howling in the hills. They are stalking. They are hungry. And they have identified their next victim. This is the cruel and menacing spectacle we have in Australian public life - yet again - on the eve of the first budget handed down by a federal Labor government in 13 years. Sitting opposite the Treasurer and the Prime Minister will be a new Leader of the Opposition who has already been marked for political death.
There is almost nothing Brendan Nelson can do about the leadership predicament he has been handed but be patient and not push too hard too early while the public is not interested. Everything is stacked against him. While the seed and the details of a new narrative about Kevin Rudd have taken root - that he is a megalomaniac - it will take time to grow, if it grows at all.
But time is not what Nelson has been given. The waiting game, and patience in general, is simply not an option for the wolf pack now tracking his every move. Without a shred of empathy, or irony, or self-reflection, the unelected and unaccountable hunting pack of the Canberra political media have marked his leadership for political death for no other reason than that he remains naive and vulnerable, and the wolf pack always targets the naive and vulnerable.
Because one thing the Canberra press corps cannot abide is leadership stability, or the absence of leadership tension. That is a race that must never end, one of the reasons why we have had a new federal leader of the Liberal or Labor parties, on average, every 20 months for the past 24 years: Bill Hayden gave way to Bob Hawke, who gave way to Paul Keating, who gave way to Kim Beazley, who gave way to Simon Crean, who gave way to Mark Latham, who gave way to Beazley again, who gave way to Rudd, all as Malcolm Fraser gave way to Andrew Peacock, who gave way to John Howard, who gave way to Peacock, who gave way to John Hewson, who gave way to Alexander Downer, who gave way to Howard again.
Even as Howard kept winning elections his retirement was the subject of endless speculation and his deputy's ambitions were endlessly paraded.
Now it's Nelson's turn as Liberal leader, and the speculation began the day after he was elected.
Thus it has been written, repeatedly, that the 2008 federal budget, and the following 24 hours, present a moment of truth for Nelson, who must prove himself with a steely, impressive budget reply or face a party coup by the end of the year. If he passes that hurdle, he must survive the first federal byelection test. If he passes that test … and on and on.
The truth is, this is all entirely artificial. Beyond the gossip the only substance behind the stalking and speculation is the opinion polls. But opinion polls are created for, by and of the media to generate artificial news and manipulate public opinion. They are the bedrock of the endless flux and blood sport over leadership.
The idea that Brendan Nelson is in jeopardy because he has been polling very low numbers as "preferred prime minister" must be one of the most perverse and pointless acts in the history of political commentary.
Of course Nelson is polling poorly as preferred prime minister. His party's leadership was decapitated, with not only the prime minister and party standard-bearer losing his seat at the last election, but his deputy and heir apparent, Peter Costello, losing the will to take up the leadership but not finding the will to leave Parliament. The worst of both worlds for Nelson. A tired government has been replaced and a hyperactive new Prime Minister is in control.
Making Nelson's predicament even more difficult is the espoused conservatism of Kevin Rudd, who is determined that Labor will become the party which exploits the proven conservatism of the Australian electorate. Thus his Government is supporting the privatisation of the power generation industry in NSW and opposing gay marriage. It is committed to fiscal prudence, and even willing to countenance the introduction of boarding schools for Aboriginal children from abusive homes.
In short, Rudd is shrewdly attacking the Liberals from the centre-right.
Worse, Nelson is the head of a party in serious structural decline and financial stress.
Nine years ago, in an essay titled "The Parties Are Over", I argued: "Compulsory voting is propping up an illusion. Behind the illusion, behind the surface opera of politics, the foundations of traditional Australian politics are rotting away … The major parties are no longer grassroots movements; they no longer reflect the mainstreams they purport to represent … More than 80 per cent of Liberal Party members in NSW are over the age of 55 … The ranks are not just ageing. Membership in NSW has dropped from 50,000 in 1975 to a rump of about 6,000 active members now … "
Nine years and three federal elections later, nothing has changed or improved. Labor has also shrunk into a political club - 90 per cent of federal Labor MPs had prior careers either as union officials, parliamentary staffers, labour lawyers, or as ALP officials - but the big and defining difference between Liberal and Labor is that Labor holds power in all nine federal, state and territory governments across Australia.
If all this were not bad enough for Nelson, he has the brooding, hyperactive, media-savvy opportunist Malcolm Turnbull at his back. And, for reasons best known to himself, he has appointed an incurable Machiavellian, Christopher Pyne, a member of his shadow cabinet.
At this point, the best armour for Nelson and his party is patience and nerve. The wolves may be howling, but they don't have to be fed.