He mightn’t have impressed Newspoll respondents, but Hillary loves the
Treasurer – and our National Affairs Editor has finally laid Costello
on the couch.

So Peter Costello didn’t score that well in the latest Newspoll?

Surprise,
surprise. Do Treasurers ever? Do many pols? Look at Iron Mark’s ratings
back before he became leader. They weren’t that brilliant.

Why should he? After all, how much do we really know about the Treasurer?

We
know he barracks for the Bombers, can’t dance the Macarena that well –
but will at least give it a go, walked for reconciliation (but not on
the first big march even though Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and a former
Howard minister, Warwick Smith, were with us), is a republican, er…
sued Bob Ellis and… er… says he’d speak up more outside his
portfolio almost a year ago but hasn’t really all that much and… um.

So
should we be surprised that his biographer, Shaun Carney, was asking in
the Age last Saturday “Peter Costello thinks he should be prime
minister. But does anybody else?”

Carney wrote “Costello is
left high and dry, his courage being called into question, his career
options limited and his development as a politician constricted” –
thanks, no doubt, to the PM’s obduracy. The full yarn is at http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/03/12/1078594561497.html.

However,
Costello might just be the latest victim of a portfolio that restricts
the occupant to bad news or trying to sex up stats that are of very
little interest to the average punter.

Yours truly has been
wanting to lay Cozzie on the couch for a long time – and has been
thinking more and more about the Treasurer since he made his comments
on Crikey to a subscriber at a Joe Hockey fundraiser a fortnight ago.

He can’t be half as smug or as dull as he’s painted.

You
should have seen the scenes in the bunker as we watched Question Time
back in June 2002 when the Treasurer made his famous “I recommend
crikey.com” comments:

“The Labor Party, back to its old
tricks, has had the member for Batman already calling for some of this
money to be spent on some of his pet projects, at the same time as he
was calling for it to be used to reduce debt. Those of you who follow
crikey.com as closely as I do will see that [Martin Fergusson] has been
recycling a few things in his electorate recently including tips, in a
leaflet mailed out to his electorate in Melbourne, on how to recycle
Perth waste, with the phone number of the member for Swan on his
leaflet. I recommend crikey.com. It includes very good reading about
Delia Delegate this week and the internal machinations of the Victorian
ALP…”

Think about it. Think about the comments Crikey makes about the Howard Government.

It actually must have taken a fair bit of guts for the Treasurer and the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party to quote us.

When
John Anderson pinched the same yarn from a Hillary column to give
another whack to Ferguson later in the week, he didn’t source it.

We
know that Peter Costello likes his Crikey. That’s a good sign. Some MPs
like to suggest that reading Crikey is a somewhat sordid activity that
is below them. No silly genteelisms for the Treasurer, though.

Even
better, when he asked our subscriber if he was “one of the ‘Ls’
Hillary”, it suggested that Costello has a good sense of humour.

So, what’s the real Peter Costello like?

Yours
truly remembers a youthful, neophyte Member for Higgins joshing in a
most irreverent way with an even younger Tony Smith, then his staffer,
about an “interjection club” they’d invented back on a tour of the old
Parliament House when it was deserted and almost derelict back in 1990.

That
might be why he likes his Crikey. He seems to be a funny guy – with a
sense of irreverence lurking just beneath the surface.

Alexander
Downer has it too – but unlike the Foreign Minister Costello is bright
enough not to display it at the wrong time, a la “Things that batter”.

The Treasurer is bright, ambitious, competent and not without ruthlessness – but not without a sense of the ridiculous either.

He likes his Crikey because he could probably do quite a good job here.

A
Treasurer has got to play it straight in public, but if the average
punter saw the side of Peter Costello that was on show at the Hockey
fundraiser his Newspoll rating wouldn’t just be a lot better. He’d
probably be a shoe-in for the top job.

Natural, funny and gregarious.

It’s
a pity that a smirk is about as far as you can go when you’re
expounding on tax and economics. It’s hard to be yourself then – let
alone in the artificial and theatrical atmosphere of Question Time.

PS
Here’s an interesting historical and cultural precedent any amateur
anthropologist should bear in mind when thinking about the Peter
Costello. In the 1970s Australians embraced – and, indeed, hailed as a
role model and national hero – a sometimes awkward, sometime gauche but
basically decent everyman who got occasionally embarrassed by his
clergyman brother. His name? Barry McKenzie.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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