Earlier this month, readers of The West Australian were treated to an
indepth feature on Peter Costello from an interview with the Treasurer
by Karen Middleton. But it was apparently over looked by east
coast media outlets so we’ve pulled out some off the best quotes and
published them on the site for all who missed out.

The West Australian – The man who could be king

By Karen Middleton

It seems odd that the Treasurer is so highly convivial, expansive, even
festive, as he polishes his ninth Budget and muses about the future.
Peter Costello is not where he thought he would be by now and not
certain he’ll get there. But he is absolutely certain he deserves to.

“Actually, I think the things I’ve been able to achieve in politics
have been very significant, very significant,” he says. “Now if further
opportunities present themselves, I may have further opportunities.”

He is sitting in his Melbourne ministerial office on a warm autumn day.
He doesn’t look like a man who will head to Washington tomorrow and
turn for home inside three days, ready to deliver the Federal Budget.
Nor does he look like someone who had hoped and expected to be prime
minister by now.

“Sometimes politics works for you and sometimes it doesn’t,” he says.

His lunch buddies have no doubt about his capacity for the job. “He has
the intellectual skill to be prime minister and he has the strength of
character and courage to represent Australia internationally and make
the decisions domestically that will make Australia a great nation,”
says Pyne. “He has the courage of heart and strength of mind to make
Australia an even greater nation than it is now.”

Kroger says the bright demeanour is about confidence in Australia’s
future. “I think he’s satisfied with the overall performance of the
Government’s economic policy since 96,” he says. “We have done
incredibly well – overwhelmingly, that’s due to his firm hand on the
till. He’s got every reason to be confident about the ninth Budget and
possibly the 10th, if there is one.”

“We haven’t had a leadership challenge in the Liberal Party since,
basically, 1994,” he says. “And we have had the most remarkably
successful period. Before that, we had lots of leadership challenges
and we were a great Opposition party at running leadership challenges.
Personally, I think it’s more important to govern and to govern well.”

While talking of religion, he suddenly drops in a biblical reference
someone quoted him recently in the context of politics. “Peter, put
away your sword,” the Treasurer repeats. “Those that live by the sword,
die by the sword.” It comes from the New Testament story of the apostle
Peter cutting off the ear of a high priest who came to take Jesus away.
It was shortly thereafter that Peter made his three denials of Christ.

But allusions to non-violent compliance don’t mean there’s a new
succession deal on the Liberal leadership. Nothing is guaranteed,
despite all the public endorsements from other potential aspirants.

Howard never said the job would be handed over, not in words for which
he could be held to account, but the understanding was so real in
Costello’s mind that the morning phone call which re-cast him as
Treasurer blindsided him utterly. That day’s press conference at which
he declared his intention to roam outside his brief was a version of
Costello with all the raw, wounded fury of a man who believed he’d been
betrayed.

Howard and Costello were never particularly close friends. Now, they
have next to no contact beyond the essential business of government,
conducted cordially.

At the time, it seemed obvious Howard should stay on and lead the
Coalition to the next election, but with the ascendancy of Labor leader
Mark Latham, that changed. Latham looked fresh and new, the same
vintage as the overlooked Costello, who excelled in the Parliament just
like his nemesis, Paul Keating, with whom he hates comparison.

Despite his fitness and personal discipline, Howard looked old and a
bit tired, a perception which remains his greatest liability. More than
one Coalition MP now believes Howard made a serious mistake in staying.

“The leadership is the elephant in the room which nobody will discuss,”
a Costello-backer says. “It’s like having a gay uncle at Christmas
lunch. No one asks, “How’s the family?’“

Though Costello isn’t prepared to blood himself, nor will he talk of a
rightful ascendancy – a stark shift from the demeanour of last June.
“Others might assume it but I don’t,” he says. “If a vacancy arises, I
would consider my position and I’m sure a lot of other people would
too. If what you want me to say is I burn with so much desire I’m
announcing a leadership challenge tomorrow, you’ll be sorely
disappointed.”

He insists his achievements should be enough. “We are now providing
more work for more people than ever before. I’m bringing down my ninth
Budget, ninth year of continuous economic growth, it is one of the
fastest-growing economies in the developed world. It has recovered its
triple-A rating, which it lost when it was downgraded twice under the
Labor Party and Paul Keating. Keating!” he spat.

“We are proposing for the seventh time to have a budget surplus. We
have one of the lowest debt ratios of any country in the world and that
was done through an Asian financial crisis, a US recession, our worst
drought in 100 years, the war in Iraq and a terrorist attack in the
United States. Through that period I have been managing economic
policy.”

In contrast, he says Keating’s stewardship took Australia into
recession. “There was no Asian financial crisis, Asia was booming. He
managed to get us into a recession. But when Asia turned down, we
managed the boom.”

Costello’s reference to the sword is not the first in relation to his
ambition. Keating taunted him three years ago that he would have to
“get the sword out“, a jibe which prompted Costello to dismiss him as a
“blast from the past”. “Keating said Howard was past his used-by date,”
Costello said at the time. “Look in the mirror, Paul.”

Asked for a response to this new Costello attack, Keating hasn’t
changed his view. “Leaders and prime ministers come with a built-in
supply of Araldite,” he says. “There’s not much for it, other than
knocking them over. They are stuck to the seat. They won’t shift and
move.”

If anything, Keating’s contempt for Costello has deepened with time. He
observes that he has never spoken to the Treasurer and that Costello
has always “flown at a way lower altitude”.

“Let’s leave the simplistic political points to one side because they
do him no credit,” he says. “When I became Treasurer, Australia was an
industrial museum influenced by tariffs with a sclerotic financial
market. When I finished 13 years later, it was the best performing,
lowest inflation economy in the OECD with completely open product and
financial markets, and, I must add, a doubling of trend productivity
which broke the back of inflation.

“I bequeathed to the Prime Minister and the Treasurer an economy which
grew over twice as fast as than when Treasurer Howard left Australia to
me. Mr Costello seems to always worry about me. I never worry about
him. Frankly, I left him to run the franchise and that is all he has
done.”

“In my personal life, I’m quite conservative,” Costello says. “But I’m
also quite distrustful of government control . . . I’m wary of
governments controlling how people live, you know. It’s all very well
if the government’s an instrument of good. But governments can be
instruments of evil.”

He is publicly, completely loyal to his own Government’s decisions, but
he’s believed to have argued stridently in Cabinet at least twice
recently against the social policy direction. He was overruled. “You’ve
got to take them one by one,” he says of social issues.

He would facilitate an Australian republic, a modest version mirroring
the current system. He doesn’t like the idea of a directly elected
president any more now than he did in 1999 when he witnessed what he
agrees was the wilful sabotage of a modest republic at the hands of his
monarchist colleagues, now responsible for delivering direct election
should Latham prevail.

And, interestingly, he would make children study the Bible at school.
He believes passionately in promoting knowledge of the cultural
history, in which Australia’s Judaeo-Christian roots are founded. His
passion on the teaching of values is so vivid it ignites his face,
smirk and all.

Knowledge will change as technology does, he says. What was important
to learn in his own childhood was, as he found on a visit to a Grade
One class at a school in his electorate last month, not relevant
anymore. Children must have access to cutting-edge knowledge, to
computers and whatever other tools emerge in future, as things change.

“But I suspect one thing that won’t change is values,” Costello says.
“I think the values that our civilisation and our society operates on
are as old as the Greeks and as old as the Bible. That’s why I think
we’ve got to teach them about the Bible and the Greeks and the virtues,
you know. They will not change, while knowledge will.”

The Greek virtues – courage, loyalty, honour, dignity. The Greek
virtues.” So does Peter Costello think children should be made to study
the Bible at school? “Oh yeah. And about the moral foundation of our
society, which is found in the Bible, absolutely.”

He says children should grow up understanding comparative religion,
learning the elements of other faiths such as Judaism and Islam. “But
our society, and let’s not mince any words about this, the religious
basis of our society, of the West, is Judaeo-Christianity, the Bible,”
he says.

“Our society wasn’t invented yesterday. We didn’t just sort of pop out
of nowhere yesterday. We stand in a long tradition and I think it’s
important that kids do understand what that tradition is because a lot
of our institutions, a lot of our morality, a lot of our law is based
on those ethics. And I think you’re much richer if you understand that.”

He is highly conscious of morality and scathing of those who claim to
have it cornered. Church leaders earn a particularly savage assessment.
“I actually don’t believe that just because a view is expressed by a
churchman that that is necessarily right,” he says. “A lot of the
churches said introducing a GST would destroy society as we know it.
Right? That’s what they said. Did it?“

And yet it’s partly as a result of his own upbringing in the church
that he seeks out a diversity of views and experience. The son of a
teacher with another teacher and a churchman for siblings, Costello has
arguably more experience of the diversity of life than the older
Howard.

Like Howard, Costello recently penned a personal get-well note to
former Labor leader Kim Beazley when illness confined him to bed. A
Victorian Liberal colleague and non-fan says the Treasurer also offered
a great deal of personal support in recent times to an old school
friend whose marriage was breaking up. The observation is that despite
his high office, Costello doesn’t dispense with friends in hard times.

“I often say, you know, politics doesn’t make your marriage work,”
Costello says. “Politics doesn’t make your family work. Politics is an
area of life but there are bigger things than politics. There’s
marriage, and there’s art, and there’s love, and there’s family.”

Real community is about trust in each other and in institutions, he
says, a theme he tackled in his speech to the Sydney Institute last
year. He rejects the idea that the Government has emptied the trust
bank. “We haven’t lost it, we should really treasure it,” he says.
“It’s much deeper than a government policy about this or that. It’s a
fabric. It’s a fabric. It’s bigger than governments.”

His own marriage to Tanya, a highly accomplished lawyer and
politician’s daughter now working part-time, is held together tight.
With the personal pain of the Keatings’ marriage break-up sprayed
across the newspapers, Costello is newly conscious of the pressure the
prime ministership would bring.
“It’s enormous,” he says. “But, you know, within the realms of my human
fallibility, I am trying to stay married to my first wife . . . And I’m
still married to my first wife.” It sounds like an uncharitable
reference to Latham being in his second marriage, a sign of that mean
streak which might be reflected in his unpopularity in many polls.

“No treasurer polls well for niceness,” Costello says, when asked why
the relaxed figure in the armchair, suit coat open, confident,
comfortable and bellowing with laughter is not what the public sees. “I
mean, when Howard was treasurer – go back and look at how Howard polled
as treasurer. Now you’ve all decided he’s the great leader . . . Have a
look at how Keating polled as treasurer. And look at how Latham polled
as shadow treasurer.”

So he’s not worried about not projecting himself?

“Don’t you worry about me,” he says, leaning forward and grinning like
he has a secret. “Don’t you worry about me. I’m not worried, I’m
relaxed. And happy.”

Peter Fray

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