Poor Dollar Sweetie! Just last weekend Peter Costello was on ABC TV’s Insiders
talking about how next week’s Budget will aim to encourage “as many of
those Australians of working age as possible to take part in the
workforce.” The treasurer has already said we should all be working
longer. Yet he seems to think that John Howard will hand the top job
over to him despite being re-elected just six and bit months ago. Talk
about an entitlement mentality!

There’s no reason for the prime
minister to go other than going for the sake of going, even if Dollar
Sweetie thinks it’s his turn. Petey’s in a pet. He wants to be prime
minister and expects the job handed to him on a plate. He gave John
Howard a pouty, petulant message on Meet The Pressyesterday: the leadership can be handled in 2005 the way it was dealt with in 1995 – or 1985.

But first, let’s set things up because they’re messy, messy, messy. Last week we learned
that John Howard would not just attend Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s funeral,
but also deliver a tribute – ending any doubt whatsoever that no
hypocrisy is beneath or beyond him. A row over cuts to IVF funding
split the Cabinet and spilled over into the public sphere – a row
created by a Budget bid from Health Minister Tony Abbott and supported
by Howard. And the prime minister wound up a lengthy, indulgent,
Whitlamesque overseas trip – all bar the Asian legs were entirely
gratuitous – with an equally indulgent interview with Malcolm Farr from
The Daily Telegraph and The Australian’s Steve Lewis.

interview has left some egos feelings very bruised. Senior figures feel
the prime minister has made them look like amateurs, disowned their
important work and tossed them overboard. Yes, gallery gossip is
ferocious. Farr and Lewis apparently feel very hard done by. But what
about Dollar Sweetie himself? What about the treasurer?

Pete might have ordered Crikey locked out of the Budget lock-up, but
we’re big enough to talk to Camp Costello. The official opinion within
the stockade is that the treasurer is not going to be distracted, that
this is no time for self-indulgence, that this is a very important
Budget requiring a deft touch to deliver election commitments in an
uncertain economic environment.

Costello will be the centre of
attention for the next fortnight of Budget deliberations and analysis.
Leadership was bound to come up, sources close to the treasurer say,
but it could have been managed. Sunday’s Meet the Press interview
was going to be a major part of the Budget softening-up process – and
the prime minister derailed it. So what does Camp Costello think should
happen now? The prime minister created this problem, they say, so the
prime minister can fix it.

The treasurer is not in the mood for
this sort of thing, they say. He believes there’s no room for
complacency – political or economic. He’s particularly concerned by the
prime minister’s “bring it on” reaction to the prospect of going
head-to-head with Kim Beazley for the third time. Camp Costello thinks
that there are voters in key seats who were prepared to vote Liberal
last time – wary, perhaps, of Mark Latham – who won’t cop Howard again.

not grizzling about the journalists, I’m disagreeing with their
interpretation,” the prime minister told Fran Kelly on ABC Radio
National this morning as he sought to hose down the row. His 2iC’s
interpretation of the comments hasn’t helped, either – but can Costello
really expect to be given the leadership yet? The treasurer must know
that there’s no groundswell within the party or from the public for him
to take over the top job. The most generous estimation of the numbers
in today’s papers is 20. That’s nothing.

So here’s a closing
message for Dollar Sweetie. Over the past few weeks we’ve got to know
the UK Labour Party’s Gordon Brown. Gordon Brown is our friend. And,
treasurer, you’re no Gordon Brown.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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