Welfare to
work Budget leaks are scattered through the media this morning like
sultanas in cheap fruit cake. Not that we’ll know until Dollar Sweetie
gets to his feet on Tuesday night.

Crikey remains locked out
from the lock-up, but that won’t keep us away. Next week we’ll be
setting up the Crikey Tent Embassy in Canberra – probably in the Senate
courtyard. We should be able to run an extension cord out from Aussie’s
coffee shop, or maybe the offices occupied by Chris Evans, the
opposition leader in the Senate. And the shower facilities of the
Parliament House gym won’t be too far away.

But we’re an
understanding lot at Crikey. The treasurer’s decision to ban Crikey
from the lock-up – and throw out the kids from Vibewire – is
irrational, inconsistent, and suggests his understanding of new media
stopped when transistors replace vacuum valves. It’s also a deeply
distressing sign of his own commitment to openness and accountability.
But we understand. We understand the internal torment of Peter Costello
– particularly after reading Peter Hartcher’s piece in the Sydney Morning Herald today. It’s personal for this disgruntled deputy.

As
we’ve always said, Hartcher notes how “one of the hallmarks of the
Howard government has been its discipline … In stark contrast to its
Labor predecessor, the cabinet is extraordinarily cohesive. It rarely
leaks. It keeps its struggles private. The rivalries, though real, have
been kept subterranean.”

Partly, he explains, “this contrast
is one of political culture. The Coalition does not have the highly
structured Labor factions engaged in eternal fratricide. It does not
have the same traditions of bare-knuckle blues. Partly it is the
management technique of John Howard. He has centralised power in his
own office and his own person. Ministers have less freedom to speak and
less discretion to act than in the Hawke-Keating years. And partly it’s
the patience and forbearance of the deputy leader of the Liberal Party,
and the man Howard has cited as his successor, Peter Costello.”

Hartcher
goes on to flesh out significant differences between Peter Costello and
his leader – significant and frustrating differences. At the same time,
he spells out the closest we’ve seen to coherent expression of the
treasurer’s personal and political philosophy:

Costello’s criticisms of his leader are not well circulated
or understood outside a very tight circle of friends and allies. But
they are real and they feed his frustration.

He considers that
he and Howard have very different conceptions of what Australia is, and
what it should be. According to his friends and allies, he believes
that these are outgrowths of their different life experiences. Howard
grew up in a sheltered Sydney home and lived a comfortable life, remote
from the gritty daily reality of millions of Australians.

In
this view, Howard does not see or understand human struggles with drugs
and divorce, alcoholism and squalor, immigration and identity, abortion
and infertility. The Costello circle considers that the treasurer,
growing up in a family living on the modest means of a Baptist minister
in a home where community problems swirled around constantly, has a
much closer understanding of the real-life struggles of most
Australians.

The result, according to one well-informed
Liberal observer, is that ‘Peter sits around for ten years listening to
John Howard’s views, which are so irrelevant to modern life that it
drives him crazy.

‘John Howard is always playing games about
moral issues. It’s always glossed up into some respectable argument but
it’s really just small-mindedness. Every minute of the day, Peter feels
like saying to Howard, “Mate, get a f—ing life”.’…

We like what we see. Onya, Pete. But why on earth can’t the treasurer
say this himself? Why does he need to speak through sources? If all
this is true, why hasn’t Peter Costello spoken out earlier?

We’re
not just dealing with frustration or forbearance. We’re dealing with an
almighty wimp factor. It might be hesitation on behalf of the party –
the scars of the eighties leadership tension might be hidden by the
concealer of four election wins, but are still there – but it’s still
hesitation. Can someone like that ever be prime minister?

Peter Fray

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