“Costello goes missing when his supporters
need him to shine,” Fitzgerald concluded yesterday. Even that might be
generous. With all due respect to Messrs Pyne, Brandis, Smith etcetera –
they’re bright boys – we can only repeat our line: while Costello’s supporters
can count, they count for little in the party.
There are two questions here. The first is
talked about all the time: why shouldn’t John Howard continue as Prime Minister
if he offers the Coalition the best chance of success? The second doesn’t get
aired: why should the heir apparent be guaranteed the succession? Isn’t this
old style time serving over talent?
Costello is often compared to Paul Keating.
He may be similar in style – but he’s no match for Keating in substance.
Keating may have divided opinion – but only because he provoked such intense
responses. Costello doesn’t spark passion.
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There are some similarities between the
Howard-Costello battle and the Hawke-Keating stoush, but they are superficial.
When Keating finally toppled Hawke, he had a strong record of reform behind
him. He had been the public face of Australia’s
single most reforming government. Despite Howard’s lip service to Costello’s
achievement in the Budget aftermath, Australia’s
greatest ever Treasurer remains Paul Keating.
Keating floated the dollar. Keating
admitted foreign banks. Keating introduced a raft of tax reforms – including
the pioneering input tax credits – changed fringe benefits and capital gains
tax, sewed up loopholes across the fabric of the tax system and retaught a
party genetically predisposed to spend public money.
Keating introduced a
superannuation scheme for just about everyone and persuaded the union movement
to accept real wage cuts that improved productivity and repaid some of the
excesses of the 1970s – something Treasurer Howard could never do.
But there was more. Keating had the courage
to fight a campaign publicly for a consumption tax – and continue his reform
program even when this was defeated.
Costello can point to very little as his
own. He and Howard are seen as the joint authors of the GST, but the Prime
Minister carried that load and struck the final deal that allowed it to pass
All Costello can really claim credit for
are budget surpluses – and it was Keating who made them the yardstick of
Keating became leader because his
colleagues believed in him. They had seen him win supposedly impossible
arguments time and time again – and never stop fighting. He could ask
backbenchers to follow him to victory.
When Keating challenged, Hawke was
declining and tiring. Keating’s assertion that he had carried Hawke looked
true. This government is Howard’s government. He shows vigour every day.
Costello can’t build a case for change.
He’s suffering the same problem that the ALP faced at the last election. The
pressure’s on him, not on Howard – and the Prime Minister knows it. Hence Athens.
And the media? The Gallery wanted Keating.
They liked and admired him. Keating summoned them to his cause. They answered a
leader’s call. Today, they just like the idea of a leadership fight, not the
vision of PM Costello.