The Treasurer copped a rollicking bollocking in the papers over the weekend – and again today – over the Gerard affair but has The Australian gone in particularly hard?

Tabloids always cite “pals” of the celebrities they write about. It’s code for the people themselves.

In this case, if you listen to the right people they’ll tell you that journos at The Australian have been embarrassed at the treatment their paper is meting out to Costello. One particularly baroque rumour even says that national affairs editor Mike Steketee was going to get the boot until he started getting tough on the Treasurer.

The conspiracy theory says that the coverage of the Gerard affair has nothing to do with the ethics of who’s on the Reserve Bank Board – but is all about pushing The Australian’s tax agenda.

There’s no arguing that Cossie has copped it in the national broad sheet. Today it’s “PM hangs Costello out to dry on RBA“:

“John Howard has revealed the idea to appoint Robert Gerard to the Reserve Bank board was Peter Costello’s, in a move to distance himself from the political scandal. The Prime Ministerial revelation came as senior ministers indicated that they believed the Treasurer’s standing had been damaged by the tax saga, which saw Mr Gerard hand in his resignation from the RBA board on Friday…”

On the opinion pages today John Stone manages to turn a comment piece on the due process that should have been followed in the Gerard matter into a homily on the need for tax reform. Steve Lewis writes how “John Howard has left Peter Costello high and dry with his carefully calibrated statement that it was the Treasurer who volunteered Robert Gerard for the Reserve Bank board. The Treasurer is fighting to defend his reputation and political ambition, in the first real scandal to mar his stellar frontbench career.” Even Glenn Milne is less effusive about the Treasurer than usual.

Compare and contrast Saturday’s Age with the Oz. Down at the Spencer Street Soviet, Costello biographer Shaun Carney essentially said that the biggest rodent in the Government was the Rodent himself, that the rot has come down from the top. Michael Gordon wrote what may have been the broadest wrap of the affair and what it means for the Treasurer’s leadership ambitions – and the rest of the fourth term of the Howard Government.

In contrast, The Weekend Australian had a scathing editorial on the Treasurer:

It has been a good week for the Government, excepting Peter Costello… With the GST in place, the sale of Telstra legislated – if and when its share price improves – and now the august industrial relations club sacked, the Prime Minister has seen three policy winners roar home… Even with the mining sector going flat out, we are not anywhere near meeting our import bill, with a current account deficit for the September quarter of $13.5 billion, $1.5 billion up on the last three months. To reverse this trend, we need an export economy that is ever-more internationally competitive – and that requires a labour market able to adapt to the continually changing requirements of global markets. For this to happen, we need to encourage individuals and businesses to produce more wealth, which requires root-and-branch tax reform. And with this race still to run, Peter Costello consistently pulls up short. The damning details of the Treasurer’s appointment of Robert Gerard to the Reserve Bank board are examined below. But the affair is symptomatic of much broader problems on Mr Costello’s watch. In this country, tax-dodging is a chronic complaint… There are two problems here that the Treasurer, the minister ultimately in charge of the tax system, has failed to address… Simplifying the system always seems too much trouble for the Treasurer… Nor has Mr Costello done anything to end avoidance by reducing the outrageous amounts of money the Government extracts from ordinary income earners… It is time for Mr Costello to focus on reforms in his present portfolio, rather than dreaming of the top job, which he is yet to demonstrate he deserves.

You get the drift. Steketee’s comment piece read: “Robert Gerard’s resignation yesterday from the Reserve Bank of Australia board brings home how poorly the Treasurer has handled this controversy. It makes Costello’s attempts all week to defend the appointment look hollow. He is left looking sleazy and sloppy…”

But most damning of all was George Megalogenis’ item “Political judgment on nose” and these pars:

The word many senior tax officials had used to describe the Treasurer – behind his back – was “lazy”.

It is a caricature Costello’s critics in the Government reject, but they say it contains a kernel of truth that might help explain how the Treasurer got caught out this week over the appointment of an accused tax evader to the board of the Reserve Bank.

“I don’t think he is lazy,” one government source said yesterday. “But the Treasurer doesn’t always have the best political nose, which is something you could never say about the current Prime Minister…”

What irks the Howard camp is not so much Costello’s grasp of detail, but when he decides to engage with it.

The Christian Kerr theory: There are two things to remember here. Rupert Murdoch founded The Australian with two goals in mind. The first was for the paper, by its sheer existence as a national daily, to be a nation builder. The second was for the paper to shape that nation as a crusader for ideas – like tax reform. It continues to fulfil these roles admirably.

We’ve got to take this into account when we’re looking at its coverage of the Gerard affair. But there’s something else, too. The Australian has a point. A pretty damned good point.

As we have said before, hundred of people who would never have otherwise entertained the idea were persuaded to join the Labor Party in the 80s, thanks to the drive and vision of Treasurer Keating. Who’s ever joined the Liberal Party because Peter Costello holds the purse strings?

Peter Costello has had no ownership of any policy of any real significance. Paul Keating also had big ambitions. Unlike Costello, he also had big ideas.