Laurie Oakes has spoken. “Peter Costello is taking the heat for Robert Gerard’s appointment, but the white-anters are off the mark,” he says in today’s Bulletin. He takes us through News Limited conspiracy theories, over excitable Costello backers who yap to Glenn Milne, remembers Hollingworth, and makes the important point that “Perhaps one, or all, of the four South Australian cabinet ministers should have been aware that the state’s most important manufacturer and generous Liberal Party donor had major tax problems” but tells us Costello “has, by any measure, been a highly successful treasurer… He remains the heir apparent, and … still has good reason to expect to be in the top job some time next year.”
That last point is particularly interesting. And the “heir apparent” bit is true, too.
But there have also been some pretty damned good points in some of the more hostile write-ups the Treasurer has received in recent days – in The Australian on Saturday and today and yesterday’s Financial Review.
The Fin’s editorial – and the item on the same page by former NSW auditor general Tony Harris – make a particularly interesting combo. Look at the leader:
The Gerard affair is widely seen to have damaged Treasurer Peter Costello’s prospects of succeeding John Howard at The Lodge. In the sense that it reminds us that Mr Costello lacks some attributes common to successful prime ministers – such as the attention to detail and acute political antennae of Mr Howard and Bob Hawke – this may well be correct.
But Mr Costello had done plenty by omission before the Gerard story broke – not just by snubbing tax reform but by failing to champion a much wider reform agenda – to cast doubt on his leadership credentials. As an economic reformer he still lives in the shadow of Paul Keating, who used Treasury as a platform to launch himself at The Lodge by conceiving and executing a reform agenda that reversed many of the errors of the first 80 years of federation…
Mr Costello has avoided the grand narrative… he has neither articulated a broad reform agenda nor staked the prestige of his office on one.
It’s all true. At the same time, Harris talks about how the Howard Government left its frugality at the starting post. “In real terms,” he says, “the government’s final consumption expenditure has been increasing by nearly 5% a year… Has the commonwealth kept its final consumption expenditure constant in real terms, its spending would be $17 billion a year smaller. Had it merely limited these spending increases to keep pace with GDP growth, it would have saved $2.5 billion a year.”
Then there are these amazing figures for the age of Work Choices: “In the early years of the Howard Government, ministers reduced the numbers of public servants. Since 199, however, numbers have grown by over 20%, or 23,000, adding more than $2 billion a year to commonwealth costs. Annual staff increases of 3.5% do not suggest ministers have been making hard decisions. The number of senior executive service officers has been growing ever faster… In the past five years, commonwealth wages in certified agreements grew by nearly 4.5 percentage points faster than in the private sector. They grew nearly 6 percentage points faster than Australia’s wage cost index…”
He might be heir apparent, but we’re still left asking what the hell Peter Costello stands for – even as Treasurer.