“Costello has really done little wrong,” Norman Abjorensen writes in The Australian today. Well, arguably, Peter Costello has done very little – per se.

Over at the Telegraph, Malcolm Farr
takes the line that the Treasurer ran up the white flag yesterday.
“Treasurer Peter Costello yesterday publicly surrendered for the first
time to the reality of John Howard’s dominance,” he wrote.

The Australian leads with talk of a reshuffle
and, inside, Denis Shanahan says “Peter Costello has ordered a retreat
on his campaign to become Prime Minister. It’s a calculated and
deliberate withdrawal, which he’s taken in his own and the Liberal
Party’s interests.”


Shanahan adds “in Parliament yesterday, Costello demonstrated his
ability to turn Labor attacks against themselves and reminded everyone
of the strength of his performance as Treasurer over the past 10
years.” Absolutely. He remains the Government’s best Question Time
performer – but Question Time is all about political theatre, not
policy substance.

“Treasurer puts ball back in PM’s court” is the title of Michael Gordon’s piece in The Age.
Shanahan has a similar message: “Costello has acted sensibly and
loyally and should expect to be closely consulted on any reshuffle he
has now made possible.”

But Shanahan also has this to say: “It has also became even clearer
this week that Costello lacks enough support to launch a credible
challenge and that his senior colleagues were digging in behind
Howard,” Shanahan adds. And there’s the rub.

Back to Abjorensen: “Put simply, should Howard retire, Costello will be
elected because there are no other viable contenders, which is itself
strange…”

Well, yes. “Costello has yet to fashion a coalition of support that is
demonstrably his own,” Abjorensen continues. “Yesterday’s attempt to
quash speculation about a leadership challenge before next May’s
federal budget virtually concedes this.”

And look back at Shaun Carney’s comments in The Age on the weekend:

[Costello] does not have big numbers in the party room, but
that does not mean much at all. There are some Cabinet colleagues and
backbenchers who freely express doubts about Costello’s capacities, but
if Howard announces his impending resignation early next year, Costello
will be able to count on getting an immediate tongue bath from his
doubters. That’s what the prime ministership carries with it in the
modern Liberal Party – total fealty.

So… you fall into the job of Liberal Party leader nowadays purely on
the basis that you’ve served your time, do you? Isn’t that what
Liberals used to say was the worst sort of public sector process?

And what all this means for public policy is anyone’s guess. There was
a school of thought from the right a few years ago that said it didn’t
matter that the Howard Government had no third term agenda as activist
government was A Bad Thing. But what about reformist government?

The reach of government and the tax take has expanded under John
Howard. Life has become more bureaucratic. Yet we’re still left not
only asking what Peter Costello stands for, but why he deserves to be
prime minister.

Miranda Devine tackles the question with wit in the SMH today:

Costello… is a bit like the Robert Redford character he
vaguely resembles in The Way We Were, a golden boy: ‘In a way, he was
like the country he lived in – everything came too easy for him.’

He needs a cross to bear, and maybe his cross is Howard…

He may have to fight for the job he thought he was anointed to. The
upside is that if he does triumph in a bloody battle against the other
leadership contenders, he will have suffered and proven himself worthy.

Maybe. If ideas, as well as numbers, are involved.

PS With all the talk of tax and privacy coming from the Government over
the last fortnight, it’s amazing the Opposition haven’t offered up two
words – Michael Baume. The former Senator and close Howard ally landed
significant blows on Paul Keating over his piggery – but when he
attacked NSW independent Peter MacDonald under privilege he provoked
such a backlash that his once safe seat of Manly still hasn’t returned
to the fold.