Mumble
Politics
stated the bleeding obvious over last week’s reshuffle – but it’s still worth a mention:

Trying to read a politician’s mind is
pointless, but the developments of the last six months – Costello’s public
backdown, Nelson promoted in reshuffle in which Costello supporters remain
sidelined, a preening Howard declaring victory (again) in the “culture
wars” – are all, to me, consistent with a prime ministerial retirement
this year.

Cute.
Speculation is pointless – but we just can’t help ourselves.

No-one is
immune. Matt Price let himself go in the News Limited Sundays,
musing on the reshuffle:

Costello can’t have been chuffed by Howard’s blatant snub to his
supporters…

Two opposing views are emerging about what
this snub says of Howard’s future. One has the PM wielding power in the manner
of someone with no intention of quitting.

The other sees Howard seriously considering
stepping down. Otherwise, he’d have sought to avoid future instability by
handing olive branches to Costello’s chums.

Both theories are vaguely plausible, but as
usual nobody has a clue of Howard’s intentions.

But the PM has set the bar dangerously low
for advancement. Stay quiet, uncontentious and largely anonymous should now be
the mantra for any driven Liberal MP.

That’s an
interesting long term consideration – particularly in light of the PM’s
comments in his media release announcing the reshuffle that “the changes to the Ministerial line-up reflect
the depth of talent available to the Coalition and leave the Government well
placed to pursue its fourth term agenda.”

Plainly,
they don’t. And now the onus is on Cossie and his supporters to do what they
have been unable to do. Spell out that agenda. Do a – dare we say – a Turnbull.

He had an
easy job, flying solo. Mitch Fifield’s contributions to the ginger group on tax
reform turned out to have all the zing of McDonald’s seasonings – he couldn’t
harm his old boss – but once again the onus is on Camp Costello to show us their policies.

Then
there’s all the weekend speculation over what Julian McGauran’s defection means
for Peter Costello’s leadership chances.

The
Sydney Morning Herald‘s Damian Murphy did another beautiful job on the Nats,
Kerry-Anne Walsh told how “furious National Party
powerbrokers are threatening to disrupt Peter Costello’s tilt at the prime
ministership, declaring they wouldn’t support a ‘treacherous’ leader”
and Michelle Grattan painted a mixed view of how the events from the Rob Gerard affair to McGauran’s
defection have hurt the Treasurer’s chances. She wrote:

The Nationals are enraged at what they
believe was the hand of the Costello forces in the defection to the Liberals of
Julian McGauran. On Friday the Nationals’ federal director, Andrew Hall,
accused Costello of being “tricky” with his arguments, while federal
president David Russell said he hadn’t answered the question of what he and his
political associates knew and when they knew it. This is pretty serious stuff
from senior Nationals figures against the Liberal heir apparent.

In the blame game the Nationals, however,
have to accept most. McGauran, who was Senate whip, withdrew from the Victorian
management committee, let his party membership lapse, and often missed party
meetings. The warning lights were pretty obvious within the party.

Nationals leader Mark Vaile has had a long
conversation with Costello about the McGauran affair. Vaile told The Sunday Age
from Europe, “I accept the explanation
Peter gave to me of when he had phone conversations” with McGauran. But
Vaile would not be drawn on whether he was satisfied more generally that
Costello had no role in the affair…

But
there’s one more aspect here – another aspect that will require the Costello
forces to get tough.

Some Nats
may waver. Some Nats always waver. Members of the Coalition have the right to
waver and have wavered – be they Paul Neville or Judi Moylan.

But if
the Costello forces are going to adopt a new rigour, here’s a question they
should put to the Nats – in the most diplomatic terms, of course. Do they want
to be part of the Government – or don’t they?

Peter Fray

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