Peter Costello is generally regarded as
being pretty honest for a politician. Indeed, while John Howard has
largely sacrificed his reputation through backsliding over issues like
Tampa and kids overboard, the Treasurer has largely kept his intact –
until now.

John Howard happily put one of his children on the
political payroll and also took a consultancy from Clayton Utz while
opposition IR spokesman in the early 1990s. The PM was also happy to
bail out his brother’s firm, National Textiles, in 1999.

In
fact, the way the PM sent most of his former flatmates to juicy
diplomatic postings and completely junked the ministerial code of
conduct, suggested he was more from the Graham Richardson school of
“whatever it takes” politics than most people realise.

It is
hard to imagine Peter Costello committing any of these political sins –
although his political integrity is increasingly coming under question.
Firstly, there was the way he ducked and weaved through the Rob Gerard
scandal. Sure, the RBA needed someone with a manufacturing perspective
and Costello can’t be expected to be across individual tax
investigations. However, it was the dodgy arguments after the story
broke that most raised questions about his judgment and integrity.

Costello’s
hard line against AWB and, to a lesser extent, James Hardie, is more in
keeping with someone who has a strong moral code.

But where was
that moral code when Qantas offered to upgrade three of his children
from economy to business class for a flight from LA to Melbourne in
January? To accept such a gift worth almost $15,000 just before Cabinet
was to take a decision on Singapore’s pitch to fly the Pacific route
was no less politically inappropriate than Paul Lennon’s five-star
upgrade at Crown Casino last year.

The latest mistake was
appointing one of his personal financial supporters, Jeffrey Browne, to
the Future Fund board when the merit of such a move is genuinely open to question.
Jeffrey who, you say? Exactly. Without contributing more than $17,000
to the Higgins campaign we very much doubt Browne would have got the
gig.

As someone considering a serious tilt at the Victorian
Parliament later this year, I can vouch for the fact that the whole
question of political fundraising is very ethically challenging.

Witness the attacks on Petro Georgiou covered by Glenn Milne in The Australian
yesterday for supposedly not raising enough cash in Kooyong. Cash is
usually king in political elections – just ask the Tasmanian Greens.
Therefore, it must get mighty tempting for politicians to start dishing
out things of value to those who financially support them.

Tony Blair’s outfit is now up to its eye-balls in the loans for peerages scandal
and I’ve no doubt there has been a strong correlation between Liberal
and Labor donations and both Australia Day and Queen’s Birthday gongs
dished out by the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments over the past
23 years.

However, when it comes to personal benefits and
political fundraising, an honest church-going politician like Peter
Costello simply has to hang tough by his moral code to keep his
hard-won political reputation for honesty intact.

It is sad to
see the standards drop and Peter Costello in 2006 is clearly not the
same Treasurer who in his first two years in office rejected lobbying
efforts by his best mate, Michael Kroger, on two occasions when he
booted Solly Lew off the RBA board and rejected NAB’s attempts to break
down the Four Pillars policy and buy either ANZ or Westpac.

This
sent a message to everyone that paying Kroger was no guaranteed ticket
to ride with Costello. Maybe NAB and Solly should have written out a
cheque for Cossie’s re-election campaign or helped fund a family
holiday to Disneyland.

Peter Fray

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