will-he-won’t-he stories about John Howard’s retirement got another
airing this week from journalists in, of all places, the Solomon
Islands. Peter Costello’s presence at a conference of Pacific Island
nation treasurers was the ostensible reason for the visit by the press
pack. The real reason – that visiting a Pacific hell-hole is more
attractive than Canberra in mid-winter – would not do for the expenses

So what was a poor journo to do when there was no rioting
in the streets or an angry big brother trying to electrocute the
Australian Treasurer? Bring out a variation on the tried and true
leadership challenge as a way of justifying the airfare and drinking

So Peter Costello was asked for the umpteenth time when
he would take over as Prime Minister. And because he is the Treasurer
at a Treasurer’s conference why not freshen things up with a
Keatingesque reference to a “secret Kirribilli deal.”

It worked
like a charm. Headlines and sound bites provided. Bean counters
satisfied. But no information at all relevant to John Howard’s future
with the PM responding for the umpteenth time that he would stay for as
long as his party wanted him and it was in the interests of his party
for him to do so.

Not that it really matters any more, because
Peter Costello will be the central personality of the Coalition
campaign whether John Howard goes or stays. That is obvious enough, of
course, if Costello is Prime Minister come polling day
– but even if he is still the Howard bridesmaid people will expect him
to take over as leader before the next Parliament is through.

the next campaign will feature Peter Costello, however much some
Liberals might prefer that John Howard went on forever. And when that
finally dawns on party members it will clearly be in the interests of
the party for Howard to step down.

For the transition to have
the greatest chance of success it should occur fairly quickly. The new
man needs and deserves a year to establish himself as more than just a
successful custodian of the nation’s finances.

There might not
have been a Kirribilli deal because one should not have been needed.
John Howard has been around long enough to know when it’s time to go.
And that time is rapidly approaching.

I mean – surely he would not risk going out defeated because people did not like the Costello sneer.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey