Peter Costello should put away the
wrestling videos and reach for a copy of Godfather III. OK, so it wasn’t a pinch on the first
two – but Cossie doesn’t need to watch it. All he needs to do is look at the
tagline on the cover. “Real power
cannot be given, it must be taken.”

Piers Akerman
contributed a trawler-full of red herrings to the leadership debate just a few
weeks ago. Still, many Liberal insiders and political observers have reached
similar conclusions to the opinions he airs in the Telegraphtoday:

[L]et’s calmly
consider a few realities.

Point one, in
1994, when shadow environment minister Ian McLachlan was keeping notes of a
discussion between Howard and Costello, Howard was shadow industrial relations

Costello was
deputy Leader of the Opposition, and Alexander Downer was the Leader of the
Opposition. So, the meeting was between two shadow ministers, neither of whom
was the leader of the party…

In two Costello
biographies, authors Shaun Carney (Peter Costello – the New Liberal, Allen
and Unwin 2001) and Tracey Aubin (Peter Costello: a biography, HarperCollins
1999) made it clear that there never was a Kirribilli-style agreement between
Howard and Costello.

Carney wrote
that exchanges between the two had never gone to specifics. The author was
heavily briefed by Costello.

Aubin wrote that
there was no hard and fast agreement and quoted Costello saying: “We
certainly haven’t entered into any plan to divide up the future of the Liberal
Party. I’ve never been anointed by anyone.”

Costello in fact
repeated the no-deal statement to Nine’s Sunday program compere Laurie Oakes in
October 2001.

Akerman and John Hewson are unlikely
allies, but the former Liberal leader was also cool on the subject of a deal on

I don’t think
anyone would really have thought it to be a deal. Perhaps Costello and his mate
[Michael] Kroger would today claim it was a deal, but if you know John Howard
and the circumstances of late ’94 where he was soliciting support for the
leadership, where he might well have said anything like that, I mean I’m sure
he didn’t think it was a deal.

Hewson has a point. Consider Howard’s
position. There are perpetual rumours that Howard – or Howard supporters, such
as former speaker Bob Halverson – considered a challenge in late 1992, as
Fightback! foundered. They came to nothing.

The 1994 discussions were an absolute last
throw for Lazarus and his triple bypass. As ordinary Australians learned 18
months later when core and non-core promises first appeared, desperate
politicians will say anything.

And Hewson has another point to make about
Howard. “I think this sort of sniping at the leadership is ridiculous”, he
said. “He won a fourth term, he won control of both houses of parliament, he’s
in an unassailable position in his own party. Costello just doesn’t have the
numbers and never has had the numbers and probably never will have the

power cannot be given, it must be taken. But without the numbers, Costello can’t
challenge. He and his supporters have to try to push the PM out. There are clear divisions in the Liberal
Party over the successions – viz Jackie Kelly. The reports of the past two days
have only exacerbated them.

And they will have done nothing for Peter
Costello’s cause.

Internally, there are Liberals who will be
sure their source is Camp Costello. Externally, there are pundits who will say Costello is once again
displaying petulance – his frustration that he is not being handed a job he
wants, but is not willing to challenge for.

The lines from pols and pundits will flow
through to the punters – and that could leave Peter Costello waiting even
longer for the job he so desperately wants and believes he deserves.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey