Karl Marx said it all: “Hegel remarks somewhere that
all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak,
twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as
farce. Costello for Keating, McLachlan for Kelty, the GST for financial
deregulation, the damp squib for the stiletto in the ribs.”

OK, I’ve tweaked that last sentence a bit, but
otherwise it’s Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in which he analysed (and satirised) Louis Napoleon’s coup d’etat of
1851. One of his points is that the past constrains our interpretation
of our own actions: “Men make their own history, but they do not make
it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected
circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and
transmitted from the past.”

So it is with John Howard and Peter Costello; they
cannot escape the comparisons with the Hawke-Keating Kirribilli
agreement of 1988 (see The Age), because they cannot avoid thinking about it in those
terms themselves. But, just as Louis Bonaparte was only a caricature of
his uncle, the “undertaking” of December 1994 is a pale echo of its more famous forebear. Hawke and
Keating were originals, playing out a grand political drama; Howard and
Costello manoeuvre awkwardly in their shadow.

Fundamentally, the dynamic between them has not
changed. Howard still holds all the cards. Costello has always had only
two real options: either to challenge as Keating did, or to play the loyal deputy and try
to quietly sell Howard on the idea of an orderly transition. He has
consistently pursued the second strategy, but occasionally his
frustration with it comes to the surface; it did in June 2003 in his
famous “words” press conference, and it did again yesterday.

Yesterday’s display of pique only makes sense on the
assumption that Costello believed Howard was almost certain to stay to
the next election – in other words, that he did not believe the spin some of his
supporters have been putting out lately. For what it’s worth, I think
he was right, but if he wasn’t already then he surely is now. The only
way Howard could be forced out would if the disunity was played up so
much as to hand the next election to Labor. But since that is even less
in Costello’s interests, most likely he will go back into his box, just
as he did after 3 June 2003.

Peter Fray

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