The
7:00 am ABC radio news in Melbourne this morning began: “A suburban
solicitor has been shot dead…” No mention of police looking for a
smarmy looking bloke in an Essendon scarf.

All the talk in the past has been about what might happen if Howard fell under a bus. But let’s just reverse that. If Peter Costello was removed from the equation, would he be missed?

Louise Dodson writes today :

The extraordinary electoral success of the Coalition
Government has relied to a large extent on the effective working
relationship between the Prime Minister, John Howard, and the
Treasurer, Peter Costello.

Yet this is the Howard
Government. Not the Howard/Costello Government. It implements John
Howard’s agenda. True, Peter Costello has been a more than competent
Treasurer – but he has not driven policy.

The Howard Government
has nothing like the Hawke/Keating – or, more accurately,
Hawke/Keating/Walsh – dynamics in its policy. The character of the
Prime Minister has been dominant. Peter Costello, if anything, has hung
back. His choice of words yesterday
– his description of how he has “continued to work for the Government
to the best of my ability in the interests of the Australian public” –
betrayed his subsidiary status.

It’s forgotten now that Bob
Hawke’s leadership collapsed when Caucus decided he looked impotent in
the face of John Hewson’s Fightback! package. Kim Beazley scarcely
poses that kind of challenge to John Howard. Despite IR wobbles, the
Coalition party room has not yet lost faith in their PM.

However,
there is real danger for John Howard in the Hawke/Keating comparison –
or the Canberra Press Gallery’s remembered version of the events of
1991.

Economic success has been vital to John Howard’s success.
If Peter Costello goes to the backbench, if Howard reshuffles, the
media will be looking out for his John Kerin – the ill-starred
treasurer who followed Keating. Any slip, any gaffe, of a Costello
replacement will be madly magnified. That would damage John Howard’s
economic credibility and that would get the backbench worried.

Peter
Costello is dispensable – in policy terms. Politically, however, the
impact of his absence may be greater than his presence.

Peter Fray

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