Today’s AC Nielsen poll on the Liberal leadership, coming on top of John Howard’s comments
yesterday, just confirms what was already tolerably clear: that last
week’s kerfuffle will have little long-term effect, and that barring
some unforeseen developments the government will go to next year’s
election with Howard as leader and Peter Costello as treasurer.

A
few observers, however, maintain that Costello should stir the pot
further. The most persuasive version of this argument was put by Shaun Carney in Saturday’s Age:

Costello’s
standing has been eroding for the past three years. His response in
June 2003, when he lashed out and then absorbed the humiliation Howard
handed him has hurt him. As a result, there is now a ticker question to
which Costello must provide an answer. … Whether Costello likes it or
not, for him, this has become a character issue. He has to give Howard
as good as he gets, possibly to the cost of the Government in the short
term, or he could well disqualify himself as a leadership prospect
permanently in the eyes of the public.

I think the
premise of the argument is true. The events of three years ago did hurt
Costello, and very probably it would have improved his long-term
prospects if he’d challenged for the leadership then, or at least
demanded a different portfolio. But Carney’s conclusion doesn’t follow.
Having chosen the route of loyalty in 2003, Costello has to live with
it. The trail has gone cold; to challenge now would look not like
righteous indignation, but like calculated petulance. Not a good look.

Keeping
quiet has some advantages; whatever Howard’s retirement date is, at
least he is three years closer to it now than in 2003, and Costello is
still the heir presumptive. That’s not to deny that a certain amount of
destabilisation is in his interests. It keeps him in the public eye,
and it threatens Howard with unpleasant consequences should he stay too
long. But carrying out the threat is a different matter altogether.

The
logic of deterrence is poorly understood: it’s sometimes sensible to
make a threat that it would be stupid to carry out. Costello wants
Howard to think that at some unspecified point his patience will wear
out and he’ll create mayhem if Howard stays on – with the intention
that he will never be tested on it, since Howard will get the message
and leave. Saying any of this publicly, of course, would probably be
counter-productive, so maybe it’s a good thing that Carney is there to
say it for him.

Peter Fray

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