Another Prime Ministerial birthday comes
rolling round this week. Selfless fellow that he is, John Howard
once gave an indication that he’d hand out presents on his own big day .

Peter Costello didn’t get anything, though,
when the PM turned 64. What’s he getting this year? Well, a Howard friend and
ally, former senator Michael Baume, has given him a nasty reminder in the Fin.

Baume’s message is simple. Peter Costello
doesn’t have the numbers to become Liberal leader now – and he and his
supporters must remember that he didn’t have them back in 1994:

[Costello’s]
purpose, as he repeatedly asserts, is for an orderly transition when Howard
calls it a day.

Recognition of
the need for an orderly and effective transition in early 1995, as Alexander
Downer’s troubled leadership of the Opposition ebbed away, was one of the
several persuasive reasons Costello decided not to stand against Howard for the
leadership and instead to nominate as his deputy, ensuring there was no beaten
candidate around whom a disappointed rump could coalesce.

Costello himself
prefers to point to this, along with his earlier decision not to stand against
Downer but to be his deputy, as an example of his preparedness to put the
party’s interests above his own ambitions. But in her biography of Costello,
the late Tracey Aubin took a different view that reflects my understanding at
the time: he simply did not have the numbers, and his closest and most
influential supporters were strongly against his risking everything by
standing. Aubin noted “an untenable and therefore abandoned claim to the
leadership has thus become a grand act of magnanimity . . . a selfless gesture
of denial”.

Just in case that’s not clear enough, Baume
also cites Costello’s fellow Victorian, former minister and then party
president Tony Staley – a bloke who know a few things about numbers and their
deployment:

Liberal icon
Tony Staley had, according to Aubin, told Costello in London in January
1995 that the time was not yet right for him to run for the Liberal leadership
while his close friend Michael Kroger was pushing for Howard. Other supporters
were uneasy that becoming leader would expose Costello to the serious threat of
defeat at the coming 1996 election, so destroying the career of one of the
Liberal Party’s best prospects in years. And there was the moral problem of
possibly having, as deputy leader, to stand against his leader, Downer.

The message is pretty clear. It’s the PM’s
big day, Peter. He gets the packages. You can get back in your box.

Peter Fray

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