We did not need Peter Costello to tell us that he’s not like Paul Keating. If he was he would be Prime Minister today.

When Paul Keating as Treasurer failed to persuade Bob Hawke to keep a promise and step down he had the courage of his conviction that he would be a better Prime Minister and took his case to the party room. When the colleagues initially decided against him he retreated to the backbench with the confidence that the time would come when they saw the error of their ways and turned to him for electoral salvation. They did and Keating Labor won.

But as Peter Costello says several times in an interview over lunch published in The Bulletin this week, “I’m not like Keating”. Peter Costello’s ambition does not run to sacrificing a Treasurer’s salary for a few months to achieve his goal of leadership. The Prince Charles of politics grows old impatiently waiting for the death of the monarch which never comes. Peter Costello, behind all his sneering bluster, lacks the ticker for a real fight.

Previews in this morning’s papers of a soon-to-be-published biography of John Howard have Treasurer Costello portraying this refusal to challenge as a self-sacrificing loyalty to the Liberal Party. According to the Sydney Morning Herald report, the book has Mr Costello contrasting his own behaviour to that of his Liberal and Labor predecessors:

The rival ambitions of Howard and Peacock plunged the party into defeat in Opposition. They were prepared to do that. Keating was prepared to do it to Hawke. Whatever my own ambitions were, the party was always greater than them. I think that’s been a big part of our success over the last 10 years.

And many Liberal and National members holding marginal seats would no doubt say this morning that what Costello sees as a virtue is actually the reverse. Copping it sweet when Howard determined that it was in the best interests of the party for him to stay on as Prime Minister deprived the Liberals of the obvious way of trying to revive their fortunes. I have no doubt that had Costello done a Keating and gone to the backbench last year the nervous marginal members would have revolted and thrown Howard out months ago.

Now those same members can only watch and listen in horror as the book John Winston Howard: The Biography, to be published next week by Melbourne University Press, gives journalists the opportunity to write about the bitterness at the core of the Federal Government as Costello is recorded attacking the economic credentials of his so-called partner in economic management … John Winston Howard.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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