Maybe Peter Costello has a cunning plan.
He knows how few first-term Opposition Leaders make it to power. He knows it’s the hardest job in politics. And he knows how bad the Liberal and National parties were at the unity thing when they were last in opposition.
Why not let Malcolm Turnbull, or Brendan Nelson, or Alexander Downer do the hard work? Let them flail about for a term or more. Let the party descend into crisis, so that it turns to him in its hour of need. “We need you, Peter,” they’d say.
That would be satisfying. They didn’t want him when they had Howard. Let them come crawling. Let ’em BEG.
And by then the electorate would be over its apparent Costello-phobia. Plenty of time to throw the switch to vaudeville between now and then.
More likely, he hasn’t got the stomach for opposition. He didn’t have the guts to be Prime Minister. He certainly won’t have the guts to be Opposition Leader.
And you can’t help but think there’s an element of f-ck-you to the party in Costello’s decision. He’s the one who waited patiently for the transition that never came. He’s the one who was repeatedly humiliated by Howard. The party wanted Howard. Well, look where that got them. Let them think about that, for three years, and more.
Because, sure as anything, Peter Costello is one thoroughly p-ssed-off chap at the moment. But then people tend to be that way when they’ve had their life’s ambition thwarted.
In reality, though, Costello has no-one to blame but himself. He knew what he had to do. He even drunkenly boasted of it to journalists. The Keating Plan has a 100% success rate. He just couldn’t bring himself to implement it.
“No ticker, no start,” Costello once smirked of Kim Beazley. How apt from a man who will never be Prime Minister. Beazley’s public life ended on Saturday night, but he leaves respected and liked across the political spectrum and in the public mind. Costello would have to die and be born again to achieve that sort of stature.
Peter Costello’s problem was simple. He never understood something that the last three Prime Ministers knew in their very marrow. In politics, those who trust to luck never win. Costello thought that if he loyally served Howard then, all things going well, he would become Prime Minister.
But things didn’t go well. They went badly. Very, very badly.
Politics is capricious. The most incompetent can be elevated to the highest office (Morris Iemma, anyone?). The most deserving can languish in obscurity. Mere accident can create dynasties, and chance can obliterate the strongest leader. Those who trust to good fortune in politics will nearly always fail. If you want power, you must do everything possible to get it, not sit back and hope it falls into your lap.
Because it won’t. Someone hungrier, more ambitious, more determined, will come along and take it.
That’s what has happened to Peter Costello. Kevin Rudd, a man who truly, inordinately, craves power, snatched it. Now Costello can reflect upon that at leisure.
Malcolm Turnbull is also hungry for power. In fact, he’s the only man in Parliament who makes Kevin Rudd’s ambition look human-scale. And unlike Rudd, he actually appears to be vaguely likeable.
Turnbull may not succeed, but he won’t die wondering. Unlike Peter.