Peter Costello was so often the poor man’s Keating — to the extent that he was ever the poor man’s anything — but he has said he doesn’t want to end up bitter about defeat like Keating. That’s laudable, but unlikely. Like the man on whom he modelled so much of his political style, Costello is convinced he was dudded and, if only circumstances were different, he could’ve prevented defeat.

Costello at least has the stronger case, having not been master of his or his party’s destiny last year. But in the decade-plus since defeat, Keating has assembled an impressive array of reasons why he could’ve won in 1996 — many of them explained in detail in George Megalogenis’s splendid The Longest Decade: the media shouldn’t have given Howard a sleigh ride because it wanted change no matter what; the media should’ve exposed John Howard’s lies; he wasted too much time defending Carmen Lawrence; the Coalition blocked the four-year term proposal in 1988 that would’ve meant he could’ve had an extra year to take Howard apart — on it goes.

Now it’s a similar story from Costello. Indeed, they even share the complaint that John Howard lied. Costello’s argument is that he would have freshened up a Government that Australians were sick of, that if John Howard had managed the transition issue better, Prime Minister Costello would now be calling the shots. Allied with that — but separate, if The Age’s coverage of the memoirs is correct — are Costello’s more centrist views on ratification of Kyoto, an apology to the Stolen Generations, and handling One Nation, all of which would presumably have reinforced his chances of presenting a fresher, more electable face in 2007.

But the argument doesn’t stack up — not any better than Paul Keating’s attempts to explain how he could’ve dodged that baseball bat that clobbered him in 1996.

The most telling revelation in the memoirs so far is that they doesn’t mention WorkChoices. If true, it’s an extraordinary and obviously deliberate omission. Costello couldn’t have argued, as he does with Pauline Hanson or reconciliation, that he would’ve handled industrial relations reform differently.

The only amendments to WorkChoices that the founding member of the HR Nicholls Society would’ve made would probably have been to have made it even harsher. But that was the guided missile the Coalition launched at the labour movement that looped around and homed in unerringly on them like one of Wile E. Coyote’s Acme devices. Ignoring it leaves a huge gap in the book’s credibility.

Costello also — understandably — overlooks his own unpopularity. It might have been a product of years of being Treasurer; it might not have been fair, but it was immense and no amount of revisionism from Liberals or The Australian will change it. And it wasn’t merely personal unpopularity. It wasn’t just the smirk.

One of Labor’s most successful tactics was to embed in voters’ minds the conviction that the Howard Government had squandered the resources boom on handouts rather than infrastructure and education. It was a powerful idea, one strengthened significantly by Costello’s apparent inability to rein in Howard’s spending in his last term, even — as today’s AFR explains — while the IMF was complaining about the dangers of a pro-cyclical fiscal stimulus.

The thought that Costello was a lazy Treasurer, content to sit back and watch the fruits of the resources boom roll in and back out again, had started to take hold with voters. The Parliamentary theatrics at which Costello so excelled, and the incessant speculation about the leadership, tended to reinforce the view that this was a man bored with his day job of running the Australian economy.

Undoubtedly John Howard in his own memoirs will contest Costello’s claims that he could’ve won in 2007. Costello has first-mover advantage but his Prime Minister will have the right of reply.

Maybe Costello will find some solace if he succeeds in installing his version as the accepted Liberal Party view of history. If he missed out on being Prime Minister, at least he can be a sort of Fantasy Football PM, whose achievements in the top office are magnificent and ongoing, spoken of in party circles in hushed tones, even if they’re firmly in the realm of “what might’ve been”.

At least in the world of imagination there’ll be no humiliating electoral end for him like there was for John Howard.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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