If the Liberal Party was hoping for Peter Costello to provide a guide to how to fix what ails it, the weekend’s extracts will have been alarmingly disappointing.

Some of us are inclined to the view that there’s not much wrong with the Liberal Party that an election win wouldn’t fix – especially compared to the ALP at state level, which in several states is diligently exploring new meanings of the term “incompetent”. But being out of power, until yesterday, in every state and territory has no doubt encouraged a lot of Liberals in the view that they shouldn’t just stand there but do something.

Perhaps all the really good stuff from Costello on Liberal philosophy and — just to pick an issue at random — the problem of developing a stronger membership base in an era of declining community involvement, didn’t make the weekend papers and Costello — whose role and status should make him ideally placed to critique his party — has plenty to say on the future of Australian conservatism.

Perhaps there’s more than his rather flat account (Gerard Henderson has done a better one) of the Liberal leadership mayhem during APEC, in which Costello quietly sits in his hotel room and writes a speech rather than doing anything about improving his chances of delivering it. Perhaps there’s more than his unremarkable insight that the Government was perceived as old and out-of-touch and that Howard had lost some good advisers.

Or perhaps it’s just more of the strange solipsism that marks the extracts.

Well, you might say, it’s a memoir, and by definition a tad on the solipsistic side. But I didn’t mean it like that.

Some examples. In yesterday’s extract, Costello discusses the election campaign. He talks about the party’s polling — that polling — and Howard’s inability to act on its central message. During the campaign, Costello tells us, Crosby-Textor produce more polling. Its message? “Peter Costello must play a greater role.”

Late in the final week, Costello goes to meet Howard after a business luncheon, and Howard tells him about the Lindsay leaflet scandal. Costello’s reaction to this appalling news, which has left the Prime Minister “crushed”?

“We walked down to the hotel together. I was happy with the luncheon, where there was strong support from the business community.”

It might just be the editing. But then he reflects on the eve of the election about his own role in the campaign, in which his team “had fought out the campaign and done well. The polls showed that the Coalition parties were judged the best able to manage the economy… I told the team: ‘It was a textbook campaign. Not a hitch. Not a loose word. No mistake, by us at least.'” In fact, so successful has Costello been that today’s extract declares “even [Kevin Rudd] could see that the model had worked. He did a complete turnaround. ‘I am,’ he said, ‘an economic conservative.'”

The only real problem, according to this analysis, lay with John Howard and those like Jackie Kelly who reflexively backed him.

Unfortunately, in reality, the problem wasn’t just John Howard. Peter Costello, the boy in the bubble, might have sailed along thinking everything was fine economically and he was on top of his game, but Workchoices and interest rate rises were wrecking the Coalition’s chances. A weird detachment and refusal to see this pervades what we’ve seen of the memoirs so far.

And this is from a man notorious for not engaging with his backbench, who refused to do the lowly work of cultivating supporters, whose means of protesting against his Prime Minister’s profligacy was to refuse to announce handouts, who reacted to a proposal to reduce the GST rate to 8% was to hope it went away.

Costello’s philosophy seems to be to ignore any reality that doesn’t fit with how he thinks things should be. We’re all guilty of that, of course, but in a politician, it tends to be fatal. Which, in Costello’s case, it was, at least to his own chances of obtaining his ambition.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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