So finally Peter Costello is prepared to say it: he really, truly, doesn’t want to be leader of the Liberal Party.
Actually this is not a huge surprise: after all, the position does entail a certain amount of work, something which has been anathema to the former treasurer for at least the last ten years. Nonetheless in the past he has given the impression that he could be persuaded to give it a try, as long as it involved an immediate (and unelected) ascendancy to the Prime Ministership — indeed, we are now told that he even had his coronation address written, in the preposterous expectation that John Howard was ever going to hand over the crown.
For years this willingness was predicated on the idea that it would simply be a transfer of the government — a period in opposition would, of course, be just too tiresome and demeaning. In more recent times he has even hinted (or at least his spruikers in The Australian have hinted) that he could be enticed to grace the leadership of the party before returning to the government benches, if the pleading and grovelling was sufficiently desperate and unanimous; naturally there could be no whiff of dissent.
But this option was never really on and when the current occupant of the death seat, Brendan Nelson, made it clear that he was prepared to fight to retain control of the poisoned chalice, it was time for Costello to put an end to what had become the world’s longest prick tease. But even then he didn’t. Sure, he said he didn’t want the job and wouldn’t challenge for it, but he was still not about to quit politics.
Like a fart in a lift he plans to linger on, wasting space in a safe Liberal seat which would be far better occupied by someone with energy, ambition and a touch of guts — a bit like the Peter Costello who presented himself to the voters just 18 years ago.
One of the reasons Costello gives for continuing to infest the backbench is that he wants to continue to serve the electors of Higgins, something which will come as a considerable surprise to the vast majority of them. Apart from the fact that Costello has been as indolent about working his constituency as he has about everything else in politics, Higgins is one of the wealthiest electorates in the country: the voters are hardly the type to bother their local member with complaints about Centrelink and Medicare. When in trouble, they go to their highly paid tax accountants and legal specialists, thank you very much. Costello need not fear that they will interrupt his own, so far unsuccessful, job search.
But he insists that it is not just his selfless devotion to his constituents that keeps him in parliament: there are, he adds, things in politics he still wants to do. He refuses to spell out just what these things are, but the events of the last couple of weeks have made it clear that the main one is Malcolm Turnbull. Costello might not want to be lead the party himself but he is damned sure he doesn’t want Turnbull to get the job. Thus he plans to end his inglorious parliamentary career playing dog in the manger.
However, he just might have left even the spoiling role a little bit late; what little influence he ever had with his parliamentary colleagues is now close to evaporating entirely. His indefatigable promotion campaign has been almost as destructive of his reputation as the long-heralded memoir itself. It was no great surprise that the book — or at least the published extracts — is whining, self-serving and somewhat poisonous; after all, it was largely written by Costello’s father-in-law Peter Coleman, who is the nastiest single individual I have come across in more than 40 years of covering Australian politics.
But Costello’s own behaviour hasn’t been much better. The release of the book was supposed to be decision time: Costello would either piss or get off the pot. Instead, he has done neither. He continues to hang around , to loiter without apparent intent, bagging his real and perceived enemies as if what he says matters to anyone but himself. And belatedly even his most sycophantic admirers are starting to realise that not only is he not the answer; he is, as he has always been, part of the problem, and there is still no end in sight.
And the saddest thing is that just as he never had the ticker to tell Howard to piss off, his colleagues are just as gutless when he himself has so clearly passed his use-by date. I live in the Byron Shire, in the far north east of New South Wales. One of the many unique aspects of the place is that it is the state’s only local government area north of Newcastle to consistently vote Labor in both state and federal elections, and to have voted yes in the republic referendum.
But in the local government election last Saturday the Labor vote collapsed. Admittedly it went to the Greens rather than to the right, so the damage was not as great as it was in many key city areas, and some of the reasons for the decline were purely local. But there is no doubt that the Labor brand is on the nose state wide, and there is very little the new premier Nathan Rees can do about it.
The hard fact is that Labor has been in power in Macquarie Street for too long. After a dozen years in office any government is going to become smug, self-indulgent, racked by cronyism and more than a little corrupt and Labor in New South Wales is all of this in spades.
As the elections in the Northern Territory and Western Australia have confirmed, the national brand is now seen as damaged. With the exception of Belinda Neal and the help of Peter Costello, Kevin Rudd has so far managed to keep the damage out of Canberra. He at least will be urging Costello to stick around as long as possible.