Here’s an essay topic to discuss: People aren’t normally the best biographers of themselves, and politicians especially not. That is, it takes a certain self-obsession to make a real go of it in politics, and that’s not really compatible with a capacity to stand back and understand yourself and the era you played a role in shaping. Self-analysis needs distance, and distance is fatal in politics.
That could be the reason why The Costello Memoirs is one of the least-enthralling reads in years. It might also have something to do with it being co-written. Co-written memoirs don’t have a good track record. The best example is LBJ’s The Vantage Point, which was mostly ghost-written by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and which manages to reduce one of the most outsized figures in US political history to a rather drab cardboard cut-out politician.
For the most part, Costello’s book is similar: flat, by-the-numbers stuff, with some eccentric decisions and howling errors (the Accord was not based on wages being “fixed in accordance with the movements of prices”). Significant characters or events suddenly appear, with no introduction or explanation.
Costello occasionally, and apparently randomly, lunges forward a couple of years. At one point we leap from 1995 to travel rorts and Nick Sherry’s suicide attempt in Howard’s first term, then back again, as if Coleman and Costello were arguing over how to tell the story.
And Costello’s anecdotes — eminently entertaining when told in person — are neither telling nor charming. LOL at sneering Labor elitists, unmoored from their working class origins, having to listen to Meatloaf rather than Mahler. ROFL at the Reserve Bank executives unable to help Costello with his son’s economics exam. The extravagant use of exclamation marks to tell us when to laugh doesn’t help.
In short, the written Costello is an altogether less interesting creature than the one we’re used to seeing and hearing in Parliament.
When it gets to the big issues of Costello’s Treasurership, things do liven up. Reserve Bank independence, the Asian economic crisis and the development of the GST — Costello’s biggest political achievements, along with his early fiscal rigour — are all handled well. He discusses them in appropriate, but not overwhelming detail, offering a perceptive analysis of the fundamental issues at stake. In particular, his discussion of his role in addressing Indonesia’s financial crisis and the problematic approach of the Americans and the IMF, is superb.
Beyond the strict confines of his own portfolio, however, the memoirs are woefully lacking. There is a real lack of analysis — no attempt to place the Howard Government in its era or discuss what it meant for the conservative side of politics, which was reduced to its most feeble state in Australia since the war on Howard’s watch.
It’s like Costello clocked on in 1996 and knocked off in 2007 and, when asked what was going on, said “don’t ask me mate, I just work here.” Anyone wanting a considered analysis of what the Howard years meant will for now have to rely on George Megalogenis’s The Longest Decade, which does a superb job of explaining how Australia changed under Keating and then Howard. In Costello’s telling, the Hawke-Keating years were an unmitigated disaster and a personal affront, given he had to clean up the mess.
Nor is there any reflection and self-analysis. Maybe because lawyers don’t do reflection. Or maybe because he can’t quite accept that it’s over, that there’s still a chance his party could turn to him in the future. But he’s unwilling to discuss his own personal journey in politics — or the effect on his family, who disappear from the story in the early 1990s. There’s no sense of the thrill of obtaining power, or the adrenaline rush of Parliamentary performance, or the personal frustrations and disappointments that are an inevitability in politics.
Except, of course, about the leadership. Costello ends the book discussing what he regards as the biggest failures of the Howard era — reconciliation, the republic and the leadership transition. The big question of the book – or at least the one on the back cover — is how did such a successful Government lose power? For Costello, it’s all about him. If only he’d been allowed to become PM, everything would’ve been sweet.
As for his analysis of the future of Australian conservatism, it’s pretty thin stuff. Don’t go too far to the left or the right. Do something about the fact that there is minimal party structure outside Parliament. Arrange leadership transition. He missed “neither a borrower nor a lender be” and make sure you wear clean underwear. There’s no useful message here for Liberals wondering about the path back to power. It’s more along the lines of “with me, you’d never lost power in the first place.”
In fact his memoirs give the impression of something quite hollow about Costello, an unreflective and incurious man who, when refused his life’s ambition, seemed to just shrug and go back to work. No wonder Howard refused to make way for him. Not just because Costello made it so easy for him, but because he perhaps sensed that Costello wasn’t up to the job.
You get the impression that, after the last couple of months, more and more Liberals have come to the same view. This talented, charming man lacks something fundamental in his political and intellectual make-up. And it shows in his much-vaunted memoirs.