I thought until yesterday at about 1.40pm that the consensus among MPs, journalists and commentators was that Peter Costello would re-nominate for Higgins, setting in train further destabilisation of Malcolm Turnbull.
As we trooped into Question Time, however, the word spread: Costello had bailed out. Suddenly, the new consensus was that, really, it was the sensible thing to do — his colleagues had got sick of the speculation and Costello finally recognised it.
We media types are never wrong.
Several things to say about Costello before he vanishes into history — barring, of course, that last minute, Colin Barnett-style draft when Malcolm Turnbull sniffs a chair next year (go on, who can resist?).
The lack of ticker line is, as Costello himself argues, balanced by the fact that he was unwilling to tear his party apart for the sake of his desire for the Prime Ministership and there is something to be said for that. In Australian politics, we — as in, the media — tend to back those whose ambition is unqualified — who let neither personal feelings nor party unity nor anything else get in the way of their quest for glory. All of our Prime Minister since Fraser have been men who would do anything to get and keep the top job, men whose laser-like focus on the Prime Ministership had no regard for splitting their parties, driving the country to the brink of crisis or wrecking close friendships. Malcolm Turnbull is the same.
Costello, like Kim Beazley, was cut from different cloth — which is not a bad thing simply because the Press Gallery says it is. But even so, John Howard’s willingness to wreck his own party and earn the undying enmity of many colleagues in his quest for the leadership in the 1980s was a critical part of the development of the man who kept his party in party through four terms. On balance, which was the better approach?
Incidentally, Howard’s statement about Costello last night has to be one of the more graceless acts in the long career of a man who, despite everything, always liked to observe good form.
Costello’s entire career can be summed up fairly simply: he had so many opportunities and never used them. This is the bloke who had a rails run into the Liberal Party, who arrived in Canberra in 1990 with a huge reputation from his legal stoushes on IR matters, who always seemed set for big things and yet never took the leadership, despite what, four separate chances? And any number of provocations from John Howard who, like John Hewson before him, seemed to regard Costello as overrated.
Similarly, on the economy Costello did the hard yakka of returning the Budget to surplus in 1996-97, but dropped the ball after that: letting Howard waste the proceeds of the long economic boom, apparently content with the GST and Workchoices as the Coalition’s primary economic reforms; unwilling to pursue a real small-government agenda; refusing to make any substantial changes to competition policy as oligopolies closed in our key sectors; unwilling, or too lazy, to pursue personal tax reforms until Malcolm Turnbull arrived and put a bomb under him. In the end he was responsible for leaving the Commonwealth budget dangerously exposed to corporate tax revenue — for which we will be paying for a long time to come.
So many opportunities, so little result.
He didn’t even make use of the platform afforded by his own memoirs, providing a drab account of his career and offering the solitary lesson from his time in politics that, surprise surprise, the Liberals should do succession planning better.
Perhaps there’s something in the Costello psychology that has always prevented him from really seizing the many chances that came his way. Maybe, deep down, he didn’t feel he deserved them. Oftentimes arrogance is a cover for insecurity. We can engage in such psychobabble endlessly, but ultimately only Costello knows and maybe even he doesn’t.
Yesterday in Parliament, it was the Prime Minister, rather than Malcolm Turnbull, who was the more eloquent about Costello, which is a rare reversal. Rudd made the excellent point that Costello’s work during the Asian financial crisis (which is the only issue on which his memoirs really get off the ground) and in establishing a broader finance ministers’ grouping than the G8, had significantly boosted Australia’s reputation in the region and established the basis for the G20.
It is not out of the question that Rudd might see Costello, despite his deregulatory instincts, as ideal to represent Australia’s interests in the development of new financial architecture in the wake of the London G20 meeting, which breathed life into international regulatory frameworks and the role of the IMF and the Asian Development Bank. In particular, the development of the “quota and voice” reforms of the IMF to give emerging economies a greater say, an issue on which Europe has been dragging its heels for so long, would be an area that would benefit from Costello’s occasionally vituperative attentions.
Given Costello, due to John Howard’s recalcitrance, his own poor timing and the financial crisis, appears to have missed the boat on entering the private sector (another missed opportunity), a senior role in global financial governance might be both remunerative and perfectly suited to his CV.
I said back after the election that Peter Costello would have to die and be born again to leave politics with a fraction of the goodwill and admiration Kim Beazley left with, but he got generous praise from his enemies and a rare round of applause from the chamber. It might have been tinged with relief, but he finishes up with more goodwill than one would have expected, and good luck to him.