Cossie goes Budget ho!

Friday, May 6, 2005

Political correspondent Christian Kerr writes:

Welfare to work Budget leaks are scattered through the media this morning like sultanas in cheap fruit cake. Not that we’ll know until Dollar Sweetie gets to his feet on Tuesday night.

Crikey remains locked out from the lock-up, but that won’t keep us away. Next week we’ll be setting up the Crikey Tent Embassy in Canberra — probably in the Senate courtyard. We should be able to run an extension cord out from Aussie’s coffee shop, or maybe the offices occupied by Chris Evans, the opposition leader in the Senate. And the shower facilities of the Parliament House gym won’t be too far away.

But we’re an understanding lot at Crikey. The treasurer’s decision to ban Crikey from the lock-up — and throw out the kids from Vibewire — is irrational, inconsistent, and suggests his understanding of new media stopped when transistors replace vacuum valves. It’s also a deeply distressing sign of his own commitment to openness and accountability. But we understand. We understand the internal torment of Peter Costello — particularly after reading Peter Hartcher’s piece in the Sydney Morning Herald today. It’s personal for this disgruntled deputy.

As we’ve always said, Hartcher notes how “one of the hallmarks of the Howard government has been its discipline … In stark contrast to its Labor predecessor, the cabinet is extraordinarily cohesive. It rarely leaks. It keeps its struggles private. The rivalries, though real, have been kept subterranean.”

Partly, he explains, “this contrast is one of political culture. The Coalition does not have the highly structured Labor factions engaged in eternal fratricide. It does not have the same traditions of bare-knuckle blues. Partly it is the management technique of John Howard. He has centralised power in his own office and his own person. Ministers have less freedom to speak and less discretion to act than in the Hawke-Keating years. And partly it’s the patience and forbearance of the deputy leader of the Liberal Party, and the man Howard has cited as his successor, Peter Costello.”

Hartcher goes on to flesh out significant differences between Peter Costello and his leader — significant and frustrating differences. At the same time, he spells out the closest we’ve seen to coherent expression of the treasurer’s personal and political philosophy:

“Costello’s criticisms of his leader are not well circulated or understood outside a very tight circle of friends and allies. But they are real and they feed his frustration.”

He considers that he and Howard have very different conceptions of what Australia is, and what it should be. According to his friends and allies, he believes that these are outgrowths of their different life experiences. Howard grew up in a sheltered Sydney home and lived a comfortable life, remote from the gritty daily reality of millions of Australians.

In this view, Howard does not see or understand human struggles with drugs and divorce, alcoholism and squalor, immigration and identity, abortion and infertility. The Costello circle considers that the treasurer, growing up in a family living on the modest means of a Baptist minister in a home where community problems swirled around constantly, has a much closer understanding of the real-life struggles of most Australians.

The result, according to one well-informed Liberal observer, is that “Peter sits around for ten years listening to John Howard’s views, which are so irrelevant to modern life that it drives him crazy.”

“John Howard is always playing games about moral issues. It’s always glossed up into some respectable argument but it’s really just small-mindedness. Every minute of the day, Peter feels like saying to Howard, ‘Mate, get a f-cking life’.”…

We like what we see. Onya, Pete. But why on earth can’t the treasurer say this himself? Why does he need to speak through sources? If all this is true, why hasn’t Peter Costello spoken out earlier?

We’re not just dealing with frustration or forbearance. We’re dealing with an almighty wimp factor. It might be hesitation on behalf of the party — the scars of the eighties leadership tension might be hidden by the concealer of four election wins, but are still there — but it’s still hesitation. Can someone like that ever be prime minister?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey