The back cover of the book points to one of the themes that run through The Costello Memoirs: “How did it come to this? How did a Government that had created such an Age of Prosperity, such a proud and prosperous country, now find itself in the wilderness?” Written nine months after the Coalition lost office, Peter Costello is still scratching his head wondering why. His first chapter titled What Went Wrong? recalls the evening before the election, when he knew the Government was defeated, to the barbeque at his home the day after polling. In that chapter he gives substance to the words on the back cover in a paragraph that records his and the Howard Government’s achievements. It begins “The achievements of recent years have been absolutely outstanding”. All the facts he states are accurate, albeit incomplete. The astonishment at being removed from office in the face of such ‘outstanding achievements’ comes through, as it does throughout the book. [more]
Yet in a way he answers his incredulity by way of another theme that permeates the book: that he was poorly treated in his quest for leadership, and that the party, having missed the opportunity for generational change, has suffered the inevitable consequences. He devotes a 35 page chapter Leadership: From Memo to Madness to the sorry details. The McLachlan wallet note affair is detailed, but there is much more about Costello’s desire to replace John Howard in a bloodless handover. He explains why he declined leadership after the election, but gives readers no more insight than he did at the time. He correctly diagnoses two of the main reasons for the Coalition’s defeat – longevity in government and failure to effect generational leadership change, but seems oblivious, or unwilling to admit the third, and maybe the most important reason. More of that later
The Memoirs are hardly a literary triumph, nor is the book a page-turner, but I found the read well worthwhile. Having waited unsuccessfully for a basement-bargain sale, I eventually borrowed a copy from the Melbourne City Library. I’m glad I did. I learned a lot – about Costello and the Howard Government
Early chapters are devoted to the Costello family. Costello is an Irish name. Peter was the middle child, Tim was older, Janet younger. The family was close-knit and religious. His parents imparted strong values – the importance of honesty, thrift, work, duty, faith, compassion. These are similar to the values espoused by the Liberal Party, to which he was attracted. Another series of events, at Monash University where he studied law, pushed him closer to Liberal thinking and away from Labor. At that time radical left-wing students dominated student activities. Some were Marxists and outspoken supporters of the Viet Cong; they were elated at the fall of Saigon. Angered by their political position, Peter nominated for chairman of the Monash Association of Students and won, his first ‘political’ position. From these experiences he developed a marked distaste for left-wing politics, which has stayed with him ever since.
There was another experience that hardened his attitude to Labor and unionism – The Dollar Sweets case. He represented the owner, Fred Stauder in a common law case in an industrial dispute with the Federated Confectioners’ Association that in its push for a 36 hour week for Dollar Sweets workers picketed the firm and intimidated management and employees. He won this landmark case. The union had to pay compensation. The militancy of the union disgusted him, and that revulsion to ‘union thuggery’ has remained with him to this day.
So it ought not to surprise us that Costello has an aversion to unions and Labor.
Following chapters describe the Coalition’s tortured electoral fortunes over the years prior to its election in 1996. The changes of leadership with Howard doing ‘a Lazarus with triple bypass’, the interaction of state and federal politics in which Geoff Kennett was prominent, and the loss by John Hewson of ‘the unlosable election’ in 1993 are described in agonizing detail. His disdain for Hewson is manifest. Then at last he comes to Out of the Wilderness and into Government. He describes the Labor debt he inherited, the need to ‘balance the books’, the setting of monetary policy, the development of a new tax system and the GST. He describes the ups and downs of government, the loss of ministers in Howard’s first term, the Pauline Hanson affair, the close call in the 1998 post-GST election, the Asian Financial Crisis, the turmoil surrounding the arrival of the boatpeople and the Tampa affair, which he defends vigorously, the third term in office in the aftermath of September 11 and the 2002 Bali bombings, and the defeat of Mark Latham in 2004, which he attributes to Latham’s character and experience, rather than his position on the Iraq war.
There is an informative chapter on indigenous affairs, where his sympathy with indigenous disadvantage is expressed. He would have joined the reconciliation march across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, had it not been for Howard’s intransigence. As in the leadership struggles, Costello’s loyalty to the party, or perhaps his unwillingness to rock the boat, kept him a prisoner of Howard’s desires. He describes events from Mabo to Wik to the Little Children are Sacred report and the intervention overseen by Mal Brough, which he supported. He acknowledges his support for the symbolism of an ‘apology’, and the tangle into which Howard got himself avoiding it.
He takes time out to describe his eleven budgets, his understanding of the complexities of international finance and economics, and the contributions he made nationally and internationally. He also describes the light-hearted moments such as advising mothers to have a baby for themselves, one for their husband and one more for the country, complete with press photos of Costello with lots of babies. He tells readers about the schoolboy’s ‘who made cactuses’ question, and mentions his meetings with George Bush and Hu Jintao
Bringing Home the Bacon: the Fourth Term is the title of the chapter that describes the events following the 2004 election victory and how the unexpected Senate majority gave the Coalition the opportunity to pass legislation previously blocked. He devotes just one paragraph to Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) but does so only in the context of their positive effect on inflation.
He describes the lead up to the 2007 election and the advent of Kevin Rudd to Labor leadership. He devotes many words to refuting Rudd’s assertions, and denigrates his speaking ability. He reports that Howard insisted “Rudd is too long-winded and academic. He’s a bigger windbag than Beasley. He won’t cut with the voters.” He seems amazed that this man, whose abilities, experience and ideology he discounts, could defeat an experienced politician such as Howard or the longstanding and successful Howard-Costello team. He gives no acknowledgement of Rudd’s capacity to lead the nation, and belittles what he sees as Rudd’s copying of many of the Coalition’s policies.
Although he identifies some defects in the Coalition, by and large he insists that it did a good job, was a good government, and left the economy in great shape for the new government, debt free and with good reserves. He does not address the question of whether more could have been put aside from the ever-swelling mining revenue. He seems satisfied that tax cuts and handouts at election time were appropriate.
So he remains convinced that the Coalition deserved another term and could have had it had a new leader been chosen. He talks extensively about the ‘promises’ of a handover that never eventuated, even as late as at the time of APEC in September 2007 when Prime Ministership seemed imminent; he had even drafted his acceptance speech. His disappointment is palpable. His critics say he should have challenged Howard; he defends his actions by pointing out that he never had the numbers in the party room, and that his loyalty to the Liberal party prevented him from rocking the boat by challenging Howard and going to the backbench if he lost.
But the most striking part of the book is not what Costello has written, but what he has not. Not once does he write about WorkChoices. The term is not in the index. As already mentioned there is just one paragraph on AWAs, written in the context of curbing inflation. It is almost as if WorkChoices has been erased from his memory. Yet that policy, which he helped create, along with longevity of government and lack of leadership renewal to counter a fresh new opponent in Rudd, was, in the view of most commentators, the crucial reason for defeat.
It is dangerous to become so self satisfied in government, so enamoured of the policies one has developed, so ready to erase from one’s mind the policies that have become unpopular, so dismissive of the talents of a challenger, that even months after election defeat surprise is still being expressed and the injustice of being replaced is still surging angrily in Costello and the minds of his Coalition colleagues. This apparent lack of insight into what went wrong and the continuing state of denial is arguably the greatest barrier to recovery and regrouping for another charge at government. It is likely too the greatest barrier to Costello’s reaching again for leadership.