Aspiration to the highest office in the land is the ambition of most senior politicians. So after so many years coveting that position, it came as a bolt from the blue when Peter Costello declined leadership after it was offered on a plate right after the 2007 election. A role outside of politics was mooted, but as time passed and nothing suitable eventuated, the backbench seemed all that was to be had. But from time to time, like a smouldering fire smoking on the crest of the mountain, speculation flares about his return to active political engagement. Yesterday was one of those times. [more]
After a day in the media abrading the Government over its fiscal stimulus, how its IR changes would burden small business and its ETS would send jobs offshore, he appeared last night on ABC TV’s Q&A where, not unexpectedly, the issue of leadership emerged explicitly. Every time he appears in the media Costello must be aware that leadership speculation might be rekindled, but when he accepts an invitation to appear on Q&A he must know that leadership is bound to be raised. He must know that when sharp thinking, quick witted Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner is on the panel, leadership will be on the agenda, and he must know that when businessman and Gunn’s pulp mill opponent and Malcolm Turnbull adversary Geoff Cousins is a co-panellist, a leadership conflagration is inevitable. Yet he went ahead and accepted the invitation, the leadership fire flared once more, and Turnbull’s suitability was once again publically questioned, this time fuelled by an attack by Cousins that was applauded by much of the audience and echoed by some of the panellists.
So what are Costello’s prospects? There are four options that commentators canvass – assuming leadership of the Opposition, returning to the shadow front bench, remaining on the backbench and retirement from parliament. The last option seems to be receding; the back bench remains a comfortable option. But what of the others? Does anyone believe that he will return to the front bench in any capacity other than leader? Does anyone believe he would be willing to serve under Malcolm Turnbull? Even if he was, where on the front bench would he go? Shadow Treasurer is the obvious position – said to have been offered recently but rejected – but that would require the displacement of recently-appointed Joe Hockey. He would be unlikely to willingly step aside, and would need to mess up badly to warrant replacement. Costello would not be interested in a lesser finance role. Would he be interested in another senior position, such as shadow foreign affairs, and prepared to displace Julie Bishop whom he recently supported publically? Would he be prepared to tackle IR, take on Julia Gillard and run the risk of being painted as still wedded to WorkChoices? Would he have the capacity to take on education and the sure-footed Julia? Would any other shadow portfolio be remotely of any interest? I suspect the answer to all these questions is a resounding no! And what disruptive shuffling of positions would be needed to accommodate him anywhere on the front bench?
So what it boils down to is a choice between leader and backbencher. Does anyone seriously believe Turnbull would willingly step down in Costello’s favour? So how can he become leader? To continue the fire metaphor, the only way seems to be Turnbull being burned by his own party. That seems a genuine possibility unless he can improve the Coalition’s poor ratings in opinion polls, improve his own steadily falling approval/disapproval ratings that are now almost equal and approaching Brendan Nelson’s levels, close the preferred PM gap that currently stands at 44 percentage points, gain some solid traction in opposing the Government, and land some telling blows on the PM and senior ministers. That may be possible as the global financial firestorm scorches the Government, but Turnbull will need a sharp lift in credibility with the public and his party, and more convincing policy initiatives and rhetoric to improve his position.
So the saga continues – the fire still burns in Costello’s breast. But has he the fire in his belly to challenge? Has Turnbull the capacity to quell the smouldering fire he faces on the backbench and in the party room? Time will tell, but the political fire season is long and being distracted by fire fighting in his own ranks will make turning up the heat on the Government so much harder.