Given his past history, it might not be unreasonable to query whether this is really his exit. There is still eighteen months to go, so unless he becomes mute until the next election, or retires soon and brings on a by-election, we will hear more from him. There have been several articles since Costello’s decision. There is Dr Peter and Mr Costello by Tim Colebatch in The Age; End of an era as Costello goes by Phillip Coorey in the SMH; Howard damns Costello with faint praise by Peter Hartcher in the SMH; What will we do now that he's no longer not there for us? by Annabel Crabb in the SMH; an editorial in the SMH, He gave much, promised more; a Paul Kelly piece in The Australian, The great contender; and Lenore Taylor's Former treasurer nails debate. [more]
I do not intend to add to that learned collection. But it is instructive to look again at what has been written previously on The Political Sword: Peter Costello’s painful parting was posted on September 15, 2008; Has the Costello comeback begun? on March 12, 2009; and The Costello Memoirs on March 31. But perhaps the most predictive was The Costello enigma posted on March 6, 2009. In an attempt to explore Costello’s options I wrote: “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?”
Much of the prediction was close to the mark. Since the retirement option was at that time not given much credence, staying on the back bench was seen as the most likely outcome. Time has eroded that option as a permanent position, and he’s decided to quit. There’s no point in second-guessing why – journalists like doing that, no matter how ill-informed they might be. I wonder how the cheerleaders for a Costello return-as-messiah, the Milnes, the Shanahans and the Bolts, feel now that they know they got it wrong? They will probably take the win some, lose some approach, and press on unabashed.
I’ll stick my neck out and make another prediction – that we haven’t seen the last of Costello in politics. Kevin Rudd indicated there could be a job for him representing Australia on the international scene and Costello confirmed he had discussed that with Rudd and was interested. I hope that comes about. It would be good for Costello, good for the nation as he has done some of his best work on the international scene where he was unencumbered by John Howard’s influence, and good for the Rudd Government.
What do you think?
UPDATE 18 June
There are two other pieces about Peter Costello's announcement, both from the blogosphere.
The Piping Shrike has an article Poor Costello: Used to the end that begins: "It is with immense sadness that this blog, in conjunction with The Australian newspaper, must announce the end of its dreams to see Costello drafted to the leadership of the Liberal Party of Australia." and ends "So by the end we got to the real nature of Costello’s ‘pretensions’ to the leadership, less about his ambitions than about a media and a political party refusing to face the vacuum in front of their eyes. It is why, with this challenge now finally out of the way, it doesn’t necessarily make life easier for Turnbull at all. It was not Costello that was destabilising the leadership, but the leadership’s inability to give the party a sense of its future. Far from destabilising the party, hopes of a Costello return were propping up its morale. As readers will know, this blog has never rated the political skills of the World’s Funniest Treasurer very highly. But maybe his inability/unwillingness to take the Liberal leadership showed that his political instincts had not completely deserted him."
Peter Brent of Mumble has written an article on Inside Story: Bad timing which concludes: "There is also the question: is this really the end of Costello? In the 1980s the Liberals’ search for a messiah involved several non-parliamentary candidates. Does his decision not to recontest really rule him out of the leadership? Preselections can be overturned, and party-room fantasies indulged in."
The fantasy lingers on, at least in some minds.