Peter Costello’s painful parting

What happened?  Why?  What’s next? are questions we all ask.  Peter Costello has given us his answers to the first in The Costello Memoirs.  But not why, and what’s next?

Why did he never challenge for the leadership?  Why didn’t he accept it after the election?  Why has he refused it ever since despite his party’s pleading?

His detractors conclude he has never had the courage – John Hewson uses ‘balls’ – to challenge Howard, that he wanted it handed to him without a contest.  His supporters insist that because he never had more than a third of the party room behind him, he wanted to avoid the disruption that a challenge, a defeat, a retirement to the back bench, and the appointment of another Treasurer would have inflicted on his party. They say he put his party ahead of his ambition.  He would argue that he had enough hints from John Howard and others to persuade him to be patient.  He says this was the case right until near the end, at the time of APEC.  His detractors say he never had enough 'mongrel' in him to fight for what he wanted. 

Why then did he reject leadership when handed to him on a platter after the election?  His detractors would say that the prospect of leading a defeated  party back to prominence against a popular new Government was too overwhelming, too hard a road.  Paul Keating classed Costello as the laziest Treasurer in history who lay in a hammock for 11 years, and periodically asked for a push.  ‘All tip but no iceberg’ was his acerbic assessment.  Costello’s supporters, who were surprised, mystified and disappointed, attributed his decision to a laudable concern for his wife and family, who had suffered his absences from home for 11 long years, and now deserved more of his time.  After all, ‘Australia’s greatest Treasurer’, with 11 hard years under his belt had earned the right to do it his way and to take his time about it.

Then there’s the question ‘What’s next?’  [more]

As he stayed quietly on the back bench while writing his memoirs and waiting an opportunity outside of politics, as Brendan Nelson suffered continual poor polls, and as his colleagues, desperate for an improvement in the party’s standing, pleaded for him to return as leader, why did he remain silent?  He could not have missed the message, given with such ecclesiastical fervour by Tony Abbott, who pleaded and prayed for the return of the Messiah who would lead them out of the wilderness.  He just sat there, sans smirk, making no comment.  He could have put the uncertainty to rest by a simple reiteration of his post-election statement.  Journalists began to beat up the possibility of his return.  They had no real evidence, only idle conjecture.  Were they just creating eye-catching stories, or were they trying to influence the politics? 

But when his book launch was imminent, he was unable to avoid the inevitable questions.  One day he seemed to give an unequivocal answer: he would not seek the leadership, nor would he accept it, as he said after the election.  The next day, when pressed with the ‘never ever’ question he seemed unable to repeat the unequivocal denial.  Was this game-playing, or just the old Costello, obtuse, never willing to say yes or no?  Or was it a sign of the agony of finally giving up on a life-long ambition? 

What followed has been unedifying discord in the Coalition.  One supporter, Russell Broadbent, said that as long as he stayed in parliament he was ‘a live round’ and could be drafted to leadership.  Others agreed; his brother Tim said he believed the ambition still smouldered.  Tony Abbott expressed heart-rending disappointment, almost despair – to hell with Nelson’s feelings.  Nick Minchin and Andrew Robb said that Costello’s statements had ‘cleared the air’, giving Nelson ‘clear air’ to get on with his job and ‘prove’ himself.  Robb urged his colleagues to discard the ‘Messiah complex’.  Barnaby Joyce contended that as long as Costello remained he was a distraction that was destabilizing the Coalition and that if he had no intention of seeking leadership, he should quit now.  Wilson Tuckey demanded any party member that favoured an imminent leadership spill, declare their position.

But in the end speculation about ‘will he or won’t he’ has become academic.  His behaviour over the last few weeks has angered many of his colleagues, and has left them bewildered and despairing.  ‘The sooner he goes the better’ is becoming the prevailing mood.  He was seen as holding his party to ransom while he took his time completing his book, and still doing so launching it.  It is so blatant that it looks as if Costello is giving his party ‘the bird’, in return for them giving him the same by not supporting his leadership ambitions over many years? 

Many of his colleagues, some of his electorate, much of the media, numerous responders to blogs on the subject, and the public generally, have become so contemptuous of his attitude and behaviour that he is increasingly not wanted, not seen as a leader after all.  He has by now managed to inflict so much damage to his reputation that even if Tony Abbott were to descend from on high like a celestial dove with the Liberal leadership in its clasp, it would be beyond Costello’s grasp. 

He has revealed his memories; now journalists are revealing our not-so- flattering memories of him.  What a poignant, painful way to part.

UPDATE – 16 September 2008

The leadership battle is over, and Peter Costello did not contest.  Some take that as an affirmation that he is definitely not interested in the leadership, nor is his party interested in drafting him.  The more cynical postulate that Costello is prepared to let Malcolm Turnbull have a go, and that if he can’t reverse the Coalition’s poor ratings by 2010 that would be the time for the party to draft him to replace Turnbull so he could lead the Coalition to the next election.  But if that opportunity were to arise, would he still have enough of his reputation intact to be a credible Leader of the Opposition?

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