When did you last see a politician knife his leader and hang him out to dry as openly as Peter Costello did live on air on ABC’s Lateline last night? This morning’s news of the dawn raids on suspected terrorist cells, the OzCar story and the tabling of the Auditor-General’s report, have pushed the extraordinary Costello interview aside. Tony Jones, like all journalists, looks for a scoop, and as the interview about the two new chapters in The Costello Memoirs proceeded, he knew he had one; his non-verbals said it all. And he achieved it with little coaxing; Costello was in an expansive mood, and seemed only too ready to ‘tip the bucket’.
So what did Costello say about the Liberal Party and Malcolm Turnbull? [more]
Being derived from the transcript, this is a rather long piece; if you become bored, scroll to the end for a summing up.
Referring to the upcoming Auditor-General's report, Jones asks “What were you thinking when you watched this whole catastrophe unfold for Malcolm Turnbull?” In response Costello points out that he wasn't in the country at the time but concedes “...it didn't look good. It looked like one of those political eruptions that occur from time to time where the story gets curiouser and curiouser.” He alluded to other forged or faked documents, one in 1996 promoted by Ralph Willis and the 2007 election leaflet in Lindsay.
Asked “Could this be as damaging for Malcolm Turnbull as the Lindsay leaflet scandal was for the party and the Government just before the election?”, Costello replied “Well, the Lindsay leaflet was really the knockout final blow, I think, in that election...we probably would've lost anyway, but we lost the last 48 hours of the campaign, and I think we lost more seats than we otherwise would've if it hadn't of been for that disaster. Look, plainly this is not good. Malcolm Turnbull has said that this is not good. But it's important for him, I think, that he gets over it and gets back onto issues which are of more importance to the Australian public.”
So far Costello’s knife has not drawn blood.
Asked if he agreed the fake email scandal took the wind out of Turnbull’s leadership sails, Costello replied “Well, look, look, it wasn't a success, and he's admitted that it wasn't a success. And I think as he said on the program [Australian Story] tonight, he wants to put it behind him.” Which prompted Jones to ask “...what was your assessment of that as a piece of, well, damage control, reportage?” Costello responded “Well, if I was doing damage control, Tony, I wouldn't have had the press crawling all over my office when this disaster happened. I think that's probably magnified it because now there's glorious footage of what was actually occurring in the office. But it's too late to think of those things now. Look, it's happened. It turned out that the material was forged. He's withdrawn on the basis of that. He's got to put it behind him.”
The knife starts to penetrate.
Jones persisted: “Does the...Godwin Grech affair still have the capacity to damage further his leadership? And we're about to get a report from the Auditor-General. I mean, there's more that we don't know about. We've now learned that he was the one himself as Leader who met with Godwin Grech before he dropped the bombshell in the Senate hearings.”
Trying to deflect, Costello says “Look, I think, really, most of what can be known will be known...But unless there's some knockout new development, then I think what can be known is already out there. I think people have made up their minds. And I think, as Malcolm said, it's time for him to move on. Now, of course, who doesn't want to move on? Well, Kevin Rudd doesn't want to move on, that's for sure. He'll keep on coming back to it.”
Not to be deflected Jones asked “You've seen the analysis, though. Was it - did you regard it as a sign of Malcolm Turnbull's inexperience as a leader and his impetuosity?”
Costello begins to pushes the knife a little deeper.
“Look, when you're under pressure and these things appear, you can get overexcited by them...it pays to go through your records to make sure you were on very firm ground before you go into these things.”
Jones points out that it was the Government that went through the records and found the email was a fake; it was Turnbull who asked for the Prime Minister to resign on the basis of a faked email.
Costello twists the knife a little while urging Turnbull to ‘move on’.
“Well, that's my point: you know, maybe, with the benefit of hindsight, he should have done more due diligence on this email and asked more questions about its provenance, OK? - with the benefit of hindsight. But, OK, we all know the fact: it wasn't a true email. OK, that's that chapter closed; move on - that's my advice.”
Turning to Costello’s postscript to his book, Jones went on to ask about “...that surprising day in Parliament when your retirement was announced. Now Malcolm Turnbull did say some very nice things about you. But the real story was his body language - the barely suppressed glee. Did you find that odd?”
Costello, pointing out that this was the week before Utegate that he announced that he was not running at the next election, said “Malcolm very generously got up in the Parliament, said some nice things, as did Kevin Rudd, incidentally. And then, that weekend, I left to go to Israel on a parliamentary delegation - that was the fateful week of Utegate.”
Jones pointed that some people had actually blamed him for this whole thing ... because his departure emboldened Malcolm Turnbull in such a way that he did something, well, let's say silly.
Costello smilingly acknowledged “Yeah, well I think I could be blamed for most things in Australian politics” and “that some people have suggested that there was a connection.”
Jones persisted “The barely suppressed glee was the question. Were you surprised by it?” Costello: “I was surprised. I stood on my feet. I wasn't prepared to give a speech that particular day. And I looked down at the dispatch box - Kevin Rudd gleaming and Malcolm Turnbull gleaming, and I said, ‘I never thought I'd see the day where I would make both sides of Australian politics happy’."
After a further exchange about Turnbull looking over his shoulder at the next most ambitious person in the room, Costello says: “Well, I'd say that Malcolm actually has been very fortunate, when you think about it, because, really, he came to the leadership by winning a ballot against Brendan Nelson. Brendan, to his great credit, accepted that with very good grace. And I think you can say Malcolm, of all people in the Liberal Party, has been entirely absent of anybody having designs upon his position. And so, I think, in that sense, he certainly hasn't had to go through what Brendan had to go through.”
So Malcolm has had an easy ride.
Costello then admits the “adrenaline-soaked life is very hard to give up. Very few people walk away from politics - very few indeed. Most are taken out, either by their own party, or they're taken out by the electorate. In the end, what took John Howard out was his own constituents voted him out.”
Strike against Howard.
Costello continues: “We all came back to Canberra after the election and endured the taunts and the arrows. He [Howard] didn't come back because his constituents had taken him out. And, as I write in the book about how I determined very early in my life, better to get out before your constituents or your preselectors or the press take you out. I was in politics - have been in politics for 20 years. I've had a pretty good run, and I wanted to go at the time of my choosing.”
Another sideswipe at Howard.
Jones asks “What do you think will take Malcolm Turnbull out? He's now polling at 16 per cent as preferred Prime Minister. I think that's actually worse than Brendan Nelson when he was effectively taken out by Malcolm Turnbull. I mean...there's a sort of animal kind of logic to this whole thing, isn't it? Eventually, even though he hasn't had anyone sort of looking to take over his leadership, that's the way it works, isn't it”?
Costello sets it out plainly “Well, look...Malcolm has the opportunity, and the next election will determine whether he succeeds or whether he doesn't. It'll be the same for Kevin Rudd. Kevin Rudd will go out eventually in defeat. They all do. This is democracy. You know, at least in Australia, when you go out, you don't go out with a bullet, as you do in most of the countries of the world.”
No great endorsement of Turnbull there.
Jones persisted: “Let's go back to the day in Parliament. Do you accept that - and the barely expressed glee we were talking about? Do you accept that your mere presence on the backbench was a threat to Malcolm Turnbull's leadership?”
Costello was adamant “Never, never. No, because if I'd wanted to be a threat to Malcolm Turnbull's leadership, I could have put up my hand on any one of, you know, 100 days and nominated for the leadership. The fact that I didn't meant that he was entirely secure. If I'd wanted to, I could have.”
A subtle assertion by Costello that leadership was there for his taking.
Then later, in the context of his difficulties ascending to leadership, in case we’d missed it, Costello repeated “Malcolm's had a pretty good run, you know. He was given a good go. After three years in the Parliament - or three and a bit years - he was able to become its leader. He has every opportunity now; he can go to an election in circumstances where he doesn't have to look over his shoulder. And I knew what it was like, as it were, to be bunched in on the rails one back and I didn't like it. I didn't think anyone else should go through that.”
Knife twists again. But it sounds like sour grapes.
Jones then moved to the Liberal report on the election “You've also talked today about...the Liberal Party's secret report into why you lost the last election and its recommendations on candidate selection, on campaign finance and so on. Why is it being kept secret, first of all?”
“Who knows?” retorts Costello. Well says Jones “...Malcolm Turnbull knows, because he said today he's read it, it's been widely discussed and it's been acted upon. I mean, do you think that's true?”
“Well that's fixed the problem then.” says Costello with heavy sarcasm. “What was the problem?” asks Jones. “Well, I don't know. If it's been acted on, it's fixed the problem. We can all rest assured that there'll be no weakness in the organisation at the next election. Nobody will be able to say that was the problem.” “Quite obviously, you're being sarcastic.” Jones smiles wryly. Costello: “Well, do you believe that? Does the Shadow Cabinet believe that? Does the party? Does the party organisation believe that? Does the membership believe it? Jones: “Does Malcolm Turnbull believe it?” Costello: “I don't know if he believes it. But, anyway, Tony, the good news, it's been fixed.”
Cop that Malcolm.
A little taken aback but enjoying himself immensely, Jones: “...that is quite funny, but what do you think the problem is? Costello: “Well, I would have thought if you'd lost an election, you'd want to know why so that you could make sure that you didn't repeat the mistakes. I would've thought you'd want to look at the campaign performance. I would've thought you'd want to look at the fundraising opportunity. But the good news is we don't have to, because it’s been fixed.”
Knife inches in.
Jones: “Well, in actual fact, Malcolm Turnbull has a plan for campaign finance. He says it should be limited to donations from individuals. There should be a low cap on those. He's effectively saying: no money from corporations, no money from unions, no money from associations, only donations from individuals with a tight cap on it. Do you back that call?”
The knife twists savagely:
“Well, I don't know if that's the Liberal Party's position.” Sensing conflict, Jones says: “Well I think it's clearly not the Liberal Party's position because it's been reported that there's been fury in the Liberal Party organisation over that position being expressed by the leader.” Costello is not about to back off: “Well, to me, this is a decision for the Liberal Party organisation. This is why you have an organisation. An organisation is responsible for running a campaign and responsible for fundraising. So, you know, I make the point that this is a matter for the organisation to decide.”
Jones: “And, in this case, the leader appears to have ignored the organisation.” Costello: “Well, he's entitled to his view, and he's obviously put his view forward. But, look, this is one of the points I make in my book: the Liberal Party is a party of thousands of members, and many parliamentary members. And these thousands of members, by the way, have been members of the party for 10, 20, 30 years and go out and hand out your 'How to vote' cards for you every time there's an election, and run the little afternoon teas, raising money - they're entitled to a say. And I think one of the weaknesses of the Liberal Party, as I write in my book, is what I call the cult of leadership. That what is grown up is this idea that the person who is in the leadership, from time to time - and I'm not particularly singling out Malcolm here, because I think it applied to John Howard - can make these announcements which will bind the party, you know, maybe over 10 years or decades or more, long after the leader for the time being has gone. And I think this is where the membership of the Liberal Party has to assert itself in these things. This is why I think it should come to grips with this report. This is why I think it should be heard on these particular matters. And I believe, and I still am a member of the Liberal Party, and I'm a member of the parliamentary Liberal Party, this is where the organisation ought to get itself in franchise.”
Costello grants Turnbull’s entitled to his view, but he and the party have a different one. Howard and Turnbull knifed again - blood flows briskly.
Delighted by the direction of the interview, Jones asks: “Are you shocked by the lack of transparency in relation to this report?”
Costello: “Well, you see, Tony, this is where the Liberal Party needs its organisation. It's now in Opposition. It can't rely on public service departments; it can't rely on ministerial staff. Now it is reliant upon the organisation. And I'd say this to the MPs: ‘Treat that organisation with a bit of respect, because you are very, very reliant upon it. Treat the membership with a bit of respect, because they're the people you're going to want to be handing out your 'How to vote' cards come election day.’ And from my point of view, the Liberal Party has got to remember the things that it stands for and the membership. Things like smaller government, lower taxes, freedom in industrial relations. If you walk away from some of those things, you won't be strengthening your cause at the next election.”
Wishing he wasn’t running out of time, Jones asks his last question: “I've got to ask you this as a final question: I mean, it's often been said of Malcolm Turnbull that he's actually not really a true Liberal Party member, that he's a sort of party of one. Is that a fear that you have: that he's not imbued with the history of the party? That he hasn't been in politics long enough - he hasn't been in the Liberal Party long enough to actually get this?”
Costello, not to be deterred from his criticism of his leader, hangs him out to dry: “Look, he's the elected leader of the Liberal Party, and that's a great honour. And it's a great honour that it's entrusted on him. But, you got to understand that also there is an organisation, there is a membership, and it's important to always remember that. And the Liberal Party has been around long before I came along, long before Malcolm came along; it'll be around, I hope, long after we've all gone. The party and its principles and its ideals, I hope, will live for a very long period of time and it ought to be treated with respect. And that's some of the things that I've written about in this book.”
So in the space of a fifteen minute interview Costello:
- asserted that the OzCar affair was a catastrophe for Turnbull and the Coalition;
- agreed that Turnbull’s handling of it was injudicious;
- criticized him for having the Australian Story crew ‘crawling all over his office’ as the calamity unfolded;
- accepted that this has magnified the problem because now there's ‘glorious footage’ of it all;
- acknowledges the substantial damage that has been done;
- accepts that Turnbull got over-excited about the email, and should have done more due diligence and asked more questions about its provenance;
- points out that Turnbull has been fortunate to be leader after just a few years, and has had ‘a pretty good go’,
- insists that no one has had designs on his position;
- denies he had any designs on Turnbull’s position;
- says that the next election will determine whether or not Turnbull succeeds;
- takes a couple of sideswipes at John Howard on the way;
- expresses annoyance about the lack of action on the Liberal Party’s secret report on the last election;
- is very sarcastic about Turnbull not having released it, presumably having ‘fixed the problem’;
- castigates Turnbull for unilaterally making pronouncements about the future of campaign funding that are not party policy and have infuriated the party;
- acerbically points out that the Liberal Party is an organization that sustains parliamentary members, who do need its support;
- pointedly states that the party was around long before Turnbull came on the scene and will be there long after ‘we’ve all gone’;
- reminds all concerned that the party organization and the membership deserves ‘a bit of respect’ from parliamentarians.
With apologies to the Fugees, Costello's remarks about Turnbull seemed to be ‘Killing him softly with his words.’
With colleagues like Costello....