Poor Costello, used again – a reprise

Monday, 4 August 2008 

The campaign by The Australian to have Costello installed as the Liberal leader makes sense from many different viewpoints – except Costello’s.

He only turned down the job eight months ago and the position has hardly become more enticing since then. The Queensland branch has collapsed under the guise of a merger, the West Australian branch couldn’t decide whether they looked more a joke getting rid of a leader than keeping him and the national ‘brand’ has seen its main virtues eroded. You would think his only concern is to make sure his book sells well and to build up the suspense before it comes out.

However, this is not about what Costello wants, it is about what the old leadership and their supporters desperately need to get out of the mess they are now in. Whereas Costello was used by Howard to ride the vacuum, he is now being used to allow the Liberals to avoid having to acknowledge it, nicely summed up by one Liberal MP as being ‘paralysed until Peter Costello makes up his mind’.

What is interesting about all the fuss being made about someone who is giving every sign that he doesn’t want to lead the party, is how it is ignoring someone who is giving every sign he does. It shows that this drafting of Costello is being driven by the old leadership and just how weak now Turnbull’s position is in the party. The old leadership is in a mess because in getting what they wanted, the end of the Turnbull threat, it has exposed the crisis in the top ranks of the party.

Nelson has been the cheap hammer used to batter down Turnbull but has now been broken in the process. We are getting more detail on what happened last week, especially from Peter Hartcher’s excellent report which, like his account of last year’s implosion of the Howard leadership at APEC, gives the best inside feel for the dynamics at work. He was correct that the crucial moment of last week was at Monday’s policy review meeting at which Turnbull and Minchin, but not Nelson, were present:

The critical moment of the Monday meeting came, participants said, when Minchin asked whether climate change policy was at issue, “or are we talking about other agendas?” With the sort of politeness the Liberals specialise in, this was taken to be a euphemism for asking whether Turnbull was turning this into a leadership play. The Liberals’ deputy leader, Julie Bishop, responded that everything she had observed was that no mischief was afoot, and that the point of the exercise was purely to establish a consistent, credible policy position. The group spent some time, as one later put it, “making sure Nick was comfortable with the policy” that Turnbull and Hunt were seeking to defend against Nelson’s proposed change. If he had not been, “then we would have been having a very different debate”.

What happened here was that Minchin, representing the old leadership, was essentially getting Turnbull to declare his hand for the leadership. Turnbull’s refusal to do so removed the need to push the issue in the subsequent shadow cabinet meeting and the party get-together. Turnbull was indulged at the cabinet meeting and then a fudge agreed on with the backbenchers with lots of ‘probablys’. In reality Nelson had adopted the old leadership’s line, not Turnbull’s as the press reported it, but it would have been less immediately apparent had Kerry O’Brien not pressed the issue with Nelson on Wednesday. Turnbull had been politically defeated in a way that avoided a confrontation, but at the cost of making Nelson look like an idiot.

The problem here is that neither side can convincingly make its case. Turnbull has the electoral argument but not the answer to the Liberals’ more pressing problem of what they stand for. The old leadership is more intent on preserving the party’s agenda, but is discredited by their electoral loss. Nelson’s leadership has rested on that stalemate, but over the last month has had to respond to the old leadership’s increasing concern over the party’s ‘brand’. Unfortunately he has had to bear the problems of the old leadership’s line (it is electoral death) and from this weak position and all the vacillating this has meant, has destroyed his credibility in the process.

In this situation, Costello is overwhelmingly preferred by the Liberals because he best allows them to avoid their current dilemma by appealing to a mythical past. It is a past of respected leadership, of economic reform and polling leads in economic management that mattered, and ‘cultural wars’ that tapped into the concerns of the Howard battlers. The reality of course was a government that had no reform agenda, a meaningless reputation as economic manager and cultural values that had so little hold on the Australian electorate (despite what the liberal intelligentsia claimed) that Rudd could sweep them away in a matter of months. It ended with its leader going to a humiliating electoral defeat presaged a few months earlier by a leadership implosion.

There is nothing in Costello’s actions in the Howard government’s crisis of last year that would suggest he can make any difference to the Liberals’ crisis now. However, there are a couple of reasons it may appear he can. The first is a media that never got their heads around what caused Howard’s defeat last year. For them, Costello will allow them to replay all the old myths again and there is no doubt he will come in with a fanfare.

The second is the ALP. News that they are preparing a ‘dossier’ on Costello’s IR extremism says a lot more about the state of Labor than Costello. It is notable that the Liberals’ lurch on climate change over the last month has re-energised a government that was starting to drift. Labor’s need to respond to the Liberals’ dreaming of the past by following them there and digging up an IR agenda that they can all be against, could only be explained by internal reasons (especially when unions are complaining how Rudd has kept so much of Howard’s agenda). There is hardly an electoral reason for trying to scare people about someone widely regarded as a political lightweight leading a party that is struggling to stand for anything.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 4 August 2008.

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