Poor Costello, used again – Epilogue

Friday, 12 September 2008 

It is with a heavy heart that this blog must now admit that its campaign, in conjunction with The Australian newspaper, to draft Costello to the Liberal leadership has now failed. Thus, does this blog’s attempt to join with The Australian to change the course of Australian political history come to an end.

It is possible that this blog’s motivation might have differed from that of The Australian. For this blog, it was a case of not only hoping for an end to the constant speculation about an uninteresting politician, but that Costello’s accession would have cleared up some of the last remaining myths of the Howard era like:

 

  1. Costello would have been electorally more successful than Howard
  2. Costello’s record of economic management means anything
  3. Costello had a political agenda

 

For the farce of Costello’s supposed pretensions for the leadership goes back further than the last few months. In the last few years of the Howard government, the media continued to see the leadership implosion, that comes to any government without an agenda, as a Costello leadership threat. This was an illusion that Howard himself fostered by constantly posing Costello as ‘his logical successor’ while doing everything possible to make sure that wasn’t the case. Howard, and cronies like Abbott, used Costello to ride the vacuum within the party and give the impression that the Liberal party had a future after Howard, rather than facing the profound uncertainty over its reason for existence as it is heading towards now.

There were two things that enabled Howard to deploy this tactic. The first was that Costello did not have a political basis for challenging Howard nor even, it seems, thought there was a reason to have one. Despite his re-writing of all the important issues he and Howard were supposed to disagree on, his appeal to the party then, and now, keeps on boiling down to little more than ‘freshness’. Costello keeps insisting this freshness would have helped him do better than Howard last year, despite the absence of a single poll supporting that view.

His failure to comprehend even what a challenge means comes out when he said he didn’t take on Howard because he didn’t have the numbers. As Keating, Hawke, Fraser and Whitlam (all of whom took over from their respective party leaders only after first launching an unsuccessful challenge) could have told Costello, the first step of presenting an alternative is to break from what was already on offer. Costello may have differed over Howard’s ‘symbols’ of the republic and the apology, but on what truly defined his government, a token commitment to Iraq and the need for a bogus faux Thatcherite attack on a dead union movement, they were absolutely in agreement. This failure to have any basis to challenge Howard is why Costello expected him to do what Prime Minsters pretty well never do and just hand over power (even if Howard followed Costello’s favourite and only example, Menzies, Costello would still be waiting until 2012).

The second thing that enabled Howard to pose a sham challenger as a real successor was that Howard really was riding a vacuum and there was no other alternative to Costello either. If Howard really had a serious challenger from another quarter, he could not have pretended to put his leadership up for grabs as he did. That vacuum was exposed for all to see during APEC week when the Howard leadership imploded but nobody stepped in, leaving it to Howard to recompose himself and soldier on (by the way, the Liberals’ habit of putting Howard’s recovery down to the persuasive powers of Jannette is pathetic). This lack of alternative is summed up by the problem of Turnbull.

This is not because Turnbull is incompetent. It is just that he doesn’t seem to stand for anything that has much to do with the Liberal party (or anything much at all for that matter which is why he waffles on). It is why the old leadership understand the hole in the party’s agenda as a problem of Turnbull and why they are so intent on stopping him becoming leader. Their attempts over the last two months to prevent an erosion of the party’s ‘brand’ and define themselves more sharply against the government also led them to use a bogus Costello challenge to reassert the party’s credibility from the Howard years and ward off a Turnbull challenge. Like most tactics that are used too long, it ended up doing the opposite and exposed the party to ridicule by leaving it hostage to a book launch.

With the Costello ruse now run its course, the old leadership is looking for another way to deal with the Turnbull problem. A lot of ideas are being thrown about. An amusing one is a Turnbull-Abbott alliance which would be the most amiable combination since the Peacock-Howard combo of ’87. Another is to do what Costello did on announcing his decision to quit politics in November and talk about a ‘new generation’. This code for anyone but Turnbull might mean Hockey or someone else the old leadership can push around. Or maybe, just maybe, since he hasn’t left Parliament yet …

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 12 September 2008.

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