Poor Costello: Used to the end

Tuesday, 16 June 2009 


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.

Now we will never know what a flop he would have been as Opposition leader. This means he can now safely join Kim Beazley, RG Casey, and other losers of Australian politics, as the Greatest Prime Minister We Never Had. Or, in Costello’s case, the Greatest Opposition Leader We Never Had.

In the end Costello did exactly what he said he would do after the 2007 election and what he has confirmed ever since. So what on earth has all the fuss been about?

As ever with Costello, this is less about him but about the organisation that he was a member of and that used him so thoroughly over the last decade. The story of Costello over the last twenty years is what happens when someone with a mouth and a lack of political acumen walks into a vacuum.

In order to understand what happened to Costello it is necessary to understand the Howard government. It was led by a self-styled faux Thatcherite, whose one big attempt to join the Pantheon of Great Right Leaders as Treasurer ended in fiasco with a wages explosion, for which he promptly blamed his master. He then sat and fumed while Labor held back wages in the 1980s better than he ever could, until by the early 1990s there was nothing left to do, especially for a party like the Liberals that had been founded on the need to take on the unions.

So what next? Fortunately for Howard, he got the message from the crash of Hewson in the first post-reform election of 1993, that economic reform was out. Or at least that’s what you told the voters. As usual in politics, politicians first understand reality as a tactical necessity and when it was Howard’s turn in 1996 he took the ‘small target’ approach, without realising that that would be life from now on. He soon found out. After an initial stab at public service cuts and union-bashing at the waterfront, it wasn’t long before the government soon lost its way.

The problem for a government that had come in with an agenda for which there was no need, is that it was hard to suddenly find a new purpose out of thin air. The only real option is to pretend to carry on with it as best as you can. So it was left to Costello to come up with the Big Reform and we got a sales tax. The GST summed up Costello’s role in a government, someone who could give the government a sense that there was still a future in the right’s agenda when there wasn’t. It was on this basis that Costello was made the heir apparent in a party that needed to believe that its historical mission was not at an end.

In the meantime Howard had the War on Terror to temporarily fill the gaping hole left in the government’s domestic agenda. But when that faded, the malaise came back, except this time it was personal, with the party now wondering when the heir apparent would take up the torch from a leader that seemed to be losing momentum.

It is fashionable to say that Costello didn’t have the courage to take on the leadership. Certainly his need to have the Prime Ministership handed to him on a platter would look odd to any former Prime Minister for the last 35 years who all started off their bid for the top job by first resigning and launching an unsuccessful challenge.

However, complaints about Costello’s lack of keenness for the big job ignore the question, to do what? This was the question that no-one in the Liberal party, and it seems in the media, wants to answer. Before the election this refusal to look at the real problem behind Costello’s pretensions came in the media’s obsession with a challenge that didn’t exist. Without Howard giving way, it would need Costello to pose a political alternative to Howard, something that Howard (kind of in 1985), Keating, Hawke, Fraser and Whitlam all did to take the leadership. But there was no basis to do so as there was no alternative to the vacuum.

On the other hand, the party needed at least someone who looked as though he could give a future. So we had a stalemate, where a challenger could not challenge, but neither could he be pushed out because of the threat he posed. Howard could use the stalemate and the inability of his ‘natural successor’ to take the job as a means of shoring his own position, but in the end such a tactic would not have been possible if a challenge was coming from another quarter.

So desperate was the party for a sign that there was a future to its core values that even when Costello flatly said he didn’t want the leadership anymore after the 2007 election, it was not long before the party, and the media, ignored it and began once again dreaming up a challenge. The desperation became especially acute as the party suffered one leader who couldn’t remember why he joined it and now another who barely looks as though he wants to be in it at all.

It was the inability of the post-Howard leaders to disguise the death of right wing politics that brought on the final wave of Costello dreaming in the media, especially from that powerhouse of right-wing thinking, The Australian, which this blog wickedly rode on the back of to suit its own evil purposes. The old leadership’s loss of control with the election of Turnbull especially brought it to a head. The media were only too willing to take Costello’s occasional bitchiness of Turnbull as the sign of a challenge.

Those on the right who begged Costello to stay on could never point out why he would be able to challenge the government any differently than Turnbull or Nelson. It was supposed to be about economic management but really they meant association with the boom of the last decade. Costello never had any alternative to what Rudd was doing now and was no more eager to talk about what he would cut back to bring down the deficit than any other Liberal. In fact, like the rest of the party, his only concrete difference over the Budget was about why he would spend more than the government on medical insurance rebates.

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.

[Following yesterday’s tragic news, the post on Gillard has been held over.]

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 16 June 2009.

Filed under Political figures

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9 responses to “Poor Costello: Used to the end”

  1. Bilko on 16th June 2009 9:30 am

    It could be that Costello realises that not only is the next election lost but as the Coalition will go even further backwards.
    Resulting in the election after it also being lost or just too big an ask for six more years of mediocrity, so get out now while the going does not look so bad

  2. Scott on 16th June 2009 11:10 am

    So what will Costello do next? He couldn’t get a plum enough corporate job in Australia after the 2007 election and relocating overseas was reportedly too inconvenient. Has he now been offered a corporate carrot? It will be most interesting to see where he lands.

  3. Ozymandias on 16th June 2009 1:15 pm

    Did Costello ever have the numbers? I think not. Perhaps this is evidence that the majority of his colleagues’ political instincts had not completely deserted them, either. Perhaps they were not as thoroughly duped by Costello’s bluster -and his economic good fortune- as the MSM.

  4. Just Me on 16th June 2009 2:20 pm

    I agree with Ozymandias. Costello never had anywhere near enough public support, nor hence support within the party room. It was never going to happen. Any talk about him being the greatest PM we never had, etc, is just ridiculous. Mostly he got lucky with the economic cycle, but still failed to control Howard’s voter bribing sprees, or redirect the economic windfalls into productive uses (like infrastructure development, training, etc).

    With a bit of luck, this will trigger the departure of a few other bits of senior dead wood, such as Ruddock, Tuckey, Bishop (B), etc, and allow the Libs to undergo some genuine and much needed generational renewal.

  5. Tad on 16th June 2009 2:53 pm

    Well argued article. The bigger question in relation to the Liberals is what happens if the economic crisis produces popular anger against the Rudd government. Clearly this is not going to happen overnight, but you can’t fool all of the people all the time and eventually real human suffering will impact on politics.

    One possibility is an electoral lurch to the left–if there is a viable alternative to the left of the ALP that can articulate anger at the effects of the crisis into some sort of program of radical social change.

    Whether or not that eventuates I’d say there are two main possibilities for conservative politics (which could exist side-by-side, feeding into each other). First, the rise of genuine far-right formations such as those we see in Europe. Second, a lurch to far-right positions by the Coalition after the current “moderate” face proves useless. The current Italian debacle shows aspects of both phenomena.

    In times of economic crisis (and this looks like a pretty bad crisis), there tends to be a polarisation of popular political views. Parties of the extremes can rapidly make gains if the mainstream parties are seen to be either the cause of the crisis or have no solutions.

    Your analysis, of the depoliticisation of mainstream politics, fits well with such a projection. When the main parties are run with little reference to any real social base, the possibility of their electoral support collapsing and being challenged by new formations is greater.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 16th June 2009 10:00 pm

    Very much agree, Ozy, Costello never had the numbers. It could be argued that neither did Hawke, Keating and Whitlam the first time they all challenged for the leadership, which they all lost.

    The difference is that those leaders had a different path that they could eventually win their parties over to. Costello’s problem was that while he had differences to Howard (republic, reconciliation etc.), none of them answered the burning question for the Liberals, what do they stand for?

  7. tweetiepie on 17th June 2009 9:59 am

    Perhaps mentoring young Joe H had become too sisyphean a task? Imparting the finer points of Economic 101 must have been very challenging indeed.

  8. Ric on 18th June 2009 9:26 pm

    I read on wikipedia that the Australian’s lean is listed as “conservative” but I ask myself what does that really mean?

    Does it mean support for a Costello republic or a Howard monarchy (both empty gestures anyway)? Howard style climate sceptism or Costello style ‘market-pragmatic-acceptance of AGW’?

    Howard playing to the outer-suburban aspies or Costello’s so-called doctor’s wives?

    Because the Australian was all ra-ra behind Howard while it lasted (presumably implying Costello shouldn’t challenge lest he burst the balloon of Howard-led conservatism) but was all for Costello when Howard lost his seat.

    So I ask myself – conservative, or merely partisan?

    I read the Australian these days, and I can’t work out whether I’m reading a newsletter for a cheersquad for a football club, or a university Liberal Club.

    It is just so juvenile these days, from some professor saying phonics is better, to Gillard’s crossed word with some minor union official of no consequence.

    When I read the phonics article I thought to myself – no-one die in the world today? No important decisions taken? No great breakthrough to human knowledge or insight?

    No, front page news is some uni professors opinion, or should I say, baiting of his opponents, that suits the ideological lean.

  9. Ric on 18th June 2009 9:28 pm

    And when are the right going to face the disgrace of Howard losing his seat? A man so great, so representative of his ordinary Australian battling voters they tossed him out personally?

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