One last smirk for old time’s sake

Peter Costello’s memoirs were released today; it will be interesting indeed to see if Labor gets as much mileage out of them as the Coalition got out of The Latham Diaries. Naturally, being a continuously relapsing political junkie, I couldn’t resist the urge and picked up the book in Myer today at an extortionate price not far ($39.95) from the outrageous RRP of $55. I had to grit my teeth though. The nice lady who served me described Australia’s longest serving Treasurer as a “brilliant man” [cough, choke, splutter], although we did manage to agree that it would probably have been better for him and the party if he had kept his big mouth closed for the time being.

I would have to regard Peter Costello, when he was on form and not a smirking parody of himself, as one of the best political performers in parliament over the last decade. There have been innumerable occasions in recent years when I have been able to admire the man’s wit and have a chuckle without agreeing with the point of view he is expressing. On the other hand, I think there are a few aspects to his career in government that will not be regarded fondly by either his friends (if they are smart) or foes in the years to come.

Most crucially, although Costello presided as Treasurer over one of Australia’s most golden stretches of economic prosperity in living memory, recent events in global financial markets have served as a reminder that he was at worst, criminally negligent with respect to the championing of real economic reform, and at best, just plain lucky. The economists and political scientists among us will no doubt ponder over the next decade or two what opportunities to improve the economic situation of all Australians may have been squandered while the Howard Government focused on other things besides reform. Namely, milking every last drop of triumphalism out of the national economic situation, throwing tax cut bribes around glibly, and actually doing very little.

Costello, along with the man who is likely to bear the brunt of most of the dumpings in his book, must also take some share of direct personal responsibility for failing to facilitate an effective leadership transition while in government. Despite the recent election results in Western Australia, the Liberal Party still looks and smells like a car crash; what the Labor Party smells like in some states at the moment I will leave open to suggestion. Federally, however, the stench is primarily eminating from the opposition benches. Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson even announced today that he was taking the extraordinary step of instigating a leadership spill, evidently aimed at flushing out any leadership aspirants who don’t really have the numbers in caucus and rustling up some loyalty. Good luck with that one, Brendan.

I’ll aim to post an interesting short excerpt or two from Costello’s book over the coming weeks.