So it’s done then. After nineteen months of near incessant speculation, Peter Costello has finally announced his intention to step down as the member for Higgins and resume his life as a private citizen. Personally, I am deeply relieved. No, not deeply relieved that a resurgent Coalition would surge to government some day in the future with the former Treasurer at its helm. Deeply relieved that the media can perhaps at this juncture resume talking about issues that really matter, and that this once important man can be allowed to move on with the rest of his life as an ordinary joe. For the good of all of us.
I am typically not the sort of person who gets all partisan when it comes time to eulogise a former politician. There is little doubting that Peter Costello will be remembered as one of our most historically significant Federal Treasurers. He was a great wit, and probably the best parliamentary performer of his generation. His achievements in relation to debt retirement during the first half of his reign are significant and should be remembered as such. His role in selling the GST to a notoriously sceptical Australian public was frankly worldbeating – when I think for a quiet moment about democracy in Australia and the nation’s attitude towards politicians, I can hardly believe that Howard and Costello pulled that election victory off. This sort of reform really does make one believe that people can accept difficult and distasteful reform if you do a good enough job of explaining the reasons why.
And now for the failures. As Treasurer, Costello and his brethren scattered hay all over the place instead of making it while the sun shone brightly during the course of the last five years. All across the country, people are literally screaming for better infrastructure and public services, and have been for some time. It has now reached the point where people are losing faith in the power of government to provide or even facilitate. The Howard Government’s performance on infrastructure and public services was inexplicably poor when one considers the good revenue times that it enjoyed for so many years. There was not nearly enough investment for the future while Peter Costello ruled the roost in Treasury. There were far too many handouts and politicised spending measures.
Peter Costello sadly also proved himself to be a failure as a leader. Under Howard, for the most part at least, he was a willing, loyal and able follower. Circumstances proved that he did not have what it takes to lead. He failed to force Howard’s hand in relation to the leadership during the last decade. He failed to scent the winds of change as Kevin Rudd emerged as Opposition Leader, even as his government was being strangled by its own foolish industrial relations crusade. And when it came to the crunch, and his party was finally willing to embrace him in a time of desperation, he turned them away. Kim Beazley was always unfairly lampooned as not having the ticker for the job, but in reality, he was infinitely more up for it than Howard’s golden boy.
As a politician, Peter Costello was always in John Howard’s sidecar, always looking on as the real hero of the conservatives lead the charge against Labor. Despite his numerous successes and indeed laudable achievements in public life, this is probably what he will always be remembered for.
Throwing in the towel weakly when the crown was his for the taking, just an enfeebled Robin for his crusading, calculating master.