The Costello Memoirs

Some lessons learned after buying and taking the time to digest this book:

1) There are arguably literary reasons why few on the Liberal side of politics have had accounts of their time in the party published.

2) Never engage your stepfather to “ghost-write” your memoirs.

Although The Latham Diaries was a spiteful and often ill-considered piece of work in the context of the Labor Party, it was also very well written and a pleasure to read. The Costello Memoirs, I’m sorry to say, was not really a pleasure to read. I am not sure what Peter Costello was aiming to shed light on by publishing this book, but the tome that has emerged from the writing process is a banal and slightly confused historical summary of his experiences in the Howard Government. If you know a bit about politics and have followed the ebbs and flows of the Liberal Party’s political fortunes federally over the last decade, you may find that reading this book does little more than jog your memory.

Moreover, should you decide to read The Costello Memoirs, you may even find that it befuddles your memory rather than jogs it; its structure in some respects defies chronology. The book often takes on something of a rambling style, almost as if events are described in the book as they came to the minds of the authors, rather than where they reside in the chronological context of the story. This book seems made for episodic excerpting in the glossy magazines of the nation’s Sunday newspapers; as a singular tome, however, it comes across as shallow and choppy.

The opening chapter takes the reader to the night before last year’s federal election, setting the scene for the removal of the Howard Government from office. The next couple of chapters seek to describe Costello’s life growing up and his ascent (descent?) into the ranks of the Liberal Party and then onward to parliament. Chapter Three (focusing on the “Dollar Sweets” case) is a minor masterpiece of character assassination with respect to the union movement, somehow managing to completely ignore the good things that unions have done in this country whilst perpetuating all the Peter Reith-inspired stereotypes. The remaining majority of the book is purportedly focused on the Howard Government’s four terms in office, but chronologically speaking it is all over the shop. “Chronological” chapters are interspersed with “issues-based” (e.g. the Asian Financial Crisis and “leadership”) chapters throughout the book, with the result that, for example, Costello rambles on about Andrew Peacock’s up and downs in the Liberal Party in the 1980’s after describing the Howard Government’s third-term in office. Continuing in this ramshackle vein, the last chapter in the book takes a look at some of the “unfinished business” that the Howard Government left behind, and it is only in this chapter that Costello delves in detail into the republican debate and referendum of 1999.

In buying this book, I guess I was hoping for a few things. Specifically, I was hoping to learn a bit more about Peter Costello the man, how he really thinks about politics, and his candid views on the trials and tribulations of the Howard Government. Perhaps it is a function of the fact that Costello is still in parliament and all it is all too soon for this book, or he is just too much of a “gentleman”, but I am not sure that we are reading the real Peter Costello in The Costello Memoirs. It still feels as though we are reading an uber-polite, straitjacketed version of what the former Treasurer really wants to say about the Howard years, cloaked in cobwebbed triumphalism. It does make me wonder whether some part of Costello is still undecided about his future, and quietly hopeful that his colleagues will carry him on their shoulders to the front lines of battle again, as Opposition Leader.

If past experience is any guide of course, he will need to be carried on the shoulders of his colleagues into the fray; he certainly won’t be leading the charge.

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.