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.