Exit Peter Costello, enter … Clive Hamilton?

The Greens look set to do something in Peter Costello’s old seat of Higgins that they have often been unable to do: field a high-profile candidate with genuine crossover appeal. Clive Hamilton is certainly not everybody’s cup of tea, but he does have a certain amount of street cred amongst the broader left and the environmental movement. He will also be running against a party in the doldrums both federally and in Victoria, and a Federal Opposition that has a self-destructively schizophrenic position on climate change. The candidate selected by the Liberal Party, former staffer Kelly O’Dwyer, is arguably a sufficiently bland a candidate as to encourage an upset result. One would think that all of these circumstances could conceivably create a situation where even a safe seat like Higgins could become something of a contest. If I were a betting man, I would predict that the result will be closer than the Liberal Party would like, but that they will get over the line.

Federal Labor have elected to do the pragmatic tactical thing and not field a candidate in Higgins – a practice I don’t agree with, but admit makes a certain amount of brutal sense. With another federal election due late next year anyway, and the likelihood of a Labor win relatively low, the potential benefits that might flow from Labor contesting the seat are outweighed by the costs, particularly with a strong Greens candidate now in the mix. Labor have never won the seat of Higgins since its creation sixty years ago.

It’s all a bit incestuous when you think about it. The Greens famously courted Peter Garrett on numerous occasions before his controversial decision during the (pre-explosion) Latham era to join the Labor Party. In years past, high-profile players within the Labor Party organisation seriously entertained the idea of Malcolm Turnbull joining the ALP’s ranks. One does wonder whether Clive Hamilton would be considered an asset as a candidate by the Labor Party. Clearly his strong views on the nature of modern capitalism, climate change and stringent opposition to nuclear power paint him as more of a natural Greens candidate. Leaving aside the much debated travails of Peter Garrett for a moment, just what sort of impact could a few high-profile leftish intellectuals have on the parliamentary Labor party?

Finally, finally, finally, he calls it a day

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.

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.

Quitters can be writers

The news that former Treasurer Peter Costello is set to publish his memoirs in early October this year is not particularly good news for the Liberal Party. Apart from the fact that it represents a certain negative publicity time bomb waiting to go off in a few months, it also seems certain to provide ongoing grist to the rumour mill regarding the the leadership. Costello has already asserted through the media that his memoirs would not be a Latham Diaries style book of bile, but rather would seek to provide direction for the Liberal Party moving forwards. It is unclear whether the underlying motivating factor for publishing his memoirs so soon is to repay a debt he feels he owes to the party, or perhaps to provide a foundation for some resurgent leadership ambitions:

Peter Costello has vowed to identify the way forward for the Liberal Party in soon-to-be-published memoirs, igniting speculation that he will use the book to relaunch his political career and seek the Opposition leadership.

Mr Costello hinted that his memoirs would not focus exclusively on the past and would represent “a very positive contribution of where we are now, how far we’ve come, where we ought to go in the future”.

When it comes to the question of the leadership, I am in agreement with the senior members of the Liberal Party who believe that Costello should have taken the reins when they were handed to him if he really did want it. No doubt there are some conservative supporters who see a return of Costello to the leadership as a possible path for returning to the success of the Howard years. Those supporters need only consider the sorts of compelling and utterly effective attacks that the Rudd Government could make on Costello if he did try to return after throwing it all away last November. Now, folks like Kim Beazley will no doubt be thinking, who is the one who didn’t have the ticker?

By taking a leaf out of Iron Mark’s book without declaring his hand openly, Costello seems to be betraying that he is is still a little undecided about his future. At least Mark Latham had the good sense to exit politics before plunging a dagger into his own party. Costello would do well to do the same before his book is released, and to put an end to speculation about his future as soon as possible.