Costello’s faith and decency did not suit brutal times
Editor’s note: David Gazard was Peter Costello’s political advisor from 2003 to 2007 and is one of his closest confidantes.
As Australian politics has become more professional, it has become more brutal.
Gone are the days, by and large, of a certain cross-party respect for each other and certain boundaries that are never crossed. They have been replaced by machine men, spin doctors and campaign managers more focussed on one thing: winning at all costs.
It’s a harder, unforgiving and relentless environment, where people who openly describe themselves as haters abound, and are lionised for describing themselves as thus.
It’s commonplace for politicians to claim to use revenge as a personal motivator, a peculiar and twisted birthright possessed by the political class.
Peter Costello was never one of these politicians.
Sure, there have been few in the House of Representatives who could hold a candle to the former Treasurer and Member for Higgins in terms of wit or his refined ability to skewer an opponent with rhetoric.
In the best tradition of the Westminster system where the chamber becomes a white-hot contest of ideas and the wheat is sorted from the chaff, Costello was one of the best winnowers. He was a brilliant parliamentarian and an asset in the daily fisticuffs that mark the parliament.
Yet Costello never worked from a position of hatred and in the twilight of his days on the Opposition benches is not consumed with dark thoughts of revenge.
He will leave as someone who has dominated the economic landscape for well over a decade but not bitter and twisted by the destructive apparatus in which he operated so effectively.
And, best of all, despite the denied ambition and lashings of frustration, he leaves parliament as someone who never compromised himself by stooping to the level of the political machine.
He was a cabinet minister who drove the policy agenda and the political machine scrambled to keep pace. It wasn’t the other way around.
I know, because, along with the rest of his staff, I worked in his slipstream.
Anyone who asserts with absolute authority – and there will be many—that he lacked the desire to crawl over cut glass to seize the final glittering prize doesn’t understand his deepest personal motivation.
They recognise his frustration over never becoming Prime Minister, but they always misunderstand the reason he could never bring himself to seize it.
In so doing, they overlook the best of Costello, the essential character of the man who, in the end, after all the leadership bumps in the road, always subverted his own ambitions in order to help the Liberal Party win.
Who remembers who came second?, the argument goes.
But Costello has convictions that defy this orthodoxy, along with a legacy that goes well beyond the second-place holder.
He oversaw a program that paid off $96 billion in Labor debt, which drove massive gains in real wages, cut taxes and reformed the economy.
Against the odds, he introduced a consumption tax, which has massively improved the fiscal position of the States and the services they provide.
Australia became a regional strongman under his stewardship and became referred to globally as the “economic miracle.”
Under the reforms of the Coalition, Australia saw off two US recessions, defying the popular belief that if America caught a cold, Australia caught a semi-terminal flu. We withstood the Asian financial crisis, and provisioned for the future, even though that money is now spent.
The hallmark of the Costello legacy has seen Australia stand up in the face of the global financial challenge BECAUSE we started so far ahead of everyone else. We were in surplus; most of the rest of the world was in debt.
When you hear Kevin Rudd saying we are doing better than the rest of the Western world, that’s due to Peter Costello. Rudd got the gift that will keep on giving – and Australians will be the better off for it.
None of that was easy. All of it meant defying the spending desires of his colleagues, who always had a compelling reason to fund projects in their electorates using taxpayers’ cash. Costello always withstood the pressure and most of the colleagues would agree we are the better for it.
And that underscores the fatal flaw in any attempt to claim he didn’t have the ticker: to some he was not tough enough; to others who knew him better, he was too tough.
But what has been fundamentally misunderstood as part of the core Costello make-up is his deep spiritual faith, a guiding light over the course of many, many tough and difficult decisions.
What is vastly underestimated by those who will no doubt attempt to shoe-horn him into their particular pigeon-hole of political history is how important these Christian values are and will remain to him.
I know, because we discussed this subject on many occasions over many iterations of the internal leadership wrangling of the Liberal Party. Perspectives that ignore these central tenets are misinformed.
It was these convictions that guided him and despite the corrosiveness of political practice, the frustration of playing second fiddle while juggling immense ambition, it was these convictions that won out in his own internal battles.
Politics should be a mirror of what we aspire to in life, where the best values and the best characters are held up as examples to be followed. From this perspective, Peter Costello goes out a winner because in the end he refused to compromise himself.
Costello will leave at the next election without having held the one job he most wanted, but with his self respect intact.
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