Party’s over as Peter Costello bows out of politics
As of this morning there was one other person in Australia who knew that Peter Costello was quitting politics today - his wife Tanya.
A few hours later he was on his feet in the nation’s Parliament, the subject of surprised, hastily-composed tributes from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull, on an amazing career spanning almost 20 years, 11 years of them as treasurer.
Those closest to him are today happy and relieved that this genuine family man can now spend some proper time out of the spotlight with those he loves most.
But there is also a sense of melancholy at what might have been.
As the Liberal Party’s most accomplished parliamentary attack dog the job fell to Peter Costello to ridicule and deride successive Labour leaders, from Paul Keating to Kim Beazley to Simon Crean, Kim Beazley again, and Mark Latham.
His most devastating line against Beazley was that the genial Labor Leader did not have the ticker for the top job.
Peter Costello leaves politics with the same being said about him.
“I think what today shows is that his mind hadn’t really changed since the day after the (2007) election,” a Costello confidante told The Punch this afternoon.
“He meant what he said about being loyal to the party, about not wanting to pick a damaging fight either in government or in opposition, and I think that even though you wonder what might have been, he’s got out with his integrity intact.”
Peter Costello’s lack of leadership ticker will in no way be his only legacy. That would be wrong and unfair.
Costello’s brand was strong economic management and he will be remembered most for that, for delivering surplus budgets while our region was in economic ruins, for leaving Labor with a surplus of around $22 billion which is no more.
This is a lasting bequest from Costello to the Liberal side of politics, and one borne out of hard work.
Upon becoming treasurer in 1996 he inherited a $10.3 billion black hole – which he milked to within an inch of its political life – and spent his first few budgets prudently and meticulously paying it off.
He helped shield Australia from the impact of the Asia-Pacific economic meltdown in the late 90s.
He continued and expanded the commendable opening of markets and relaxation of trade barriers which had started under Paul Keating’s tenure.
But in stark contrast to his ALP predecessors – and in contrast also to the current Labor Government – he established in the public mind the importance of running surplus budgets which, despite the unforeseeable and (largely) uncontrollable impact of the current GFC, remains the greatest political vulnerability for Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan.
But in crude political terms Costello will also be remembered for suffering the same ticker-related difficulties he diagnosed in the former leader of the Opposition.
If Kim Beazley wasn’t up to the job of being PM, Peter Costello wasn’t even up to the job of being Opposition Leader.
John Howard has privately expressed surprise at the fact that Costello never challenged him for the top job. There’s a view in Liberal circles that Howard – the consummate Sydney political brawler – was so disdainful of Costello’s lack of ticker in the end that he simply decided not to get out of his way and hand him the job on a plate.
In terms of policy Costello was obviously up to being leader. He could have done it standing on his head.
But the precursor to doing it is being prepared to seize it, and Costello never was. Not when the Libs were in government, not even the day after they lost government, when every political jaw in Australia hit the floor as the member for Higgins stood at a Canberra press conference to say he would not be contesting the leadership.
In his lengthy series of interviews for The ABC’s Howard Years special, Costello gave a very convincing and credible account, almost a morally-driven one, of his refusal ever to challenge John Howard for the leadership ahead of the 2007 poll.
Costello told the ABC that he thought it was strange to be criticised by people within his own party for refusing to do something – mount a challenge, or storm off to the backbench to sulk – which would by definition have damaged the party.
But since the 2007 election – due solely to his decision not to run for the leadership or serve on the frontbench – Peter Costello was failing to meet the standard he set out as a loyal party man in his comments on The Howard Years.
Under the permanently troubled tenure of Brendan Nelson, and for pretty much the entirety of Malcolm Turnbull’s subsequent reign, Costello has sat there like the cartoon equivalent of Paul Keating in the famous Alan Moir cartoon under a metaphorical banner reading “World’s Greatest Backbencher.”
The Punch went hard this morning on Costello’s future because we had spoken to a number of MPs who simply groaned at the fact that whenever Malcolm Turnbull made any head way, or when he slipped on something, the Costello speculation would start again.
“People are a bit sick of the whole dance of a thousand veils thing,” one MP told our website yesterday.
Peter Costello was obviously sick of it too.
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