Why step down for someone who could never step up?
Back in 2005 Peter Costello made a star appearance at the morning editorial meeting in the news room at The Daily Telegraph. He plonked himself down in what was the deputy editor’s chair. When his choice of seat was pointed out to him he roared with laughter and rolled his eyes, joking that it was his lot in life to forever be number two.
The reason for the meeting was simple. The newspaper, of which I had just become editor, wanted to get to know him better. Not because we were trying to cause trouble – well, perhaps a little bit - but more so because we thought our Sydney readers were curious about the guy and believed that at some stage he would become PM whether they liked it or not.
The reality in 2005 was that Labor was going nowhere under the leadership of the likeable but lacklustre Kim Beazley. It was our assessment back then that the only probable change of government during the 2004-2007 parliamentary term would be from a Howard Government to a Costello Government.
The readers of The Daily Telegraph had been overwhelmingly loyal to Mr Howard – if the newspaper has a spiritual home it is the seat of Lindsay, the seat which become synonymous with that group of people who came to be known as the Howard battlers. But nothing lasts forever in politics. On the day we met Costello, Howard had been PM for almost a decade, there were significant rumblings within his party about his shelf-life, and Mr Howard himself had invited discussion of the issue with his promise to review his tenure on the occasion of his 64th birthday.
We wanted to tell Costello that, on behalf of our readers, we were interested in him, interested in what he had to say, interested in what he thought of Sydney, what he liked to do when he was here. We told him that while a lot of our readers still adored Howard – and still regarded Costello as a bit aloof and one-dimensional, the perennial curse of the treasurer, especially a smirking one – we believed there was a sense of inevitability about his becoming PM.
We wanted him to know that we would play it straight and give him a fair hearing.
And we never heard from him again.
Our future meetings with Costello were infrequent, chance encounters, such as at the Federal Budget lock-up in 2006, the same day Todd and Brant emerged from the ground at the Beaconsfield mine, when the Treasurer showed a flimsy grasp of the media when he laughed uproariously thinking we were joking that the Budget coverage would be starting on page seven.
With the release of John Howard’s memoir, Lazarus Rising, the issue of the Howard-Costello leadership stand-off is being revisited again – and not for the first time from the wrong angle. The focus is on John Howard’s refusal to step down when it should properly be on Peter Costello’s inability to step up.
It was said famously of Yasser Arafat that “He never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. The line would make a fitting political epitaph for Peter Costello.
This is Howard’s book, Howard’s version of history, and there are sections where he has undoubtedly downplayed some details and expanded others to present himself in a more favourable light. There’s nothing sinister about that, it is human nature.
However Howard has crafted the narrative, the picture that emerges of Costello throughout the passages of the book that have been published so far is of a bloke who thought he was man enough to run the country but wasn’t man enough to demand or seize the prime ministership, even from someone who knew that his number was almost up.
You get the sense, especially after reading Howard’s account of the release of Ian McLachlan’s memo claiming a Kirribilli-style leadership pact, that Howard had concluded that Costello had a heart the size of a pea and simply didn’t deserve the job if he wasn’t prepared to take it.
Costello’s standing as a leadership figure within the Liberal Party is book-ended by two fairly spectacular moments of squibbing.
The first was in 1995 when, under the leadership of Alexander Downer, the party had become a daily sitcom. At that time Costello decided not to involve himself in the leadership wrangling for fear he would be seen as knocking off the incumbent. The second was the day after the 2007 election, when the party needed him most, but he decided not to put his name forward for the leadership.
Costello’s defence for failing ever to seize the leadership was that he was a party man who put the party first but on both those occasions his actions had the opposite result.
The same was true of his actions during Howard’s final term. He was like the shy girl standing in the corner of the school prom hoping someone would ask him to dance. He wanted the leadership issue to stay in the papers – best evidenced by the McLachlan leak – but he lacked the backbone to resolve it by forcing the issue himself.
Howard’s response to the McLachlan leak was perfectly understandable. One of our Daily Telegraph front pages covering the affair was headed “One of these men is lying” and featured a photo of the PM and the Treasurer. We chose those words because, the day before, Peter Costello had observed that his parents had always taught him to tell the truth, when he was questioned about the veracity of the leadership “deal” with the PM. Had Howard made way for Costello at this point, he would have been acknowledging by his actions that Costello was right, that he had been shamed into departing the job, and that he was also a man who could not keep his word. Whatever you thought of Howard he did not deserve an exit like that – especially given that, at the time, Labor was still flailing about without a viable alternative PM.
Paul Keating and John Howard could not be any more different as human beings but as political operators they are remarkably similar. Both men understand the brutality of politics, they get that it is a numbers game, they both placed great store on dominating Question Time. It was Keating who said that political power is only ever seized, not given away, a position with which Howard concurs. When Keating launched the first leadership spill against Bob Hawke he did it knowing he didn’t have the numbers, but that he could still land a mortal blow on his boss.
Perversely, Howard would have respected Costello more if he had the decency to do something this indecent to him.
Don’t miss: Get The Punch in your inbox every day
Get The Punch on Facebook
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…