Am­bi­tion from the side­lines

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mike Steke­tee The Costello Mem­oirs By Peter Costello, with Peter Cole­man Mel­bourne Uni­ver­sity Press, 386pp, $ 55

HOW to cap­ture Peter Costello’s life in pol­i­tics? Is it tragedy, farce or, ul­ti­mately, a yet- to- be- re­alised tri­umph? Be­ing touted as the next Don Brad­man is a curse for crick­eters be­cause it raises un­re­al­is­able ex­pec­ta­tions. Most politi­cians carry the bur­den of des­tiny lightly. In fact, they are in­clined to as­sume too much. An­drew Pea­cock bore the mark of fu­ture prime min­is­ter from his child­hood, walk­ing into Robert Men­zies’ seat of Kooy­ong at 27, be­com­ing for­eign min­is­ter, chal­leng­ing Malcolm Fraser for the prime min­is­ter­ship, be­com­ing Op­po­si­tion leader, los­ing an elec­tion, los­ing his job through mis­cal­cu­la­tion, winning it again, los­ing an­other elec­tion and fi­nally giv­ing up. By con­trast, John Howard, of whom less was ex­pected and who re­peat­edly faced ap­par­ently in­su­per­a­ble hur­dles, never stopped try­ing.

As a stu­dent politi­cian cam­paign­ing against the left- wing Aus­tralian Union of Stu­dents, Costello would draw hun­dreds of peo­ple to hear his ora­tory. ‘‘ It was a com­mon re­mark that we were looking at a fu­ture Aus­tralian prime min­is­ter,’’ Adam Slonim, a fel­low stu­dent at Monash Uni­ver­sity, said in an in­ter­view for an ar­ti­cle I wrote in 1989, when the 31- year old Costello won Lib­eral pre­s­e­lec­tion for the safe Mel­bourne seat of Hig­gins. He has car­ried with him the prom­ise of fu­ture prime min­is­ter through­out his ca­reer; he has waited for it to come to him, but it so far has passed him by.

Here he is al­most 20 years later, sit­ting on the back bench, re­luc­tant to take the prize when it was avail­able to him be­fore Howard’s res­ur­rec­tion; then blocked and out­ma­noeu­vred by Howard; and most re­cently for­go­ing the op­por­tu­nity to be­come Op­po­si­tion leader but con­tin­u­ing to hope that the sea will yet part for him.

Mem­oirs usu­ally are writ­ten at the end of ca­reers but there are ex­cep­tions. Richard Nixon pub­lished his in 1962, af­ter he served as vi­cepres­i­dent to Dwight Eisen­hower, ran for the White House and lost to John F. Kennedy. He then failed in a bid to be­come gov­er­nor of Cal­i­for­nia, fa­mously telling jour­nal­ists that ‘‘ you won’t have Nixon to kick around any more’’. Pub­lisher Con­rad Black pre­ten­tiously called his mem­oir A Life in Progress. Costello will not be looking to em­u­late ei­ther of their sub­se­quent achieve­ments: Nixon re­signed as pres­i­dent over Water­gate and Black is in jail.

But in the peek­a­boo that he likes to play about his fu­ture th­ese days, he has re­ferred to this book as vol­ume one of his mem­oirs. His fa­ther- in- law, Peter Cole­man, who helped chan­nel his thoughts into prose, en­cour­ages the am­bi­gu­ity by writ­ing in the pref­ace: ‘‘ Th­ese mem­oirs may be ei­ther an apolo­gia or a plat­form.’’ They do not live up to ex­pec­ta­tions as ei­ther.

Costello is con­strained by on­go­ing am­bi­tion. He does not un­load all his ac­cu­mu­lated slights and gripes in the self- in­dul­gent man­ner of Mark Latham. There is the feel of the once- over- lightly, with much recital of events and achieve­ments but only an oc­ca­sional in­sight into life in­side the gov­ern­ment. There are dashes of hu­mour but lit­tle pas­sion, and the per­sonal re­flec­tions are sparse, al­though the im­por­tance of re­li­gion shines through: ‘‘ My faith has given me the cer­tain hope of God’s for­give­ness and re­demp­tion.’’ He at­tributes his wife’s re­cov­ery from a lifethreat­en­ing ill­ness partly to di­vine in­ter­ven­tion.

Clearly, much is left un­said. Costello feels be­trayed by Howard, but his crit­i­cisms are muted, less forth­right than those he made to Peter van Onselen and Wayne Er­ring­ton for their book last year on Howard. Costello still needs the Lib­eral Party, which will turn Howard into one of its fore­most po­lit­i­cal he­roes.

Cole­man’s touch must have been a light one be­cause there is lit­tle sign of his con­sid­er­able lit­er­ary flair. The book takes a while to get into its stride and the writ­ing is clear but of­ten spare to the point of skele­tal: ‘‘ My grand­fa­ther wrote a man­u­script on the sub­ject of money, which he showed me when I was a teenager. I tried to read it but could not re­ally un­der­stand it. It was never pub­lished as a book.’’

But there is re­lief in the hu­mour. Costello cap­tures the ab­sur­dity in ‘‘ the week of mad­ness’’ when Howard, be­tween meet­ings of world leaders at last year’s Asia- Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co- op­er­a­tion sum­mit, sought the views of his col­leagues — though not Costello — on whether he should stay as leader. Then, when the mes­sage came back that he should go, he in­voked the con­trary view of his fam­ily and an­nounced he was stay­ing.

There are some howlers that can­not be ex­cused by the pres­sure of dead­lines and sug­gest a less than com­plete ded­i­ca­tion to the task, as well as in­ad­e­quate edit­ing. A ref­er­ence to Work Choices as the Coali­tion’s pol­icy at the 1998 elec­tion places it three elec­tions too early. The Op­po­si­tion led by John Hew­son be­comes the gov­ern­ment at one stage, even though it no­to­ri­ously never made it af­ter los­ing the un­loseable elec­tion in 1993. A for­mer trea­surer should not need to be cor­rected on the name of the 20th cen­tury’s most fa­mous econ­o­mist as John May­nard Keynes rather than ‘‘ May­nard Keynes’’.

There are dis­tor­tions in other ar­eas that go be­yond em­pha­sis or in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Costello’s claim that La­bor sup­ported Aus­tralian en­gage­ment in the Viet­nam War be­fore chang­ing its po­si­tion con­fuses ini­tial sup­port for US in­ter­ven­tion with the party’s strong stand against the Men­zies gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion in 1965 to send Aus­tralian troops to the con­flict, a po­lit­i­cally bold and costly po­si­tion for the Op­po­si­tion at a time when the war was pop­u­lar. Costello mis­rep­re­sents the Hawke gov­ern­ment’s Ac­cord with the trade unions as in­dex­ing wages to prices when it ac­tu­ally used gov­ern­ment spending, tax cuts and su­per­an­nu­a­tion to de­liver real wage cuts, an out­come that Howard and Costello spent most of their 11 years in gov­ern­ment con­trast­ing with their own pe­riod of real wage growth.

It suited both sides dur­ing the 1996 elec­tion

cam­paign to pre­tend that the bud­get re­mained in sur­plus be­cause it pro­vided more scope for elec­tion prom­ises and they did not have to deal with nasty ques­tions about where to cut spending. But pri­vate eco­nomic fore­cast­ers warned of a big prospec­tive deficit, so Costello is gild­ing the lily when he writes that Trea­sury’s rev­e­la­tion, af­ter the elec­tion, ‘‘ hit me like a sledge­ham­mer’’ and ‘‘ my head be­gan swim­ming’’. Costello played the pol­i­tics of ‘‘ Bea­z­ley’s black hole’’ to great ef­fect, as Paul Keat­ing had done when he in­her­ited Howard’s bud­get deficit in 1983. It vin­di­cated what they pre­sented as the nec­es­sary break­ing of elec­tion prom­ises, cut­ting spending hard in their first bud­gets and be­com­ing the party of eco­nomic re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Apart from Costello’s eco­nomic record, his nar­ra­tive is about the im­por­tance of po­lit­i­cal re­newal, aka ‘‘ I was robbed’’. His ar­gu­ment is that the Coali­tion lost last year’s elec­tion be­cause it failed to re­new. ‘‘ We mis­man­aged gen­er­a­tional change. We did not ar­range the lead­er­ship tran­si­tion. The elec­torate did it for us.’’

Per­haps. It is un­usual for a gov­ern­ment to lose of­fice in such favourable eco­nomic cir­cum­stances. A Costello lead­er­ship, com­bined with his in­ten­tion to sign the Ky­oto Pro­to­col and make an apol­ogy to the Stolen Gen­er­a­tions, would have gone some way to­wards match­ing the fresh­ness Kevin Rudd was of­fer­ing. On the other hand, Costello would have had to over­come his own un­pop­u­lar­ity with the elec­torate. The Aus­tralian Elec­tion Study, a detailed sur­vey of voter opin­ion taken af­ter each fed­eral elec­tion, put Costello last among six leaders on a scale of whom vot­ers liked and dis­liked: be­hind Howard, the Na­tion­als’ Mark Vaile and the Greens’ Bob Brown.

Costello is one of those con­tra­dic­tions that emerge in pol­i­tics. He is a winning and en­ter­tain­ing per­son­al­ity in pri­vate and a com­pelling speaker, but vot­ers see only the smirk that con­veys ar­ro­gance to them.

Freed of the trea­sury port­fo­lio and as a new leader, Costello might have lifted his rat­ings. Keat­ing man­aged to win an elec­tion in 1993 start­ing from a sim­i­lar po­si­tion, but that had more to do with Hew­son’s prom­ise to in­tro­duce a GST and hack into Medi­care than it did with Keat­ing’s pop­u­lar­ity. At 51, it is not too late for Costello to be­come prime min­is­ter. Howard was 56 when he took the job. But the op­por­tu­ni­ties are dwin­dling. His col­leagues have just thrown in their lot with Malcolm Turn­bull and are in­tent on putting the prospect of a Costello fu­ture out of their minds. If ev­ery­thing were to go right for Costello — which it sel­dom does in pol­i­tics — Turn­bull would lose the next elec­tion, the party would turn to Costello at some stage dur­ing the next term and he would then take it to victory.

The odds are against events turn­ing out so con­ve­niently for him in the fu­ture.

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