Ambition from the sidelines
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.