One hand clapping for Costello

Despite the thousands of words written about the latest Costello versus Howard circus, I’m still at a loss to understand why it actually happened.   One minute Costello was giving every appearance of waiting contentedly for  the PM’s  retirement announcement, to the extent that many commentators were speculating that there must be some sort of renewed private understanding between them.   The next, Costello’s media lapdog Glenn Milne trots out the McLachlan memo, Costello confirms it, effectively accuses  his leader  of being a liar and a welsher, and demands that Howard retire immediately.

I can’t help thinking that something must have occurred to trigger Costello’s sudden  dummy spit.   What could it have been?   I’m wondering whether it might have something to do with the public musing only a couple of days  previously  by Howard’s close confidant  Grahame Morris, that Howard  “might start thinking about retirement in November”.   Was there something in that observation that contradicted whatever recent private assurances Howard may have given, leading Costello to conclude that Howard was playing him for a fool yet again, and had no intention whatever of handing over to Costello if there was any way to avoid it?   If that’s not the explanation, then something else happened behind the scenes that none of the MSM pundits have yet discovered.

One thing seems fairly certain, and that is that Costello’s leadership prospects have been substantially and perhaps  irreparably  damaged by the dummy spit.   Mark Bahnisch at least believes that  would be  no great loss.   I’m not so sure. A Costello-led Coalition government  would be a lot less worrying than one with  The Mad Monk at the helm.   And the only other current serious contender seems to be Brendan Nelson. His appallingly botched micro-managing stewardship of DEST suggests that at the very least Nelson has a lot to learn.   Costello at least has a long and undeniably competent record as Federal Treasurer. It’s lucky Australia doesn’t actually face any imminent military threat, otherwise God help us all with Nelson at the helm of Defence.   He’d have soldiers filling out  50 page incomprehensible statistical returns in quadruplicate before they were allowed to fire a weapon in anger.  

Mark B seems to think that Costello is just a skilled advocate/mouthpiece with no evident core political philosophy, and hence someone who won’t be missed if his leadership ambitions end up being thwarted by his latest petulant outburst.   But that’s an unfair conclusion.   The very nature of Costello’s longstanding position as  Liberal Deputy Leader and Treasurer precludes him from publicly indicating where he differs from John Howard  on policy.   But there are indications that  Costello is  significantly more socially compassionate than Howard, if only by his conspicuous  silence on issues like asylum seekers, and his participation in the Harbour Bridge “sorry” march a few years ago,  not to mention  the fact that he’s Tim’s brother.   My suspicion that Costello is something of a closet social liberal is also bolstered by the fact that arch-conservative Howard evidently favours just about anyone else to succeed him (although perhaps not Amanda Vanstone, who would be my personal if highly unlikely choice if  I had my druthers).

On the other hand, his founding role in the HR Nicholls Society suggests that  Costello would  be every bit as “dry” on industrial relations policy as Howard.   And his recent agggressively centralist statements are a worry, as is his occasional duchessing of Hillsong and other extreme god botherer groups.

On balance, however, I suspect that Costello would prove to be a breath of fresh air after the Howard era, at least on social policy.   I for one would be sorry if it transpires that he’s just committed political suicide.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Mark Bahnisch
17 years ago

Well, I hope he will be, if he gets there, Ken – and I think he’s damaged his chances considerably. You’re quite right that neither Abbott nor Nelson would be a good PM, but on the other hand, I suspect neither would have any electoral appeal either and it might hasten the demise of the Coalition government.

Let’s not forget Costello made his name in a union busting case as a barrister (Dollar Sweets) and was part of the hard Right Kroger axis in Victorian Liberal politics, and a H R Nicholls society member. When he entered Parliament, he was part of the group blasting out the remaining Liberal wets and was perceived as part of the “New Right”

17 years ago


I wrote a piece back in November 05 comparing the claims of Costello and Gordon Brown to the leadership in both Oz and Britain respectively from which I quote:

“Costello’s claim to be prime minister comes from his performance in an economics portfolio. This is similar to Gordon Brown the obvious challenger in Britain. The public trust them. They are assets to their governments. However, for both, security concerns and international affairs dominate the current domestic agenda and this diminishes their claims.

They are caught in a bind. They cannot speak too widely on security issues beyond their portfolios and by not doing so, have not been able to demonstrate their respective capacities as future prime ministers.

Howard for his part has mastered “high alert politics”. Australians feel as threatened as the Americans and the British. This is breathtaking because it shows how the public has responded to Howard’s constant message on international security and terrorism. It appears an absurd claim given there has been no attack on mainland Australia, but the public has taken it on trust. This public acceptance makes Costello’s job to prove himself even more difficult.

For the Australian Coalition a transition is a bigger challenge than for the British Labour Party. The public really doesn’t know Costello’s values, nor is there a perception that he is capable in the new environment of heightened security. Costello never appears to be the considered statesman that these times require.

Any transition is also complicated by whether Costello would forge a new direction for government. Given Howard’s current performance and poll results, any new directions would be high-risk politics. For instance, what does Costello think of the anti-terror laws? Or the current refugee policies? Does he fully agree?

The notional view is he is more liberal than Howard, but Costello appears a blank canvas on law and order and border protection, and does not discuss family values widely. Where does he sit on these issues?

Unlike Costello, Brown has heavy support within his party. Brown represents something to Labour – a comfort zone away from the ultra-centrist Blair – whereas Costello offers nothing new (or old) to the Liberals that Howard does not offer them now. Indeed, Blair will be replaced when Brown can prove that he can win elections, and this is likely to be later this term.

Brown for his part uses his party conference speech each year as the leadership speech-in-waiting. He outlines his moral and philosophical beliefs widely and lets his specific policy disagreements with Blair be known. The British public consequently knows Brown far better than the Australian public knows Costello.”

Complete article:

Most of the above is still correct in my view. I think Costello needs a geneuine set-piece speech to a large convention – and if he had this – I think he could show us a really different side. I’m not sure whether he great at the set-piece “values” based speech, especially one where he can discuss security as well as economics: family and nation-hood. I do note though since writing the above that Costello has tried far more to speak and narrow the pereception that he is to the left or more liberal than JWH.

What is also fascinating – Brown needs Left votes as does Costello need “l”iberals – yet if they get captured by them – they will be in strife. This was the fate of Latham in particular who went from being a ‘Third Wayer’ off-some cliff to get lefty votes … Is Costello going to go the other way and “out-Howard” Howard to erode Howard’s support base?

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
17 years ago

there are few alternatives to the present leadership in both parties.

Abbott is a Keating lite, he neither possess Keating’s intellect or liguistic skills merely his thuggish habits, Nelson merely has ambition as for the rest…

17 years ago

If we had a presidential primary where Howard and Costello were the two candidates, Costello would get my ballot. I reckon he will be fine as a PM. I dont like centrism, but all the feds have been overly centralist and hostile to federalism.

I hope he wrests the leadership from Howard, I am interested to see what his vision is.

17 years ago

Cam: “I am interested to see what his vision is.”

This isn’t a channel you can flick to and then back again if the program isn’t any good.

It’s the leader of our nation.

Shouldn’t we KNOW what Costello stands for?

There’s no law against him writing a book or making some speculative remarks…’if I was PM i’d do this’…

The fact is we can only idly wonder about his vision is perhaps more of a cause for concern than you seem to realise.

He has made isolated remarks, sure. Most populist drivel. Nothing that coaleses into a ‘vision’.

Yet you are willing to risk our nation on a gamble he might be slightly better than Howard.

Personally, I think his lack of demonstrable vision indicates he would be much, much worse.

17 years ago

Great post. I never really noticed it, but now you point it out he probably is much closer to being a social libertarian if it’s posisble. Being quietly of this kind of political persuasion must be a kind of hindrance being in a Howard-dominated Liberal party where he can’t use it to his advantage for fear of seeming weak.

17 years ago

“Hillsong and other extreme god botherer groups”

Extreme, eh? Yes and I suppose Hilali is applying lessons he learnt from Hillsong in his latest holocaust denying hate vomit. Come on Ken lay off the hyperbole and start developing a sense of proportion.