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.