Peter Costello battles his emotions on election night
Is it conceivable that the government would have scraped back in with Costello as PM? Nick Minchin thinks so, if his comments to Virgina Trioli on Sydney radio this morning are any guide. The Senator obviously would have preferred a friendly handover. But there wasn’t one, and while Minchin didn’t actually say that Costello should have challenged, far less that he encouraged him to challenge, the implication is that he wishes he had done so.
April last year would have been the optimal time. Howard had just passed the ten-year milestone, and it would have left Costello eighteen months to settle in. So, supposing the answer to the first question is yes, then who is to blame that there was no challenge?
When Costello publishes his memoirs, he will blame his ministerial and parliamentary colleagues, notwithstanding what any of them say in the aftermath of the election. He will assert that he did all he could do to signal his willingness and indeed his appetite for the leadership, but that the key to the government’s survival was the appearance of solidarity and teamwork. An undignified leadership battle would have harmed the reputation for selfless public service and loyalty that he traded on. So it was up to his more sensible colleagues to gather around him in sufficient numbers to decisively squash Howard and any remaining rump of intransigent toadies. But they didn’t, so what could he do?
According to the alternative school of thought, Costello simply didn’t have the ‘balls’ or the ‘bottle’. It wasn’t surprising to hear Paul Keating putting this view today on The World Today. But what does this mean exactly? Does it mean that he wouldn’t accept the personal risk entailed by a failed challenge? Obviously, Keating was willing to risk permanent ostracism from the front bench and an early exit from politics, wheras Costello did not take that gamble. But perhaps it’s not just a question of their respective attitudes to risk. Perhaps the numbers were clearly worse for Costello, and he knew that a retreat to the backbench would have been the end of the story. In that case, some of the blame does shift back to his colleagues.
Or does it mean that Costello places too high a premium on loyalty and cooperation, qualities that might be good in the Lions Club, but not necessarily in national politics? That he just doesn’t have enough of the bastard in him?
One possibility is that he made a calculated decision not to seem like a bastard — to steer clear of unflattering parallels with Keating. But it’s impluasible that he would have made such a misjudgement. Keating had been entirely successful in making a virtue out of his ambition — out of his desire to grab the prize for its own sake. You never hear him criticised for this. There is no shortage of people who love to point out Keating’s arrogance and hubris, but their list of examples never includes knocking off the most popular PM ever. It’s true that Australians’ respect for for queues, and indignation against queue jumpers, is a major strand in the national ethos. But when it comes to federal leadership, this is trumped by an admiration for sport heroes who don’t flinch in snatching the champion’s crown. I find it impossible to believe that Costello is so imperceptive as not to grasp this fact about public sentiment.
So the alternative to the myopic colleagues theory is not that Costello was misguidedly trying to look gentlemanly: it’s that he is a genuine wimp. The next few weeks, if not days, will probably reveal just how many colleagues would have supported a challenge, and then we’ll know which theory is right.