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.

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33 Responses to Counterfactual

  1. LuckyPhil says:

    Gee! He’s changed or is that the wrong image?

  2. Rex says:

    I’m not so sure that Costello placed “too high a premium on loyalty and cooperation” as you say, but I do think that the Liberal Party’s inherent culture imposed strict party discipline as a guiding principle. It had served them well since winning the ’96 election and anyone seen as transgressing would be treated as an apostate.

    A Costello challenge would have been viewed in this light. As putting personal gain ahead of the party culture. This is different from questions of loyalty by the way. If loyalty was the real issue and Costello challenged, it would of course have been seen as disloyal, but Costello could have argued that he was still being loyal to the Party as a whole by refreshing its leadership and maintaining its longevity in power. I don’t think it was loyalty that was the problem. It was this culture of party discipline. He was trapped by the culture and the requirement to maintain scrict public unity.

    In fact the whole concept of ‘loyalty’ when applied to the Liberal Party of the Howard years must be treated with suspicion. The neo-liberalism espoused by that lot surely allows no room for such touchy feely stuff. When a whole philosophy is geared around realising the potential of the individual, and success is measured in dollar units, where does loyalty fit in?

    Many commentators have said that the Liberal Party needs a whole new agenda, but we’re starting to realise that they need to build a whole new culture as well.

  3. Tony Healy says:

    I agree with Rex. Costello’s failure to challenge was a calculated decision to gain the Prime Ministership the safest way possible, rather than a result of cowardice or misplaced loyalty. Until 12 months ago, the decision was probably correct.

    Unfortunately for Costello, as with numerous human tragedies, Costello found that he was trapped when circumstances changed.

    To challenge when the Party was facing failure would have exposed him to much greater risk than simply staying put. His colleagues probably would have rejected his challenge, due to Howard’s delusional self-assurance. Even if he succeeded, he would then have been blamed for the looming election disaster. On balance, his safest option was to ride along and hope the Liberals would win.

    Also, it was obvious that Costello would leave parliament if the Liberals lost. He is a success-focussed technocrat, with a lucrative alternative career. A guy like that might endure opposition in the lead up to an election, but not after a career in power.

    I doubt he will return. Whatever happens around Turnbull, there will probably be a collection of ambitious new contenders at the next election.

  4. Geoff Honnor says:

    I’m not sure that the analogy with Hawke/Keating works all that well. PJK did rate well in the electorate, he had a solid support base in the parliamentary party, the late 80’s recession was working against Hawke and the advent of John Hewson and Fightback was putting the wind up the caucus.

    The circumstances were quite different with Howard/Costello: a handful of caucus votes for Costello, personally unpopular in the electorate, boom economic times, a fractured opposition and a leader with rock solid approval. A shift to the backbench would have been read as pointless, petulant self-indulgence. Howard did his “when I’m 64” pondering and received more caucus pleas to remain than Mao at a party presidium. Then there was the MacLachlan “note in the wallet” incident in the middle of 2006 which just made Howard even more determinedly obdurate about staying. Then along came Kevin, the polls turned and shifted permanently against the LNP and it was all too late. What would have been sensible succession twelve months earlier would now just look like panicked desperation.

    Howard convinced himself that he was essential and by the time he and his colleagues realised that he was, in electoral terms, just like some vaguely familiar, inoffensive-but-kind-of-boring old dude who is always gabbing off in the lounge, it was way too late.

    If you look at the incoming government there’s hardly anyone left from Keating’s last Ministry. In fact the ALP’s fortunes didn’t begin to shift until the frontbench was almost entirely refreshed. I don’t think it will be any different for the Libs, so Costello – who is indelibly associated with the last 11 years – is not who you would ultimately look to. He may be “wimping out” but I suspect that, strategically, it’s also the right decision.

  5. Pingback:

  6. Well it really was ridiculous of Costello not to take it off Howard after APEC. He had nothing to lose. He may well have been able to get enough bounce from being seen to do things differently then. As Gordon Brown has. And Howard was gone in any event. So what did he have to lose.

    I agree that he’s made the right decision to go, though his party would do better for having him as a punching bag for the next couple of years so that someone else could take over as the fresh face after the very probable next defeat.

  7. Geoff Honnor says:

    I think that after APEC was way too late. The die was well and truly cast by then and the inept “soundings” exercise that went on in the APEC week looked and felt like a bunch of panicking possums mesmerised by oncoming headlights. I’m sure you’re right about his immediate punching bag usefulness to the post-trainwreck Libs but all the more reason for him to sling his hook.

  8. Bingo Bango Boingo says:

    Is anyone else concerned by the low-key machismo that seems to pervade the left’s derision of Costello and his failure to slink off to the backbench, PJK-style?


  9. Rex says:

    No because it’s all part of the ritual BBB. Here’s Mumble on the phenomenon.

    ALP National Secretary Tim Gartrell is already out telling his story about why Labor won. This is his right and perhaps duty: to trash the memory of the vanquished party and play with their mind.

  10. James Farrell says:

    Since when does machismo involve slinking, BBB? The only thing the two have in common is that they both sound discreditable. By all means try to discredit any and everybody on ‘the left’, but you need a coherent story if you hope to succeed.

  11. Geoff Honnor says:

    BBB does perhaps have a point in that the Costello departure saga has been framed in the sort of highly charged, blokey terms – “no balls,” “Wimp” “Girl” etc – that are supposedly part of an unedifying, RWDB politics as gladiatorial contest culture that socially progressive folk eschew.

    I chuckled today when PJK referred, unironically, to his constant support for “the girls” in his government, during an ABC interview. He’d have scored an instant Meredith Burgmann Ernie for that indiscretion if he’d been anyone other than Keating. But fortunately, PJK has always been the living embodiment of a NSW ALP Right feminist.

  12. observa says:

    Lets face it, Howard has this uncanny ability to scare anybody off leadership, even after he’s done and dusted

  13. observa says:

    Seriously, you’ll notice politics is getting like AFL footy and they’re burning out sooner nowadays. Howard was just a freak like Rob Harvey, but they’re few and far between now and the way we’re going Rudd had better start the transition/handover to Julia halfway through this term. OTOH the moronic MSM is berating Howard for staying too long and then in the next breath critiquing Costello for not staying the course, when he had the second most demanding job in the country, for the same time as Howard had the first. What can you say to that kind of scintillating analysis, when Claire Martin lasted 6 yrs leading a piddling territory?

  14. Spiros says:

    Costello is not a good student of Liberal Party history.

    McMahon wrenched the leadership from Gorton; Fraser from Snedden; Howard from Peacock; Peacock from Howard.

    Did he really think he was going to be Holt to Howard’s Menzies?

    If so, he seriously misjudged Howard.

    Costello is the classic school yard bully. Very good at beating up on opponents in parliament with the braying pack behind, but would he ever go man-on-man? Not a chance.

  15. haiku says:

    If we believe Downer’s claim that he knew all along that they would lose, and that the internal polling was telling them this (and it sounds plausible, although taking statements at face value in the Howard era is a naive and foolish approach), then Costello would have been mad to take the leadership on after APEC.

    Indeed, he’d have been mad to take it on anytime after Rudd became leader.

    Why? Since he probably would have gone on to lose, and then his legacy would have been that of the man who led his party to defeat and possible oblivion, all the while having to listen to the JWH cheer squad wax lyrical about how if the “great man” had been there, he would have engineered a comeback against all odds.

    No, bugger it, thought Costello, I’m not taking the rap for the loss. It belongs to JWH and that’s where it stays.

    In fact, by departing the scene, he enables Milne et al to push the line that he may have been the Great Untried Underdog. If only Howard had seen the light and passed the baton on to a younger and more appealing candidate: then the libs might have resisted Rudd. But no, Howard succumbed to hubris, and thence to nemesis.

    And in the longer term, when history is written and debated, Costello’s legacy looks intact, if not enormous. Didn’t stuff up the economy. Check. Not a bad result when looking at the record of the Treasury portfolio. Sure, he might not have Keating’s far-reaching reforms on the plus side of the ledger, but there’s no recession on the other. Howard’s legacy, on the other hand, will have a lot more colour and oomph, but will be forever tainted by issues of race and (to a lesser extent, because all politicians lie) his capacity to mislead.

  16. James Farrell says:

    LuckyPhil, if you’re still around: the allusion may be before your time, but perhaps this picture makes it clearer. Had I used this one in place of the other, the caption might have been: ‘Mr Costello takes heart from the Prime Minister’s praise and encouragement’.

  17. pablo says:

    I’m still intrigued by the June 2006 ‘note in the McLaughlin wallet’ confrontasi where Costello presumeably had the best, and possibly only, shot at dislodging JWH. Costello says he just didn’t have the numbers, but he would have had enough to shake the tree. Where was the Melbourne establishment in all this and their supposedly inalienable belief in a Victorian against anyone from Emerald city.
    Considering Costello’s dominant parliamentary performance, bully or otherwise, you would think this would have some powerful influence on Lib backbenchers. How well did he canvas their support or did he leave that to others who failed him.
    If by mid 2006 and ten years in government and still no invite to Kirribilli or the Lodge, Costello must have had sufficient hate to follow his heart into a challenge come what may…but we’re to believe his head ruled and the rest is history.

  18. rog says:

    Costello’s failure to challenge had marked his cards, the voters lost faith in his ticker. Its a big job being PM and you want somebody who wants it enough to grasp the nettle. Rudd saw this weakness in both the Libs and the ALP and seized his chance when both appeared, he then challenged JH and won the voters support, they always wanted a change, any change.

    Costello encouraged competition but didnt want to engage in it.

  19. David Rubie says:

    haiku said:

    In fact, by departing the scene, he enables Milne et al to push the line that he may have been the Great Untried Underdog.

    Milne is the great jilted lover in the whole fiasco. Watch him tear Costello to pieces rather than try to rehabilitate him.

    Costello, is of course, best characterised by undergraduate humour like Brave Sir Robin

  20. Jc says:

    I went to a few lib fundraisers up until 2 months ago. Even then there was no constituency for Costello to challenge Howard. He didn’t have the numbers and even the president of his electorate was against it.

    Moreover, Costello didn’t like the idea of playing that game as he isn’t that sorta person.

    Where was the Melbourne establishment in all this and their supposedly inalienable belief in a Victorian against anyone from Emerald city.

    Fully behind Howard, that’s where. Howard was a very popular figure in that group.

    The party faithful still believed the polls were crap and they would come back on the day. No one believed the washout.

    Costello couldn’t challenge. If he lost and the party lost, he would have got the blame. If he won and lost the election he would have got the blame. The smallest odds were if he won the challenge and won the election with the polls being where they were so the bet worth wasn’t worth taking.

    And poltics to some isn’t the only thing in life.

    Moroever people seem to misread that Costello is a quitter. It was more of a fuck you to the party which is actually quite understandable. They wanted him now when all was lost but didn’t want to go with him in the better times. Who could blame him?

  21. David Rubie says:

    Moroever people seem to misread that Costello is a quitter. It was more of a fuck you to the party which is actually quite understandable. They wanted him now when all was lost but didnt want to go with him in the better times. Who could blame him?

    What are you saying JC? It wasn’t so much an act of cowardice, more of giant sook? Did the party and the principles he worked for over all that time mean nothing? It certainly throws Beazley’s “lack of ticker” into contrast. Beazley might have rolled like a harpooned whale over the Tampa, but he never backed down from a fight. Costello went straight from yelling insults from the hammock back to mummy’s skirt.

  22. Jc says:

    It’s not an act of bravery to go into a fight you will most probably never win. it’s a waste of time. His time and everyone elses.

    He stood buckley’s chance of ever winning the PMship as opposition leader?

    Even Turnbull is a waste of time. He’s 57. I’m not even sure he’s thinking this through as he’ll be 63 or 69 when there a fighting chance. And pigs fly. The next conservative PM isn’t probably in parliament yet.

    What are you saying JC? It wasnt so much an act of cowardice, more of giant sook?

    Not at all. He was pissed off with the party and called it quits. They didn’t give it to him when there was a fighting chance but they offer it to him when it’s an impossible fight. That’s not cowardly. He’s really pissed at them.

  23. Bingo Bango Boingo says:

    ‘Since when does machismo involve slinking, BBB? The only thing the two have in common is that they both sound discreditable. By all means try to discredit any and everybody on the left, but you need a coherent story if you hope to succeed.”

    No no no. Slinking is my word for PJK’s grotesque act of disloyalty, not the left’s. And the machismo is not in the slinking, but in the deriding. Come on, you knew that.


  24. FDB says:

    Thats not cowardly. Hes really pissed at them.

    i.e. a giant sook.

  25. Alan Kennedy says:

    He’s not just a wimp. He’s a lazy wimp Keating got it right. he’s been in a hammock for 11 years.
    Just in case anyone missed it some Mungo on Pete And on that note spare a thought for Labor’s patriarch, Gough Whitlam, who against most expectations has survived to see another Labor government in Canberra. The final word should be his: a great quotation which he used in another context altogether, but which is utterly appropriate for November 24, 2007: E quindi uscimmo a reverder le stelle.

    It is the last line of Dante’s Inferno, describing the poet’s return from hell, and it means: And thence we emerged, to see the stars again.

    But if Howard was wrong about most things, he at least got Peter Costello right.

    For eleven years the man sat there drooling, lusting after the leadership of his party, talking up a storm to his credulous colleagues, plotting with sycophants, sending out his dwarfish messenger Glenn Milne to relate improbable stories of his talent and support. He never actually had the guts to do anything about it, but by golly he let it be known that when the opportunity came, he would show us all.

    And when his party was not only ready to offer him the prize, was indeed in real need of his services, Costello spat the dummy right out of the ground. Prime Minister, with all the trappings of office and all the resources of government, would be just fine; but leader of the opposition, the challenge Kevin Rudd took on at precisely Costello’s age before sweeping to victory in less than a year, looked just a little too much like hard work. Poor Petey-pie, too old at fifty, too lazy at any time.

    When his colleagues are considering a farewell gift for him, they should pass over the gold watch and all chip in for an iron lung. This would at least remove any lingering doubt over whether Peter Costello would work in one.

  26. Bingo Bango Boingo says:

    Alan, the point is that the party is not in need of anything from Peter Costello anymore. He is discredited in the eyes of the electorate. What are you smoking when you say the Liberal Party needs him? Like a hole in the head they do.


  27. Alan Kennedy says:

    Not me saying it it is Mungo. But the party does need him to steady the ship for a year or so while they get their act together. rather like Gough did in 1`976 and Kim in post 2004. He can wear the opprobrium for a while Sort of like doing his penance. he could ask Tony Abbott the old hairshirted Jesuit is into that sort of thing.

  28. Robert says:

    In retrospect, and picking up on an idea floated recently, I wonder if Howard used Costello as a foil all these years, as part of a clear agenda for him, personally, to maintain power.

    The theory would be something like this: Costello would be an excellent parliamentary (part showtime, part destroyer) performer, clear from his days as barrister; would be a balm to big business, from his ideology; would handle any brief with aplomb, that is, give him the package to enact – but he’d never be a leader. In Treasury, he’d be the perfect stopper for any challenge, not being the kind to successfully arrange a challenge himself, and no one could get past him.

    All Howard had to do was throw him a bone from time to time, and you’ve smuggled the tell-tale budgie in your Cossie. (Sorry about that).

    Maybe we’ll get the full picture in time. It’s not beyond the bounds of imagination for Costello to do the Latham bucket thing; but one suspects he’ll more than likely absolve himself into the embrace of another brief somewhere, and rise againk, to seek public vanquishment, on its back.

    He was always the wild card and, pent up, he could yet do anything.

  29. Patrick says:

    All Howard had to do was throw him a bone from time to time, and youve smuggled the tell-tale budgie in your Cossie.


    (Sorry about that).

    I should hope you are!

    But I suspect that your first few paragraphs are spot on.

    BBB’s point is very good as well – I was really surprised, in fact, to see that line ran so widely. I should not have been, though.

    I think Rudd will soon find himself longing for such sleek men as Costello, though, there’s no doubting that his no 2 and 3 have Brutus’ ticker and Cassius’ lupine traits :)

    (and since when, on a tangent to BBB, has ‘ticker’ been about betraying your colleague?)

  30. Nabakov says:

    All in all, probably a good thing for the Libs that someone not willing to seriously strive in the leadership marketplace dipped out of any truly competitive struggle for the top job whenever he could. Unlike Keating or Howard.

  31. Bingo Bango Boingo says:

    “Costello is the classic school yard bully. Very good at beating up on opponents in parliament with the braying pack behind, but would he ever go man-on-man? Not a chance.”

    Such short memories. I, for one, remember the one-on-one (oops, sorry, MAN-ON-MAN) debate he had with Wayne Swan. But keep it up Spiros. If you say it often enough maybe you too will begin to believe it.


  32. “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 Keatings arrogance and hubris, but their list of examples never includes knocking off the most popular PM ever.”

    James, I guess that may well be a fair call.

    At least one person thinks less of Keating for this reason (amongst others) – me! I’ve been bagging him for years with that as an important part of the reason. It irks me that Don Watson’s brilliantly written biography is so sentimental in its portrait of a man who wrecked the place to get what he wanted and then, for all his talk about vision, had no real idea what he wanted to do in Government and as a result reached around for a grab bag of things – many of which were recycled, many of which he’d barely spoken of before.

    The republic seemed courageous at the time but a major motive was as a wedge for his opponents, aborigines came along (remember how he nearly sold them down the river, but the process got a second pair of legs and he managed to get an agreement – would Hawke, the great negotiator have done any worse? I doubt it. Then he picked up a bit of child care for millionaire mums from Anne Summers. And Asia. As if he’d discovered it for chrissake. He also closed down Hawke and Greiner’s ‘New Federalism’, though at least he continued the competition policy agenda that was bubbling up from PM&C at the time.

    The contrast of Costello and Brown as deputies is striking. Perhaps none of them were the real deal as leader – we’ll see about Brown. But either way, wrecking the place because you can’t get what you want? Well when you’re there because of the hard work of thousands of loyal and altruistic volunteers – it’s an outrage.

  33. derrida derider says:

    Yea, I find Keating entertaining and perspicacious, but he was a f***g disaster as PM, and his refusal since to reflect seriously on what went wrong does not say much for his intellectual honesty.

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