CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Costello stays on ... for the time being
, July 22, 2006
The recent spat over the Liberal Party leadership has done serious damage to what had been an extraordinarily successful partnership.It could be said everything - and nothing - has changed for the Howard Government after the "deal-or-no-deal" controversy.
John Howard is still at the helm, now hinting at running for a fifth term and giving no indication of stepping down; his deputy Peter Costello is still Treasurer and showing no signs of doing anything else.
Mr Howard stubbornly refuses to declare his intentions, while a frustrated and aggrieved Mr Costello refuses to challenge because he lacks the numbers. This stand-off appears not to have changed for about the past six years when Mr Costello first felt the "deal" was dishonoured and that he should have been given the prime ministership.
But the spat over the leadership and the acrimony over interpretation of the circumstances of a bizarre meeting 12 years ago have done serious damage to what has been an extraordinarily successful partnership.Suffering hubris
A rudderless Labor Party has been given powerful ammunition for its election campaign with the two Liberal leaders accusing each other of being liars and dishonourable, arrogant and suffering hubris.
Despite attempts at keeping up appearances the public now have a pretty good idea of how the Government's two most senior men operate at both a personal and professional level.
Twelve years ago, Mr Howard and Mr Costello privately agreed on an orderly transition of the leadership in which Mr Howard would take over unchallenged from Alexander Downer.
The only witness, former defence minister Ian McLachlan, recorded the event and kept notes in his wallet only to release them last week because he felt he could no longer hide the fact Mr Costello had been wronged.
Mr McLachlan's actions and Mr Costello's subsequent confirmation were tantamount to calling the Prime Minister a liar and a welsher who could not be trusted.
But after taking the Government to the brink, Mr Costello backed off, refusing to step down or challenge. Mr Howard won't sack him because he prefers Mr Costello inside the tent and in the Treasurer's job.
After an extraordinary three days of acrimony and anger, federal politics is likely now to turn from bubbling turmoil back to a slow simmer as the Government tries to put the events behind it.
Mr Costello appears to be taking solace in the knowledge that, as far as he is concerned, his version of events is closer to the truth. He believes his account of the December 1994 meeting, corroborated by Mr McLachlan and his notes, shows that his credibility is intact and that the Australian people now believe him rather than the Prime Minister. Perhaps this is true.
Mr Howard's standing may indeed have been damaged, his reputation for being "tricky" reinforced in the minds of some. But on the other hand, this trickiness is hardly new.
The "Honest" John tag goes back a long way to when Mr Howard was Treasurer. Any number of government scandals over the years have shown how Mr Howard has a propensity to "skirt around" the truth. Voters, with regrettable deep cynicism about politicians anyway, are more interested in results than total integrity.
Where does this actually leave Mr Costello? Mr Howard has declared he intends to stay on and, on the face of it, it would seem he wants to run again.
Mr Costello has been boxed in - he can't challenge and it is already too late to step down.
Commentators have made comparisons with the Keating/Hawke challenge in the early 1990s, but there is a quantum difference. In May 1991, when Paul Keating revealed the broken Kirribilli pact, he straight away quit as Treasurer and launched his challenge against Prime Minister Bob Hawke.
Mr Keating had a factional support base - the New South Wales Labor Right - and used this to build other solid voting blocks.
Mr Costello has no such base. His support comes from a coterie of personal followers, who perhaps number a dozen out of the 109 Liberal MPs who decide on the leadership.
He also has another group of about 20 disaffected, disenchanted and frustrated MPs - in other words, a maximum of about a third of the party.
To get across the line, the other MPs would have to be totally convinced that Mr Costello would be a better bet than Mr Howard to keep their seats at the next election.
With the economy still strong and Mr Howard still popular, there is no such belief.
And the sentiment in the party room for Mr Costello being owed, or "entitled" to, the top job is simply non-existent outside Mr Costello's group of supporters.
The other difference between Mr Costello and Mr Keating was the latter politician's ruthless and impatient ambition.
Mr Costello wants the top job, but he still appears to want it on his own terms.
What he has now is the moral entitlement on his side, but is no closer than he ever was to getting the prime ministership.