CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Does Peter Costello have what it takes?
, August 16, 2008
The country's second longest-serving Treasurer knows that timing is everything in politics.Peter Costello must be seriously wondering what is in it for him to take on the Liberal leadership at this point into the electoral cycle.
Brendan Nelson's leadership has fallen apart much quicker than anyone anticipated, and his disastrous play on climate change — in which he floated a hardline position against the Rudd Government and then walked away from it — has left his authority in tatters.
Senior Liberals believe Dr Nelson cannot recover and the only obvious alternative is Malcolm Turnbull, whose progressive views are at odds with a large section of the party.
So Liberal MPs are turning back to the man who only last December had flagged that he wanted to bow out of politics and seek a position in the corporate world.
Frontbencher Tony Abbott, who had been a rusted-on John Howard supporter while in government, recently implored the former Treasurer to change his mind.
Mr Costello has been in Parliament for 18 years — a good apprenticeship for a prime minister, and enough time for the Australian public to know him warts and all.Costello's record
He is the country's longest-serving Treasurer, and his record (despite some blemishes and questions about broader economic strategies) is impressive.
He is also an entertaining and occasionally lethal performer in the Parliament.
But Mr Costello knows that taking the leadership now carries enormous risks. To lose the next election or fail to make inroads into Kevin Rudd's majority would do irreparable damage to his reputation and would arm his critics with ammunition to say: I told you so.
It would probably be his one and only shot at being Opposition leader, and would result in a lot of pain and very little gain other than to say he finally had the pluck to become leader.
The Government is already preparing a dossier on Mr Costello, labelling him an industrial relations "extremist" who wanted to take WorkChoices even further than the unpopular policy which cost the Coalition government.
Labor has also produced polling which shows voters think him arrogant, aloof and lacking courage. To lose the next election — a highly likely scenario — would mean Mr Costello's untested reputation for electability would be shot.
On the other hand, it is important to remember that Mr Costello's political formation occurred in the aftermath of the cauldron of the 1972-75 Whitlam Government, the Loans Affair and the Dismissal.
The heady days of Malcolm Fraser's first government, the bitterness of Labor's true believers and the divisions over Australia's greatest constitutional crisis were all fresh and raw.
And, while Mr Costello is said to have had some brief flirtations with joining the Labor Party as a student (he was an office-bearer with the Social Democratic Students Association), his activist days at Monash University took place with the recent memory, fresh in his mind, of the failure of Whitlam as an economic manager.
Whatever political beliefs Mr Costello holds, one clear conviction is unshakeable — that Labor Governments are bad economic managers.
But even Gough Whitlam won two elections, and Kevin Rudd will do everything in his power to avoid economic calamity and shift the blame overseas should this to occur.
The odds are that the Rudd Labor Government is at least a two-term proposition.
Mr Costello knows that timing is everything in politics — and the question going through his mind is whether there is any point in taking the leadership now or waiting for a clear sign of Labor's economic ineptitude.
The question of timing has dogged him all his life. When Dr John Hewson failed, Mr Costello took a step back to let Alexander Downer (just four years his senior) assume the leadership. When Mr Downer self-destructed, Mr Costello similarly let John Howard, already a failed Opposition leader, become leader unopposed.
For the duration of the Howard prime ministership, Mr Costello constantly considered challenging, but always baulked at the last moment — knowing he never had the numbers to win a party-room ballot.
And then, when Mr Howard lost his seat and the job was again there for the taking, Mr Costello decided to go to the backbench to test the water for a lucrative position outside politics.Hiding to nothing
Mr Costello knew that the first Opposition leader after a change of government was on a hiding to nothing, yet never expected Dr Nelson to fall so quickly.
Mr Costello is still a young man — just 51 years of age — still six years younger than John Howard when he became Prime Minister, and four years younger than Robert Menzies when he became PM for a second record-breaking time.
If he stayed in Parliament, he could conceivably wait until after the next election to assume the leadership.
At the time of going to press, Mr Costello was still giving no indication which way he intended to go and it is highly likely that this will continue to be the case until the release of his political memoirs next month.
At times, Mr Costello must be tempted to grasp the field-marshal's baton, but the risks of failure now are probably greater than all the other times he had the chance.