COVER STORY: News Weekly
Opposition tensions to resurface in 2009?
, December 6, 2008
It appears unlikely that Peter Costello is planning to retire from parliament in the foreseeable future.If Peter Costello is indeed planning an imminent retirement from federal politics, he is doing an excellent job of disguising his true intentions.
Australia's longest serving Treasurer has spent recent weeks vigorously defending his record and that of the former government, particularly highlighting the economic successes, while putting further distance between himself and former Prime Minister John Howard on key issues.
Since his memoirs hit the bookshelves in October, after what was arguably the most publicised new release in Australian publishing history, the former Treasurer has continued to maintain a high public profile.
He appears to be readily available for interviews and media appearances and has volunteered to write a fortnightly column in the Melbourne Age
newspaper, under the by-line "Peter Costello, MHR for Higgins".Avoiding controversy
Though carefully avoiding major controversy or anything that might appear to undermine Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull, Mr Costello has used the Melbourne organ to champion the decisions he made as Treasurer, such as establishing the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) and the G20 group of nations after the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, and to argue what needs to be done to mitigate the effects of the current global financial crisis.
Mr Costello has also made a not insignificant contribution to the four-part ABC documentary, The Howard Years
— principally to defend his own reputation and to set matters straight about the long-running leadership tussle between himself and Mr Howard.
The first episode opened with a fascinating montage of key government figures from the period describing Mr Howard in one word. Various colleagues and advisers described the former PM as "tenacious", "determined" and a man with "conviction". An effusive Tony Abbott suggested "magnificent". But Mr Costello alone squirmed and struggled to find a single word, eventually settling on "relentless".
Mr Costello made it abundantly clear he totally rejected the PM's tactics on Aboriginal reconciliation and dealing with the rise of Hansonism.
After taking a serious pay cut when he exchanged the job of federal Treasurer for that of Opposition backbencher, Mr Costello is reported to have turned down a job with the London-based World Gold Council, a position said to pay around $2 million a year.
Yet he also remains a highly active MP for the Victorian federal electorate of Higgins, offering assistance to new MPs, including Victorian Senator and former state party president, Helen Kroger.
A person who had decided to cut ties with politics would be more likely to be enjoying golf or some other forms of relaxation or actively seeking a new role in the private sector or the law.
But the overall impression of Mr Costello, a year out from his decision not to contest the leadership, is of a man wanting to use this period of economic turmoil as a contrast to his period as Treasurer highlighting in particular the loss of wealth across all Australian households.
Many would argue that if Mr Costello had really decided to cut his ties with politics, he would have done so already.
He may not have been able to land a job as CEO of a major Australian company with a multi-million dollar salary, and perhaps the banks were wary of hiring him; but the opportunities for someone of Mr Costello's experience would be considerable.
Meanwhile, Mr Turnbull has made an impact since becoming Opposition leader. Kevin Rudd appears to have developed a deep dislike for him — a sign that Mr Turnbull is skilful at getting under the PM's skin.
In Parliament, the highly successful ex-barrister — who in 1987-88 succeeded in having former British counter-intelligence officer Peter Wright's British-banned memoirs Spycatcher
published — manages to prosecute Government mistakes.
But the polls suggest that Mr Turnbull's niggling is not translating into votes. In fact, Mr Turnbull appears to be sliding back towards the low standing Dr Brendan Nelson suffered, and which led to his downfall.
The new Opposition leader has recently pursued the Prime Minister almost relentlessly over an alleged off-hand remark Mr Rudd made about President George W. Bush.
According to The Australian
newspaper, Mr Rudd was supposed to have claimed to a private gathering at Kirribilli House, which included Australian
editor Chris Mitchell, that the US President did not know what the G20 was. When the claim was published in The Australian
, the White House took the unusual step of issuing a denial about the report.Flippancy
If true, it does suggest a degree of flippancy and carelessness on the part of Mr Rudd, but is not something that should have been pursued to the degree it has by either the media or the Opposition.
But Mr Turnbull's decision to hound Mr Rudd has turned the issue into an overblown affair which has damaged the PM, while making not a jot of difference with voters, who have ignored the whole episode completely.
Mr Turnbull would be wiser to deal with issues which matter to voters whose greatest fear is the size of the looming recession.
Meanwhile, Mr Costello is continuing to serve the Parliament.