CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
The Costello question that refuses to go away
, March 7, 2009
It is becoming untenable for a man of Mr Costello's experience and abilities to waste his time on the backbench indefinitely.Imagine if Peter Costello had assumed the leadership of the Liberal Party after the last election. By now he would have been exhausted and fed up with politics.
He would have been under siege from his enemies in the Liberal Party, and possibly fatally wounded from a concerted 12-month campaign by senior ministers in the Rudd Government to utterly destroy him and his reputation as an economic manager.
In short, Mr Costello would have been washed up.
Instead, the former Treasurer opted to retire to the backbench to bleed and rest and recover.
Critics described it as self-indulgence, but it now appears to have been a sensible and logical decision.
Mr Costello spent most of last year writing and promoting his memoirs.Generational change
Instead of the expected series of explosive bombshells, the memoirs died quickly after revealing mostly what we had known already, including Mr Costello's belief that generational change should have been implemented.
However, the process probably helped put his political career in perspective, giving him a degree of acceptance and equanimity after the bruising defeat and disappointment about never having made it to the Lodge.
Mr Costello flirted with a position in the private sector, reportedly passing up a lucrative position on the World Gold Council, but could not find any offer that suited him or which he felt sufficiently remunerated him for his talents and experience.
On the other hand, Mr Costello's many critics argue that the situation is the same as it always has been.
They say he has simply refused to challenge or "go for the jugular" and seize the leadership for close on 14 years.
He refused it when Dr John Hewson's leadership collapsed, and when Alexander Downer imploded soon after.
And he refused to make any serious attempt at wresting control from Mr Howard, despite the urgings of the small band of "Costello supporters" and the media.
And when Mr Howard was bundled out of the Parliament, Mr Costello refused an open opportunity to become leader.
For his part, Mr Costello says he has always put the party ahead of his own ambitions, and has not mounted a challenge.
But now the situation has changed and Mr Costello has soon to make a decision to step up or step out.
The atmosphere in the Opposition is now so frayed that, for as long as Mr Costello has a presence in the Parliament, he will be a problem and a thorn in the side of the leader, Malcolm Turnbull.
With the Opposition behaving like a government in exile, it is becoming untenable for a man of Mr Costello's experience and abilities to waste his time on the backbench indefinitely.
Which is why former leader Dr John Hewson, in a rather vicious and unfair personal article recently, tried to lever Mr Costello out of the Parliament.
Whereas an ex-minister like Philip Ruddock, who arrived in Canberra in 1973 and is now the longest-serving MP, can comfortably assume the role of "Father of the House", no such luxury is available to Mr Costello.
At 51 he is in the prime of his political life - five years younger than John Howard was when he became Prime Minister.
He was immersed in Treasury longer than any other person since Federation, and has survived the great pressures of office during tumultuous times such as the Asian economic crisis, the implementation of a new tax system and terrorist attacks.
But he has steadfastly refused to declare whether he will contest the next election.Sitting it out
It is now a simple proposition that either he takes a more prominent role or he follows the lead of his friends Mr Downer and Dr Brendan Nelson, who have declared they are not prepared to sit out the three, six or nine years it will take to win back power.
Whatever happens with Mr Costello, the Coalition needs to start rethinking the way it operates as an Opposition and start ignoring the polls.
Time in Opposition should involve a period of reflection, policy development and the nurturing of new talent while still holding the government of the day to account.
Panicking over the latest Newspoll and tearing down leader after leader will ensure that the Coalition remains in Opposition for three terms or more, regardless of the severity of the coming economic recession and regardless of whether Mr Costello stays or goes.