“You are a coward when you even seem to have backed down from a thing you openly set out to do.” Mark Twain
Peter Costello today held true to form and ran from the leadership of the Liberal party. Costello will always blame Howard for the fact that he never became Prime Minister of Australia, but the truth is that he simply didn’t have courage.
Costello had big ambitions when he took a seat in Federal Parliament in 1990, he had made a name for himself as an industrial relations lawyer and, after rolling the sitting member for Higgins in a pre-selection ballot, he went straight to the opposition front bench, Peter was never going to be a seat warmer.
Any plans that Costello had been making, however, would have been badly affected by the 1993 election. Not only did Dr John Hewson lose two seats and record a swing against the Coalition in ’93, in what was later termed ‘the unloseable election’, he also ignored Liberal party convention and refused to vacate the position of Leader after the election loss. Throughout the 80s the personal animosity between John Howard and Andrew Peacock had set the standard for leadership tension within the Liberal party, so it was no surprise that after the loss in ’93 the knives were out for Hewson. Eventually the disruption became untenable and Hewson, expecting to be returned, called a spill in ’94.
Costello’s name was mentioned as a leadership contender, but staring down a fifteen seat majority he decided to nominate for the position of deputy leader and suggested to his colleague Alexander Downer that he should nominate for the leadership. The pair were duly elected and were dubbed the ‘Dream Team’ by the Australian media. The question, of course, is why didn’t Costello nominate for the leadership? His short time in parliament would not have been an issue, as the leader that was deposed in ’94 had only been elected for one term before being elevated to the leadership. He would have had the numbers, coming as he did from the Liberal party’s traditional power base of Victoria. I have always believed that he didn’t think that Keating could be defeated in ’96, which is why he wanted the post of deputy, so he could have a clear three year run as leader after a loss in 96.
Unfortunately for Costello his well laid plan came unstuck when it turned out that not only would Alexander Downer be unable to beat Keating, he couldn’t even make it to the starting post. Before the end of 1994 there was already talk that Downer had to go, he had made a number of public errors, the most infamous being his ‘Things that Batter’ joke about domestic violence.
Costello, by contrast, had performed well as shadow treasurer. His boisterous, bullying parliamentary antics meant he was able to bulldoze the Treasurer Ralph Willis, although he did not have the mettle to really take on Keating. With Downer’s leadership looking rockier by the week and a party room unhappy with their electoral outlook, Costello’s name was again raised as a potential leader.
It was now late 1994, an election was due in a little over twelve months and rather than looking to take the leadership himself Costello struck a deal with John Howard for an orderly handover after a term and a half should they win in ’96. Howard had already been rejected by the party room in favour of Downer and with his continuing impressive performances in parliament there is no doubt that Costello could have succeeded Downer if he had decided to nominate for the leadership. So in early 1995 Alexander Downer became the only Liberal leader to never face an election and John Howard was elevated to the leadership unopposed.
History will show that Keating was swept from power in 1996 and that John Howard never came good on his offer to hand the leadership over to Peter Costello. It will also show that Costello didn’t have the character to challenge the PM, allowing Howard to come up with repeated excuses as to why he alone should continue as leader. When Paul Keating had his leadership aspirations stymied by Bob Hawke he challenged him and upon losing went to the back bench, only to take another tilt and seize the leadership. Peter Costello could have done this at any point, but he never did.
Now that the Liberal, National coalition have been defeated, now that the party has offered the leadership to Peter Costello, now that a leader is needed to rebuild the party and try to reshape it into a form that will be acceptable to Australian voters, he has declined to put in the hard yards. Peter Costello has put himself above the good of his party, in much the same way that he accused Howard of doing, leaving other potential leaders to carry the can at their inevitable defeat at the next election.
Leaders get remembered, treasurers do not. Peter Costello, a figure who has been at the forefront of Australian politics for fifteen years, has written himself out of our collective memories by once again dodging the Liberal party leadership. Costello is destined to be no more than an example of how hard work and perseverance will always overcome scheming and a sense of entitlement.