Flat White

Peter Costello: smirk back in langour

Arthur Chrenkoff

Arthur Chrenkoff

21 January 2019

8:26 PM

Nostalgia has strange powers. With Kelly O’Dwyer pulling the pin on her federal parliamentary career and vacating the previously ultra-safe but now probably not-so-much seat of Higgins, people are popping up in the media longing for a comeback by the previous member. Writes Peter Van Onselen in The Australian:

If Costello returned at the next election in his old seat of Higgins, he would hold it, staving off a challenge by the Greens. Apparently O’Dwyer was genuinely worried that she might lose the blue ribbon seat. Whoever takes over will be at even greater risk of losing Higgins.

Were Costello to be installed as Liberal leader for the next election, he would also be capable of retaining seats in Victoria under massive threat since the removal of Malcolm Turnbull.

Costello’s return could see the government revive and muscle up to Bill Shorten. Currently down 45-55 per cent in the polls, the Coalition has nothing to lose.

Scott Morrison could serve as caretaker prime minister until the election, with Costello the elected Liberal Party leader, much like happened with Campbell Newman in Queensland before his thumping victory. It just takes a little outside-of-the box thinking from a parliamentary team incapable of such thought.

There are very few sitting days scheduled between now and the next election anyway, so an extra-parliamentary leader is a viable option.

The only difference with the Newman comparison is that if elected prime minister, Costello would not implode the way Newman did. He has runs on the board as one half of the successful Howard government, one respected by voters longing for a return to such stability and competence.

While it is far from ideal not selecting a woman in Higgins, given the Liberals’ gender problems, Costello’s return is too necessary to ignore. And he is the type of leader who would genuinely throw himself into cultural reform inside the Liberals to help more women secure parliamentary careers. As well, women pre-selected for marginal Labor-held seats have little or no chance of winning. Under Costello, such candidates’ fortunes would blossom considerably.

At 61, Costello is also younger than Turnbull, and Morrison has admitted he is an accidental PM anyway, having been unable to explain to voters why he’s there in the first place. The Liberal Party would finally have a Victorian leader again for the first time in decades.

John Kehoe in The Australian Financial Review took a similar view of the, er, chairman of the board of the company that owns the chipwrapper he works for – his boss, in other words:

Even though a Costello return is extremely unlikely and he’s repeatedly dismissed the idea in the past, the former treasurer is the best chance an underdog Coalition has to combat Shorten in a presential-style [sic] contest between a businessman and a unionist.

Costello as the Prime Minister is perhaps the greatest “what if” of Australian political history in the past few decades. Many people had doubts whether he could have translated himself from the hard-nosed role as the Treasurer to that of the PM, which requires more charisma and likability to make it a success. I have no doubt that Cossie would have been great. He was – and is – a genuinely nice, decent, warm and funny person, whose character would have shone through in the top job the way it couldn’t before as the government’s moneyman. But it was not to be.

There are many “fork in the road”/”sliding door” moments in this story. It would have been great if John Howard retired after ten years as one of the most successful Prime Ministers in Australia’s history.

It would have been great if Costello chose to contest the leadership after the 2007 loss, though it’s not difficult to understand the frustration and the exhaustion that led him at that point to the backbench. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is his decision to retire during the term (I’m almost convinced that MPs should not be able to cause by-elections but for genuine health reasons or other emergencies, though it would be difficult to enforce such rule).

In mid-2009, with the controversy over Kevin Rudd’s ETS starting to rear its head, Tony Abbott and Andrew Bolt begged Costello to stay in the parliament, but he remained unconvinced. In fact, if only he had delayed his retirement by a few weeks he would have been the unquestioned candidate against Malcolm Turnbull. Costello would have won more convincingly than Tony Abbott’s one vote, and he would have likely won the 2010 election, saving the country from more Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd as well as from Tony Abbott’s wasted promise and Malcolm Turnbull’s wasted second chance.

But was almost nine years ago and the ship has sailed. Nay, the whole flotilla has.

From what I can gather from people who have been speaking to Costello recently, he has no intention of getting back into the political fray. But even if he had, I remain sceptical about the viability of political comebacks in general. John Howard’s story is truly exceptional; when he returned to lead the party in 1995 he has not in the meantime left the parliament after his previous stint in 1987.

Over the eight years in the opposition wilderness, he has watched all his competitors fall by the wayside until he was literally the last man standing, with Costello himself opting to gain more valuable experience as the deputy instead. It’s been twelve years since the end of the Howard government and twelve years is an awfully long time in general; in politics it’s almost an eternity. There is a whole new generation of voters out there who don’t really remember Costello as the Treasurer. I suspect that even those who do, think of it as very much a closed chapter, a glorious one for many to be sure, but only a few (and certainly none who have ever been married) believe that golden ages can be so easily resurrected.

Sadly, there is no easy and painless way out of the mess that the Liberal Party created for itself over the past two terms. There are no messiahs (remember John Elliott and Bronwyn Bishop in the eighties and early nineties?), only bad boys and girls. This is why I thought that Turnbull should have been left as the prime minister to own the coming disaster instead of being able to create the “stab in the back” legend. Absent that, let Morrison go down with the HMS Liberal.

Longing for Costello as the political saviour is a tacit acknowledgement that the current crop of senior men and women at or near the top are shit and incapable of changing the fate of the party. This is arguably yet another reason to let the voters make their harsh judgment in May, even if inevitably the harvest of resentment will carry some good and decent up-and-comers together with lots of dead wood.

May he live a long and happy life, but Costello is politically dead. Like all dearly departed, I miss him, but he’s gone. The Liberal Party doesn’t need an Ouija board; it needs a cold hard dose of reality and enough time to digest it and reinvent itself again.

Sure, Australia will suffer with Bill Shorten as the PM. Maybe it’s the (bad) Catholic in me, but he’s the penance – like Attila, “the Scourge of God” – we all deserve. May the Lord have mercy and make it short.

Arthur Chrenkoff blogs at The Daily Chrenk, where this piece also appears.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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