10 May 2012

Costello's Radetzky March

Peter Costello furiously denies wanting to re-enter Parliament, and rightly so. The whole thing has made him look like an amateur. If he was going to do it, he'd be in a press conference with the MP who was going to cede their safe seat to him, smirking. For the media it would be a complete bolt from the blue, as all big game-changer stories are; someone like the witless Katharine "I'd love to write about policy but ooh, shiny shiny leadershit" Murphy would never have got wind of it.

Costello might dream of Kooyong for its Menzies legacy, and certainly the wish to rid Australian politics of Josh Frydenberg is admirable if premature. If you're going to get into the House of Representatives you need to focus on one seat; I knew the push for Costello was non-existent when Heather Ewart, on last night's 7.30 Report, started rattling off the names of Melbourne seats where he might run, including knocking off his former staffers Kelly O'Dwyer and Tony Smith.

Costello relied utterly on Michael Kroger to do the bastard work of knocking off incumbent MPs and getting preselection. He outflanked Kroger by building up his staffers to take positions in Parliament: first Tony Smith replaced the retiring Michael Wooldridge in Casey, then Mitch Fifield went to the Senate, and before long the Victorian Liberals began to resemble Costello's personal fiefdom. For Costello to do over his own proteges would undo the work of a generation.

If Costello really wanted to mess with Abbott, he would have chosen two seats either side of Kooyong, and his old stamping ground of Higgins:
  • Goldstein is held by Andrew Robb. Robb wants to be Finance Minister, and his ideas on economic policy regularly differ from those of Abbott and Hockey. Robb was a successful Federal Director of the Liberal Party, in contrast to the incumbent, who is married to Abbott's chief of staff, who drops Robb off invitation lists for meetings on economic policy ... a challenge from Costello would clarify things for Robb. Either he'd pack it in, or he'd fight for it (and to do that he'd need to cosy up to Abbott's office).
  • Menzies is held by Kevin Andrews. In prestige terms holding the seat named after Menzies would be the next best alternative to the one he actually represented. Andrews was a plodder at best and a menace at worst (and his worst, with Haneef and the 457 visas, was very bad indeed). Andrews is the Liberal Party's ambassador to the court of Labor conservative Joe de Bruyn; not since Billy Hughes has a trade unionist been so intimately involved in conservative politics in this country, and de Bruyn has done it all without having to give up his powerbase in the ALP or do demeaning publicity work. Andrews helps keep Abbott consistent, as far as the right are concerned; knock off Andrews and you kick a support strut out from a leader who will have to be replaced anyway. There is almost no way Andrews would go quietly.
There is a third option. It would involve a bit of rustication for Costello, and place him closer to Canberra. Apparently, the incumbent has a weakness for superannuated ex-barristers ...

Costello would be unlikely to lower himself to the unusual position taken before Queensland's recent election by his current employer, Premier Campbell Newman, and run for a Labor-held marginal while campaigning as leader from outside Parliament. Newman got along well with LNP powerbrokers and was prepared to do their bidding; Costello is unlikely to take riding orders from Loughnane, Minchin, Cormann et al, or chance his arm in somewhere like Corangamite (toward which he'd share the patronising tone of this article) or LaTrobe. Even if the Prime Ministership was in the offing, he'd want a less precarious ride to the Lodge.

There was a time when a safe seat in Victoria was the best option from which to lead the Liberal Party, and from there the government. From 1949 (when Menzies led the Liberals into office) to 1983 (when Fraser lost) Victoria contributed more than any other state to the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party. The Victorians took candidate selection much more seriously, and with a view to providing cabinet-level quality in safer seats, than other states.

McMahon was treated as an aberration in his time, but in hindsight he was a harbinger. By the time Howard came to office NSW provided a majority of his MPs, but still his cabinets featured a Victorian plurality: Costello, Reith, Alston. Howard competed with and was compared to a state government that rivalled his for energy, initiative, and scope of reform. Howard managed the decline of the Vics and South Australians over time and gathered around him those from other jurisdictions whom he could trust: that's why Petro Georgiou never served our country as a minister, but Santo Santoro did.

During this mid-to-late Howard period Michael Kroger and/or Jeff Kennett might have stepped up to restore their state at the heart of national affairs, but they chose otherwise. Hopefully the fate of their respective AFL clubs have made up for what they missed out on politically.

After the turn of the century Melbourne became dormant as a centre for new money, ideas or personnel for the Liberal Party. Just when Costello needed his power base to rally and push him toward the Prime Ministership, it let him down.

In 2010 the Victorians fell to third place in the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party, behind NSW (which held its own) and Queensland. SA and Tasmania provided MPs who readily accepted the assumptions of the Melburnians, having been educated and done business in that city; Minchin and Abetz have ensured there are as few such representatives as possible. The Liberal vote in Victoria, in itself and relative to the rest of the nation, is in longterm decline.

State government gave Labor the confidence to match it with the Liberals in Victoria, only to find the Liberals withering and retreating within themselves, which has emboldened Labor. It has increased its vote in Victoria at every election since 2004 and has not yet fallen apart over its loss of state government. If Labor continue their advance in Victoria Costello's would-be power base will be weaker than it is already.

One luncheon in a crass and glitzy hotel in Perth or Brisbane would provide more support for the Liberals' federal campaign than a year's worth of subtle fundraising from within the Melbourne Club. You'd learn more about today's Liberal Party tooling around with Clive Palmer in his G6 than you ever could have hoped from claret and boiled mutton with Sir Magnus Cormack. This should illustrate how delusional the Victorian Liberal born-to-rule assumption truly is, but it doesn't.

Even so, it's hard to blame the current crop of Victorian Liberal MPs for thinking that way. With the exception of Helen Kroger, all have worked as senior staffers for senior ministers and been part of policy development at a high level from a young age. The sorts of careers that Costello and Liberals from previous eras built their parliamentary careers upon - business, grazing, law - would represent a step backwards career-wise from where those people had been before 2007. They find themselves in character-building mode, biding their time and cutting their teeth behind lags from the Howard government desperate for another go-around (e.g. both Bishops, Andrews), Howard Restorationists who were never really part of the Howard government and know precious little about how government actually works (most MPs/Senators from Queensland and WA), and yobs from Sydney who wouldn't care if the entire city of Melbourne slid into the Bay (Hockey, Turnbull, Abbott).

Costello, and his former colleague Peter Reith, were not only born too late in the wrong state. They represent a failure in the new-model politician. Traditionally politics was an occupation taken up by Liberals in middle age, after reputation and financial stability had been achieved, and children raised and educated; political careers ended in old age, with varying degrees of achievement, and were followed by a short retirement before death and a minute's silence on the floor of the house.

Malcolm Fraser was the first modern politician to suffer the end of his political career in his early 50s, where good works and corporate boards provided less than a full-time occupation and engagement. Costello and Reith are in the same position now. They raise their profile because they've been conditioned to do it for so long that anything else is dull or anathema. Neither man's life is so narrowed by the advancing years that pruning roses, quaffing with the chaps at the Melbourne Club or dandling grandchildren on creaking knees is enough to make their lives full and complete.

The idea that you can start your career in public affairs in parliament, first as a staffer then a member, representing numerous people with vaguely defined interests before moving on to lucrative careers where you represent the more clearly defined interests of fewer people, is clearly a mirage. Nick Greiner is the only politician who has done it, with Bob Carr a close second, but both men have been drawn back into the public carnival to get what they deeply need. Hundreds of intelligent, ambitious and well-educated people are devoting their lives toward that mirage, shaping the way we are governed for better or worse along the way.

Peter Costello has more economic policy credibility than Gillard, Swan, Abbott Hockey and even Turnbull put together. Many economists regard this with chagrin, if not slack-jawed horror, but it's true. What he lacks and needs is a reputation for guts, which we will all need to make best use of such fortune as has befallen us now. If he is going to announce his run for Prime Minister, Costello has to announce it from atop the prone but warm body of a leading politician (from either side). Until he does that he'll be a bits-and-pieces person for the rest of his life, like most of us.


  1. 'Peter Costello has more economic policy credibility........'Many economists regard this with chagrin, if not slack-jawed horror, but it's true.' an assertion w/o argument.

    1. I'm not sure I'd agree with Andrew here either. I thought Costello was lazy, but extremely lucky, rather than talented.

    2. Anon: deliberately so, but there are economists who agree with this.

      David: you have to work to make the best of your luck, and people who work with Costello say he got across the minutiae. He did shirk some of the big reforms that Swan hasn't fully tackled either.

  2. A very interesting take, Andrew. I do have to take you up on one point you make - "Labor has increased its vote in Victoria at every election since 2004" - that's only 2 elections. The first where there was a swing to Labor nationally, the 2nd where Victorians voted for a local PM and a deeper distrust of the Liberal leader than seemingly other states.

    There's no doubt though that the Liberal vote in Victoria has been soft for 20 years. I think only a Victorian Liberal prime minister would change that.


    1. The more Victoria declines in influence within the Liberal Party, the less chance there is that it might happen.

  3. "Peter Costello has more economic policy credibility than Gillard, Swan, Abbott Hockey and even Turnbull put together. Many economists regard this with chagrin, if not slack-jawed horror, but it's true."

    Abbott, Hockey and Turnbull true, but the Deputy-and-then-PM and Treasurer who steered us through the GFC? I don't think so. Hammock boy Costello got into office with Keating's newly internationalised low inflation and high productive economy paying dividends, and during an unprecedented world growth cycle. The guy swung in the hammock while the booming revenues kicked in and doled out the cash (and causing high interest rates). Costello was never tested, and he was no ideas man, so i shudder to think what disastrous panicky decisions he would have made in a crisis.

  4. I see little to no evidence that Costello achieved at a higher level than Swan has as Treasurer. I do not think he did a particularly bad job (but would have liked more than tax cuts out of a once in a generation boom), but Swan has done admirably under much more trying circumstances.

    1. Yes he has, but Costello is still more highly regarded because he made it look easy.

  5. Thankfully, the ABC is keeping Peter Reith satisfied. Just pity the poor viewers.

  6. "Peter Costello has more economic policy credibility than Gillard, Swan, Abbott Hockey and even Turnbull put together." Actually the negative credibility of Abbott and Hockey overwhelmes the positive cred of the rest of them.
    We underestimate the role of luck, which Costello had plenty of as treasurer. What he did is waste the time he had caving in to Howard's desire to buy off voters with tax cuts, baby bonus, FHOG, family payments, one-off payments to pensioners, tax free super etc etc. He banked on the boom continuing forever. Now we find serious structural problems with our revenue base, with a collapse in receipts and an entitlement culture that complains about any increase in tax or cut in benefits. Thanks for nothing, Pete.

  7. Indi would be a very interesting choice. Abbott would obviously fight tooth and nail against Costello's preselection anywhere, but would take it to a new low in Indi. Sophie was a Howard sycophant and flowed seamlessly into an Abbott disciple when he was elected leader of the Opposition.

    The locals here barely tolerate Sophie. She is the beneficiary of an electorate that hasn't returned a Labor member since 1928 when the Conservative candidate forgot to nominate.

    A preselection battle between Costello and Mirabella in Indi would be one of the most fascinating since Turnbull's. I think Costello would probably win it. But of course it won't happen, it would take much more courage than Costello has ever shown.

  8. Oh Andrew, PLEASE start planting the idea that Costello might like to take Indi from La Mirabella in the Border Mail! It would have more legs than a millipede, judging by the excitement caused by Barry Hall and Brendan Fevola - two washed up players for non-AFL folks - in the local football league.

  9. There is no other state that is better than Victoria for the sheer depth of talent on the Liberal side in the House of Representatives.

    In large measure, this is due to the far-sighted and brilliant work of Peter Costello and Michael Kroger.

  10. And his rating goes up again. We must be stupid.

  11. 'Mr Thomson attacked Mr Williamson and so-called whistleblower Kathy Jackson for telling him to "collect your salary and do nothing" during his tenure at the union.

    He said Ms Jackson, in particular, "did not come to this with clean hands".

    He alleged Ms Jackson paid for her gym membership, childcare and a luxury Volvo out of union funds.

    "She's had numerous overseas trips, none of which, as national secretary, I was aware visited any unions," he told Parliament.

    "Within weeks that I left, her salary almost doubled from the salary I received - to $270,000."


  12. 'Anonymous' just above (Rain) : that is to ask : Why was such a realitively huge increase ('almost double' is pretty relatively huge) in salary bestowed upon the position of 'innocent' (until proven guilty) Kathy; and, for what action or actions was she considered worthy of deserving this increase.? What did she do to earn it? That would be good to know. I am sure it won't faze Kathy to tell us. (!)