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March 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

The Grating Pretender

March 2, 2006

by Greg Sheridan - The Australian

This shallow, lazy, lucky and opportunistic Treasurer does not deserve to run the country.

There is no reason why Peter Costello should ever be prime minister of Australia. On its 10th anniversary perhaps it is time for the Howard Government to reassess its succession strategy. For those who support the present agenda on national security, economic reform and social values, there is no reason to change from a fit Prime Minister who has increased his Government's vote at the last two elections.

For those who would like a change there is not the slightest way of knowing what sort of change Costello would bring, or even what he believes in or stands for.

Costello's foolish, gratuitous, undisciplined, and slyly offensive comments about Muslims in his windy speech on citizenship last week may well signal a change in the way he intends to pursue the prime ministership in the future.

For the past 10 years he has tried to differentiate himself from Howard on the Left: Costello the republican, Costello the supporter of reconciliation, Costello the champion of a tolerant society. He ran as Howard lite, Howard minus, the little Howard.

Now it seems he is going to differentiate himself from Howard on the Right. He will presumably now become the uber Howard, Howard plus, the meta Howard.

The bigger disappointment about Costello is just how lazy and shallow his thinking is whenever he's not speaking from a Treasury script.

There are always good lines in these speeches, they are facile and superficially clever, but offer no evidence of any serious thought, much less a consistent position.

Most of the past decade, apart from economic policy, Costello has been basically a weathercock. The republic is a good example. When he was undermining John Hewson's leadership in Opposition, he was a fierce monarchist. But then when it seemed that every reputable commentator was a republican, but Howard was a monarchist, Costello switched.

It may be that Costello has recognised there is no route to the leadership on the Left. The speech on citizenship, though it hews to the Right rather than the Left, is of a piece with most of the other non-economic contributions. It has no policy content or proposal for any government action. It offers no remedy for any policy problem. Rather, it seems designed to achieve a day of favourable talkback radio coverage. In that tawdry purpose it has been effective.

The reason the speech deserves attention, and censure, is because it plays around with race and religion in an entirely negative and dangerous way and to no policy purpose. Unless you are an exceptionally irresponsible person, this is not what you do.

No one could accuse this column of being indifferent to the threat of radical Islamist terror. This column has been supportive of each of the Howard Government's security actions in the war on terror, in terms of law and the administration of law, because each such action has been based on a real policy issue.

Howard has been punctilious in the language he's used. He's stressed that the war on terror is not directed at Islam, that Islamist terror is a perversion of Islam, that the vast majority of the 300,000 to 400,000 Australian Muslims are perfectly loyal citizens who enjoy all the benefits of Australianness, including the presumption of civic loyalty, which is enjoyed by every Australian.

Political dynamics forced Howard to give some support to Costello's latest remarks. Otherwise he would have touched off a new leadership crisis by injuring Costello's always tender amour-propre.

But in truth Costello's remarks were very different from any which Howard has made. Much of the speech is, of course, unexceptional cliches and boilerplate civic nothingness - we must all believe in the rule of law, we all love Australia, you should barrack for Australia at the football. Politicians taking a walk down the path of bigotry often clothe themselves in banality first.

Much of the speech is a weird generic complaint about citizenship ceremonies and their lack of love for Australia. Maybe things are different in Costello's electorate but all the citizenship ceremonies I've ever been to have been suffused with a love of the country.

But as Costello later admitted to Barrie Cassidy on the ABC's Insiders program, the oath that new citizens take includes a commitment of loyalty to Australia, democratic beliefs, acceptance of the rule of law and the rights and liberties of others.

Yes, Costello agreed, that was pretty good. No, he didn't have any change to propose. But, he said, what was missing was the unequivocal message that we expect those values to be lived by. So in whom was this missing? What should be done about it? Nothing.

It was all just pure baloney for show. In the original speech he went on about those supporting the introduction of Islamic sharia law in Australia, without making the slightest effort to put into context that this is a tiny minority position among Australian Muslims.

Australian Muslims are Australians, and they have the right to expect that their leaders will not defame them by inviting the inference that a far larger proportion of them support an extremist position than is actually the case.

In a typical sentence in the speech Costello said, "Muslims do not like representation of the prophet. They do not think newspapers should print them. But so too they must recognise this does not justify violence against newspapers or countries that allow newspapers to publish them."

Any reasonable listener could assume that such violence has been a problem in Australia, but as far as I can tell there has not been a single demonstration, much less any violence, by Australian Muslims over cartoons in newspapers or elsewhere.

Even overseas such demonstrations have involved a tiny proportion of Muslims. Costello was doing just exactly what the extremists want him to do - allowing them to define Muslim identity by equating the most extreme form of Islamist radicalism with Muslims generally.

His speech is an obvious and damaging contrast with the thoughtful, serious effort of Health Minister, Tony Abbott, on the same subject. Costello, of course, was warmly applauded by Pauline Hanson.

Costello claims he's a great Treasurer because the economy is doing well. But do you know which economy is doing best in the world this year? Azerbaijan. Its economy will grow by 27.5 per cent in 2006 because all commodity and energy based economies are doing well.

An alternative view of Costello in the business community is that he's been a lucky Treasurer and a lazy Treasurer, a high-taxing, high spending Treasurer with a modest reform record. That he is prepared to play around so irresponsibly on race and religion to further his leadership ambitions represents his most pitiful moment in politics.


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