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Daily Media Quotation

Treasurer's Argument Is All Wrong

July 11, 2006

by Jack Waterford - Canberra Times

The significant aspect of the latest Howard-Costello spat does not involve a semantic question about promises, undertakings or agreements - where John Howard probably has the better, if by a slight margin, of the debate. It is about how Mr Costello thinks he can advance his succession by making an argument about it.

Why now - six years after Mr Howard breached what Mr Costello may foolishly have actually thought to be an understanding about an orderly transition? When the Prime Minister is at the height of his powers? By 2000 it was clear Mr Howard regarded himself as having made no promise, something he explicitly reiterated two years after when he told Mr Costello that he was neither contemplating imminent retirement nor bound by any of Mr Costello's expectations.

Mr Costello may have majority support in the Liberal caucus as successor to Mr Howard - at least while no one's mind is concentrated on the succession. But he is well short of the numbers with which to launch any challenge. An unsuccessful challenge now followed by a retreat to the back bench would remove Mr Costello's claim, such as it is, to any automatic succession, and would install people determined to keep him out forever.

Whoever leaked news about the December 1994 statement must have intended it to be in Mr Costello's interest, but it is difficult to see how Mr Costello could benefit. It could not be from creating any perception, in the electorate or the party, that Mr Howard is a liar. Or that he failed to honour vague assurances given, in opposition, at a time Mr Howard was contemplating putting the hapless Alexander Downer out of his misery (which he did about a month after) and was wanting to assure himself that Mr Costello was no obstacle.

A Peter Costello who believed then anything that Mr Howard, in such a position, would say, even in front of witnesses, could only have been a fool. So much so, in fact, that one would be entitled to ask whether he was up to the job.

Nor was there any consideration for the promise. Mr Costello was offering nothing, and there had seemed little immediate prospect of his taking over from Mr Downer. Had there been, Mr Howard might say, it is a measure of Mr Costello's lack of ticker (or concern for the party, rather than himself) that he did not take it.

A 1996 election victory seemed at that stage far from certain, and Mr Costello, then only 37 and even then auditioning for Hamlet, thought he had plenty of time, all the more so given Mr Howard was 18 years older.

There are obvious parallels between the present situation and the Paul Keating challenge to Bob Hawke after Mr Hawke's repudiation of the so-called Kirribilli agreement. But the closest analogy is to the sense of entitlement in the challenger; Mr Keating has always had more real power, and his central complaint against Mr Hawke was not breach of promise but his firm belief that Mr Hawke was now fumbling his leadership, and that Mr Keating was the only one driving the party with energy and ideas. But no one is suggesting that Mr Howard is beginning to stumble, and it is Mr Howard, not Mr Costello, who is the engine of the Government.

Indeed Mr Costello, on being publicly spurned by the Prime Minister around Mr Howard's 65th birthday, promised that he would get over some of his unconcealed disappointment by expanding his range: speaking more generally on policies, ideas and themes of government. It would be fair to say that he has made no great impression in this field, or done much to heighten expectations among the public or, more critically, among his colleagues, about how he might perform as Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, there has been little disguising the open animosity between Mr Howard's and Mr Costello's offices, and the open leaking, whether by Mr Costello, his office or the small group of Costello promoters, of material reflecting on the Prime Minister.

John Howard, himself a past master at such routine disloyalty and destabilisation, has only rarely betrayed any irritation about this. He knows that Mr Costello lacks the numbers and believes, as well, that he lacks the courage, to directly challenge him.

Instead, Mr Howard has developed the careers, and the ambitions, of a few people in a position to challenge Mr Costello were there any breach. There's Brendan Nelson. Julie Bishop. Tony Abbott. Alexander Downer. Behind them, people such as Andrew Robb and Malcolm Turnbull. The Liberal Party has nothing but choice, even on issues of principle and ideology.

Mr Howard must calculate that Mr Costello wants to goad Mr Howard to discipline him, making Mr Costello, not Mr Howard, seem the aggrieved party. Mr Howard will know when he has lost party support and he is a long way from that. Only his own miscalculations can change that.



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