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Daily Media Quotation

Costello Reveals His Weakness

July 12, 2006

by Jack Waterford - Canberra Times

Peter Costello has now probably lost control of his fate in politics. The prime-ministership may not now be beyond him, but, to an extent greater than ever before, it will be achieved only by his own efforts, and not by any force of events, because it is his turn, or because John Howard will manoeuvre his own departure so as to maximise Costello's chance of winning the next election.

There was a phrase missing among all the usual cliches coming from the Prime Minister yesterday, as he held his press conference to taunt Costello with his powerlessness. It was the mantra about, and implicit endorsement of, Costello's being his likely and most natural successor.

As Howard has been stressing it is the party, not he, that will decide the succession. As he did not directly say but as anyone might guess, the party will choose the person most likely to lead it to further victory, and, in the party, doubts about whether Costello is that person are now redoubled.

Howard has not anointed someone else, and will probably not directly do so. But he will judge it as among his duties to the party to promote choice, and to give others with perfectly natural ambitions an opportunity to show their wares. Until now, the obviously seething ambitions have had to focus their overt desires on the deputy leadership once Costello moved up. Now, probably, most do not have to pretend.

It is also a measure of Howard's superiority, not his weakness, that he would prefer that Costello stay on as Treasurer, confirmed in his impotence, than that he go to the back bench, where he would be free to plot and not be bound by any sort of cabinet solidarity, or to sinking or swimming by the Government's general performance.

Howard, after all, has no substantial policy differences with Costello; indeed they have worked together reasonably well over the past six years even as they have had no personal relationship and as their offices, no doubt on instructions, have privately sniped about each other.

Nor can Costello spring much in the way of surprises upon him, given Howard's own contacts and links into the economic management of the country, Treasury's professionalism and Howard's own department's understanding of what is going on. As with this week's abortive ambush (whether or not Costello planned or timed it) even the attempt to spring a surprise would be likely to rebound on Costello.

But much more is involved than being confirmed in his powerlessness, and being seen by his colleagues to be done like a dinner by an old master who was eviscerating rivals before Costello had his first political reflex.

It is the successful painting of Costello, first, as the person who puts self before party, and party before country, made to seem petulant and demanding but without the necessary demonstrated record of toughness, ideas and ideals to deserve to be leader.

That might seem unfair to someone who has presided over the Treasury through some hard housekeeping after the so-called black hole of 1996, and some difficult political achievements, such as the GST and industrial and welfare changes of more recent years. Can he really be called a person who has achieved nothing much?

No, but his achievements have been as deputy, and not in the lead role. It has been Howard who has taken the gambles, and, by and large, endured much of the heavy artillery. And it has generally been Howard, not Costello, who has been infusing the party with new agendas, fresh challenges and general policy renewal. Costello may have had a role in putting the nuts and bolts together, but he has hardly been at the forefront.

In recent years, moreover, his primary political role has been to play Santa Claus, not Scrooge, at budget time, but his doing so has not been seen to achieve much bounce for government. This, and the fact that Costello has generally been seen as a liability, not an asset, with his interventions in the heat of election campaigns, will underline doubts among the more nervous backbenchers about whether he has the touch to play leader, even after Howard departs. While Howard is there, there is hardly any contest except among the very tight coterie of ambitious Costello cheerleaders, themselves little regarded by their colleagues for their political nous.

Nor is there much in the way of evidence that Costello's occasional adventures with broad political philosophy, or long-term agendas have attracted admiration for his vision, or a popular feel for him as a person. Not only has he been seen as fairly cold, detached and remote, even to his colleagues, but to the public.

But his occasional forays into suggesting that he might be more liberal or moderate (on say Aboriginal affairs or the republic) have been muddied by attempts, for other purposes, to suggest he is harder, or "more pure" and less pragmatic, than Howard on economic issues and on such social issues as refugees.

No one would ever have described John Howard as a politician to whom the public instinctively warms. Indeed he has made something of a virtue of being awkward, stubborn and a loner.

But no one has ever doubted what he stands for, or lacked a sense of where he would probably stand on a completely new issue. It is for this reason that Howard, whose word (as Costello can attest) is not worth much, can run a successful election campaign on "trust" - by which he means things such as predictability, reliability, perhaps some stolid boringness, but an instinct not to do anything too silly.

The public knows too little of Costello to know whether to trust him on not. After his 13 years in senior party leadership and 10 as Treasurer, most Australians have a view (often hostile) about him, but very few have a gut feeling about where he stands on issues, or what, instinctively, he would do in a crisis. What view they have is, as often as not, judged by how he has handled his increasingly obvious campaign to secure what he seems to believe is his entitlement.

The other Howard talent which Costello has not been seen to have is the capacity to see far into a brick wall. There is no doubting Costello's forensic talents in Parliament; indeed he is (marginally) the Government's best attack boy, not least of all in a crisis. Howard is a very competent, but essentially uninspiring, debater.

But Howard is always the more noticeably calculating, the more intensely political, the more carefully weighing his words, aware that they might trip him up. Howard has always carefully calculated the angles, counted the numbers and worked out contingency plans for different events. He has had to, because he is not naturally gregarious or a born leader, and has, several times, endured humiliation, defeat and the particular pain of betrayal. He has achieved most through his own efforts and learned to make much of his own luck.

In Howard's terms Costello has endured little in the way of political hardship during his apprenticeship and has always had powerful friends and patrons. That this makes such people lazy, arrogant or prone to trip when more hard-working politicians set traps for them adds bonus to the sheer pleasure of a triumph of a nerdishness so effective that he has been top dog for a decade. That pup snapping at his heels is now itself getting so long in the tooth that he scarcely has to be growled at.



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