Daily Media Quotation
Costello As Hamlet, Ditherer
August 2, 2006
by Jack Waterford - Canberra Times
John Howard does not want for enemies. He had them well before he became Prime Minister. Even within his own party, there were many who thought the resort to Howard in 1995, after years of unsuccessful plays with alternatives, was a stop-gap move, possibly a step backwards. A good number of his actions over the past decade, not least on Aborigines, refugees, terrorism and industrial relations have enraged not only his ordinary political opponents, but even moderates within his own party.
Moreover, he has been in active politics for a long time. It is more than 30 years since he was elected to parliament, and, if he has been made over several times, and has adapted his general policies to instant circumstances, he is still very visibly a creature of his 1940s and 1950s upbringing - which is to say from a time with which fewer than a third of voters can identify from any personal experience.
And, while he has a good many admirers, he has few personal friends, particularly in politics. No one doubts his ability or his political nous, but he has never articulated a wide vision which invites, or demands, people to follow him from the challenge, the ideal or the mission that he throws out.
A radical changer of institutions as much as of the status quo, his primary appeal is to ordinariness, sameness, and skilful treading of water. He is not, first, a man of ideas, ideals, or vision; he is a person with whom most Australians feel comfortable, whom they believe they know, and whose instinct they broadly trust, but he is also ever diffident, aloof and uncomfortable - not to mention a recognised dissembler and manipulator of the truth, and opportunist with events. For all his competence, there is something colourless - even boring - about him.
These might be explanations of his enduring hold on an electorate, one still suspicious of flash, the big pictures, gimmicks and being hectored about what it ought to think and feel.
But they are also weaknesses. It is a measure of the far greater weaknesses of his would-be successor, Peter Costello, that almost no one in the electorate, or in his party, or even in the die-hard Labor constituencies would prefer him to John Howard, even after 30 years of exposure to the worst, and the best, of Howard.
Costello himself is hardly a novel item, despite having had nothing like as many years in the wilderness, nothing like the hardship and adversity, and little of the systematic attack on his character and vision. Costello has been at the forefront of national politics for 15 years, and went into politics as a great white hope after making something of a name for himself as a union-busting barrister. For 12 years he has been heir-apparent to the Liberal leadership, and, even before then, he had posited himself as a kingmaker.
As Treasurer during an unprecedently long economic boom he has been both stern uncle minding the pennies and preaching the virtues of thrift, and Santa Claus, throwing around tax cuts and election-year bribes to carefully targeted constituencies. Given the flow of money into the Treasury, he has hardly done it hard, but it has earned him little personal popularity, and, at most, only a grudging respect.
Perhaps that has owed something to the capacity of the Prime Minister to elbow him aside when good news was to be announced. But it has also been a reflection of the fact that Howard has taken the lead, and most of the flak, with unpopular policies (including the GST and industrial relations changes) and that Costello, if often brilliant in attack has also been sometimes very brittle and has exposed the Government's flank, not least in the heat of elections.
Costello has always been ambitious. Long before there were allegations of a deal between himself and Howard about a smooth succession, it was clear that he had expected Howard to facilitate a transition somewhere around 2000. Moreover he, or close colleagues, had built a fairly ruthless political machine in Victoria, which had manifested little embarrassment about taking on and turfing out those who have been immune to his charms. One might have expected that he had the capacity, and the will, to ultimately force his way into power.
But he has lacked both, and in ways which have been quite revealing. His position has had him as more formally and ideologically a hard-line ideologue on free market theory than Howard, always suspected by the pure as too pragmatic and too willing to compromise.
Yes his strongest cheer squad have been wetter-than-wet moderates - noticeably not from his own state or his power base - who continually seem to suggest that his 1970s background is more with-it, more flexible, and more attuned to modern liberal theory than Howard, creature of an almost forgotten 1950s. There were, in particular, now repudiated, suggestions that he was more tolerant and compassionate on social issues such as Aborigines, refugees and the underclass. And a much de-emphasised republicanism.
His cheer squad was summed up by Winston Churchill of a similar ambition 70 years ago, "They were the usual collection: people who had been tried and found wanting. People who were wanting to be tried. People who were manifestly wanting. And people who were manifestly trying".
After a few open disappointments, Costello promised the electorate a steady diet of thoughtful speeches and visions - Howard once called such things "headland statements" - about the future and his policy directions and visions. So far as they have been made at all, he has contributed vague concerns about ageing, and deeply impractical and threatening ideas about busting up the federation.
It would be fair to say that a decade of having him as the second most senior personality in the Government has given the public few real clues about his ideas, ideals, philosophies or even his personality.
Neither his colleagues - but far more importantly the public, "knows" him, or believes they have an instinctive grasp of who he is, what he stands for or how he will behave in particular circumstances.
But one impression has been around for a while - an impression much accentuated by Howard's increasingly disdainful treatment of his ambitions. That is the impression of Costello as the loser, the Hamlet, the ditherer, even perhaps the coward. The man who cannot bring himself to challenge the boss because he knows perfectly well that he lacks the numbers.
That his numbers have not improved after a decade in power is telling. That people with every reason to hate or distrust Howard have not transferred their loyalties, or their hopes and expectations, to Costello, is even more telling. However successful he has been as Treasurer, he is judged a loser, and a bad candidate for the transition, by his colleagues and by the public at large.
None of his colleagues have yet thought their own ambitions would be helped by knocking him off his perch right now. But several of them must, by now, have decided firmly that Costello has no "right" to be the next leader and that he would be a disaster to the party if he was.
They do not need a spill to challenge. After any election, party offices are automatically up for re-election, and by secret ballot. After that election, of course, Howard will be Prime Minister, if he has won, and will be there for at least 18 months.