The story splashed all over today’s News Limited papers about John Howard’s supposed “vow” back in 1994 to stand aside in favour of Peter Costello after serving just two terms as Liberal Party leader provides an example of how political reporting can be not much more than a gossip column with some low grade soap opera effects thrown in.
The main story out of this is not what may or may not have been said back in 1994, but that Peter Costello is so desperate that he’d arrange for a story like this to be placed in the Sunday papers.
Fresh from a year of the federal government using their control of the Senate to take more and more power, and Mr Costello musing just last week about grabbing more power off all the state governments too, Liberal Party figures now clearly think they are so politically unassailable in government that they can publicly brawl over who gets control of their gravy train.
It’s a bit of thankless task trying to guess who might actually be telling the truth when the people involved are John Howard, Peter Costello or Ian McLachlan – especially when it’s ‘reported’ through the prism of a column which is reinterpreting second or third hand gossip to fit the desired story. I expect even if there was a tape recording of the meeting, the words used were sufficiently ambiguous to allow everybody there to take the interpretation that suits them.
There was only one aspect of this article that really surprised me. It certainly isn’t that a conversation like this took place in 1994 – it would be fairly unremarkable if it did, given what was happening in the Liberal Party at the time. What did astonish me was the statement by the article’s author that “Ian McLachlan, a former Defence Minister who retired in 1998, is regarded as one of the most honorable figures in modern politics”!
The column doesn’t actually state just who regards Ian McLachlan in this way. While I’ve never met him, I’ve certainly heard him described in lots of different ways by many other people, none of who used terms consistent with this description. Last I heard of him, he was busy in his current role as head of Australian Wool Innovation, channelling millions of dollars of Australian woolgrowers’ money into the pockets of expensive lawyers, running a major court action aimed at silencing Australians expressing concerns about unnecessary animal suffering in the wool industry – money that legally is meant to be spent on research, development, innovation and marketing.
Still, he has apparently carried the notes he took about this Howard-Costello meeting in his wallet for more than 10 years. Quite why he would do this I don’t know and isn’t made clear, but they must be pretty battered and mouldy notes by now. Maybe he just doesn’t clean the junk out of his wallet very often.
The Canberra Press Gallery will no doubt now gallop off in another salivating frenzy of leadership speculation, which unfortunately will put soap opera ahead of the issues and stories which actually affect Australians’ lives. The only comment I have on the leadership of the Liberal Party is some quotes Greg Sheridan made back in March this year:
There is no reason why Peter Costello should ever be prime minister of Australia. …. 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…. The bigger disappointment about Costello is just how lazy and shallow his thinking is whenever he’s not speaking from a Treasury script.
…….. Oh all right, maybe one extra quote – by NSW Treasuer Michael Costa, commenting today about Mr Costello’s call for the Commonwealth to take complete control of economic matters from the states:
“I have to be frank with you, I don’t think Peter Costello is across the details and as a consequence when you do challenge him on these issues he finds himself in a position where he can’t explain what he wants.”
UPDATE: Rather than a story, it is now clear this is a campaign. Glenn Milne’s follow-up article in the Monday paper is replete with the amazing assertion that “Peter Costello was desperately trying to speak the truth” when he wouldn’t directly answer a question about whether he’d had an understanding with John Howard, as well as the revelation that Mr Costello was so not-responsible for leaking this story that he hadn’t even told his wife about this purportedly pivotal meeting he had with Mr Howard 12 years ago. (Although it’s hard to see how anyone but Mr Costello would know that he hadn’t told his own wife).
Now the Treasurer himself is reported as making a statement at a media conference that Mr Howard “told me that he intended to do one-and-a-half terms as prime minister and then would hand over. I did not seek that undertaking, he volunteered and I took him at his word.”
It seems that taking Ian McLachlan at his word won’t suffice, as the ‘deal’ has now shrunk from Howard quitting after two terms to quitting part way through his second! My response to all this is to turn to an insightful quote by Glenn Milne himself, again in today’s piece in The Australian:
“All politicians have a capacity to render past history in the cast of their own view of the truth.”
Of course, this applies to a lot more people than just politicians, but that’s another story. It seems like Peter Costello won’t be Treasuer for much longer. I can think of quite a few people in the business community alone who won’t be overlyconcerned by that prospect.