OK, I give in. Can someone tell me why Peter Costello would be any good as Opposition leader (other than the fact the press gallery obviously like the idea, which I acknowledge is not something to be sneezed at when a party is deciding on leader)?
Some years ago, I remember endless media speculation about the condition of Tony Lockett’s groin and whether it might stop him playing in some crucial footy finals. It got a bit tiresome after a while, but at least everybody knew Lockett could kick lots of goals when he played in his preferred position.
The weeks and weeks and WEEKS of tea leaf reading about whether Peter Costello actually wants to take on the Liberal leadership has mostly ignored any meaningful consideration of whether he’d be likely to be any good at it.
Having been an electorally unsuccessful leader of a political party, I’m well aware of how easy it is to just have fun taking cheap shots at somebody and ignore the situation they have to operate on. I also REALLY hate the way media focuses incessantly on personalities and internal party contests and intrigue. Apart from anything else, it diverts attention from analysing the substance of policies and the impact those policies will have on people in the real world.
I also don’t particularly care who the federal Liberal Party decides should be their leader. I am interested in their policies, and especially at how they vote on issues in the Parliament – and particularly in the Senate – where the decisions made actually affect peoples’ lives.
BUT, given the Liberals seem to have a different view from one day to the next as to what their positions are on many key issues, and also seem to have done nothing to stop literally months of empty gossip about what Peter Costello might or might not be doing in regard to their party leadership, eventually one has to look at what it is that people think might be so appealing about him (apart from not being Brendan Nelson, but there’s a whole bunch of Liberal MPs who fit that description).
I had very little direct contact with Peter Costello during my decade or so in the Senate. The portfolios I held usually didn’t touch directly on Treasury matters, and during the time I was party leader, if an issue was important enough, I dealt directly with the Prime Minister rather than his party’s deputy. But the second hand feedback I got from a range of colleagues with more direct and regular contact didn’t give me any reason to see him as particularly capable compared to many of his own colleagues. Like many lawyers, he was fine at arguing his brief, but when it came to trying to taking on board different views or shifting outside the spin/brief and considering other angles, there didn’t seem to be anything particularly special there.
This was consistent with his occasional attempts to publicly stake out some views outside his Treasury brief, which seemed to me to be little better than B-grade talkback radio stuff.
Apparently, he used to be quite entertaining in attacking the (then) Opposition when countering their questions Question Time, but given that (a) Question Time is largely a vacuous piece of vaudeville which gives no indication of whether a questioner really has a grasp of policy detail (I can’t imagine why the Press Gallery find it so important), and more importantly (b) his party is now in Opposition and has to ask rather than ‘answer’ the questions, I’m not sure how that demonstrates sufficient merit for turning around public opinion about the ‘Liberal’ Party.
Given the immense difficulties and very hard slog of being in Opposition (particularly after a long period in government) some of the current Liberal frontbenchers have performed reasonably well doing what politicians have to do. It is the Liberal’s business who they pick, so I don’t pretend to give them advice. I must say I don’t greatly care in any case – I want to see their policies and actions, not jockeying or leadership. But whatever they’re going to do, I do wish they’d get on with it so we could more focus not only on their policies, but on some of the areas where the Labor government is falling short. Perhaps once the new Senate starts sitting next week, we’ll get a bit more focus on substance rather than sideshows.
PS I might add that I never really bought into the whole narrative that Peter Costello was weak not to challenge John Howard for the leadership. That view is bit too much driven by the ‘politics as combat sport’ narrative for my liking. Most people (not just the press gallery) love the drama of a contest, and Keating’s ‘crash or crash through’ approach had a lot of drama to it. However, it was high risk and generated a lot of damage, justifiable only because the Hawke government was flagging quite badly. The Howard government was never travelling that badly – except perhaps in its final year when a Keating style ‘two strike’ strategy wouldn’t have worked. Costello never had the numbers (and nor did Keating first time around, and only just the second time around), and could only have got them by basically threatening to continue doing enormous damage to the party unless people eventually supported him. You could say he was weak for adopting that strategy, or you could say he put the stability of his government and his party ahead of his own personal ambition – I’m more inclined to the second view, even though it’s far less more dramatic and more boring. However, none of that applies to what he is doing now, which to me just seems to be letting his party continue to bleed while he engages in a bit of self-indulgent payback for his party not supporting him earlier.
In any case, it still doesn’t answer the question about what evidence there is that he’s shown himself to have more capacity for the job than any of the other Liberal MPs in the Parliament.
Having said that, I’m not going to fall into the trap that I’m complaining about and go on and on about it. I won’t mention Liberal leadership contests again.
ELSEWHERE: Kim at LP vents her frustrations at the media coverage on the issue.
Piping Shrike’s view on the issue – from a few weeks ago, but just as current now
UPDATE (1/10) Another underwhelming Costello commentary