A column about Howard v Costello

Ford v Holden. NSW v Queensland. Big Brother v the Liberal Party. Howard v Costello has taken its place among them as one of the defining conflicts of our time. The only difference is that while Queensland, Holden and the family values lobby have substantial support, Peter Costello’s is a lonely crusade. Neither the public or the rest of his party want to see him dump John Howard from the top job. When he tries to “do the numbers” on a leadership challenge, I can’t imagine our longest-serving Treasurer ever gets to count much higher than one. Which is why he’s slunk back to his office, licking his wounds, instead of mounting any kind of leadership challenge. Still, given Kim Beazley’s insipid performance, at least someone’s serving as John Howard’s Opposition.

It was a desperate effort this week. Arguing that he should have been given the job because of a chat they had in 1994 – which Howard prefaced by saying “I can’t guarantee you anything” – is about as weak as it gets. It’s the equivalent of stamping your feet like a toddler demanding an ice-cream and insisting “But I want it, I want it.” All he accomplished was undermine the party, and with it, his own claims.

Besides, if the deal had been honoured and Howard had left after two terms, that would have meant abandoning the Lodge immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Even Costello probably wouldn’t have wanted to be thrown into the deep end when Australia was plunged into the war on terror. Howard never came closer than matching George Bush’s far-fetched description of him as the “Man of Steel” than he did at that moment. Since then, though, he has come to resemble Superman in several respects – he has certainly proven invulnerable, and he’s consistently fought for the American way, if not for truth and justice. His Deputy could use some Kryptonite about now.

It was ironic to see someone who’s worked alongside him for a decade expressing so much disappointment that John Howard broke a promise. He’s the man who invented the distinction between ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ promises – the latter being the things you said you’d do, but later reveal you hadn’t meant. Would a politician ever make a more non-core promise than one involving handing over power? And as for accusing him of fibbing about the meeting, let’s just remember that his nickname “Honest John” was originally bestowed on him ironically by Paul Keating.

Besides, Costello himself repeatedly denied that there was any deal. So his scomment that his parents had told him always to tell the truth sounds a little hollow.

The whole affair has been wonderfully entertaining, adding some interest to what’s become an extremely dull political landscape. The Coalition has been virtually indestructible for a decade, even through such disasters as the AWB scandal (and Alexander Downer being Foreign Minister in general) and the waterfront dispute, so all lovers of politics have gained enormous interest from watching the cracks beginning to appear. There hasn’t been as interesting a political story since Mark Latham self-destructed.

Costello is stranded in no-man’s land. He has to stay Treasurer, because he’s not popular enough to win from the backbench like Keating. So unless he can somehow convince the electorate that Howard’s past it and that there’s a pressing need for a changeover, he depends entirely on Howard’s whim – and his recent strategy of rattling about a boring issue like federalism isn’t going to win him any votes.

The harsh realisation that voters preferred John Howard left Paul Keating absolutely gutted, and it must be equally painful for Costello to have to deal with being consistently passed over for the PM. But that’s the political reality. So he may as well stop whinging, and join the rest of us in waiting for the day when George Bush’s deputy sheriff hangs up his cowboy boots.