Yawn, it’s another leadership ‘challenge’

I am utterly sick to death of Liberal leadership speculation. It is truly the most irritating, repetitive news story I can remember, recurring with even more frequency than those perennial “Scud knocked out in first few days of Grand Slam” headlines – the latest iteration is the 9142nd, by my count. In fact, I reckon I’m even more sick to death of the phoney war between Costello and Howard than I am of Kim Beazley.

Pete, it’s time to put up or shut up. And since we all know you don’t dare take on the PM, it’s time to zip it.

But no. Instead we’re trapped in an endless cycle of identical leadership speculation stories. They always works like this.

Step one: Peter Costello does something ever so slightly provocative – in this case, refusing to rule out the existence of a leadership deal with John Howard. Of course, he didn’t exactly rule it in. In effect, he said nothing at all. So it’s pretty desperate headline grabbing by either him or the media – both, probably. Here’s what he actually said:

PETER COSTELLO, TREASURER: I’m certainly not going to speculate on these things in the jungles of the Solomon Islands.

NARDA GILMORE: There has been speculation that John Howard is preparing to make an elegant departure at the end of this year. Today, Peter Costello wouldn’t rule out a deal.

REPORTER 1: Is there an understanding between you and Mr Howard as to his departure?

PETER COSTELLO: Look, these things are worked in the interests of the Australian people and the Liberal Party and the people concerned, and there’s no point in speculating on them.

NARDA GILMORE: When asked whether he thought that voters had a right to know, he was just as ambiguous.

PETER COSTELLO: Well, voters get the right to vote. That’s the critical thing, and they’ll get the right to vote on who they want to run the country.

REPORTER 2: So you wont be telling them any time soon whether there’ll be a leadership transition before the next election?

PETER COSTELLO: And they’ll have plenty of information at the time of the election.

It couldn’t be more vague. Certainly unworthy of the 107 stories indexed on Google News.

Step two: John Howard flatly rejects the idea, usually by saying that he will remain as leader as long as the party room wants him to, like he did three years ago. (Update: he just did again.)

Step three: Just about every other senior Liberal comes forward supporting Howard, because they know he’s far more popular than Costello. Today, Downer and Nelson.

Step four: Costello invariably retreats, tail between legs, and the waiting continues until his next vague comments are interpreted as a leadership bid by a media desperate for political headlines in a situation where we have the same dull leaders we had ten years ago. Here’s the one from last December. And the one from last July. And one from August 2004. And so on, ad infinitum.

Paul Keating showed how you win the leadership. You mount a bid, fail if needs be, retreat to the backbench, get the numbers and then go for it.

But the problem, of course, is that unlike the Hawke-Keating situation, where he was seen as arrogant and out-of-touch (Hawke, that is, not Keating – that came later!) the only person who’s the least bit interested in Costello becoming leader is Costello. And the desperate media.

Well, and me, now, because I really can’t stand any more of these articles. Is that his strategy, perhaps?

Of course, if Costello were to retreat to the backbench, and not hold the deputy leadership he’s had – astonishingly – since the Downer disaster of 1994, he wouldn’t be seen as the leader in waiting. He’d quickly be forgotten.

And this whole strategy of calling for greater federalism is hardly going to inspire anyone to support him. I happen to think he’s right, and that our system is an unfortunate political compromise from Victorian times, foisted on us by the need to convince small states to sign up to Federation. It’s stupid to have duplicated education, health and other systems when there are states as small as Victoria, Tasmania, WA and South Australia. But if Costello starts arguing that, all he’s going to do is lose the Senate – in which these smaller states are overrepresented, something they really rather like.

As his championing of an issue that will only lose him votes proves, the Treasurer hasn’t half John Howard’s street-smarts, and never will. His only hope of becoming leader is for Howard to retire, or even more unlikely, Beazley to beat him. In the interim – let’s say for the next decade or so – he may as well take up some sort of hobby, golf perhaps, and keep on being the next cab off the rank.

Costello is truly the Prince Charles of Australian politics – the eternally frustrated successor that no-one really likes. His Royal Highness took up watercolours to cope with being eternally frustrated in his hopes of taking on the top job, and eternally less popular than the incumbent. The Queen won’t leave Buckingham Palace except in a hearse, and we know how much the PM admires her.

In the meantime, all we can do is beg Costello to stop this ridiculous cycle of incredibly puny leadership challenges. Otherwise the public may do something really rash, like vote Labor.

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