PERHAPS INEVITABLY in the fevered climate surrounding the leadership of the federal Liberal Party and the Prime Ministership, Peter Costello’s name has been raised as a potential addition to those already in the mix to replace Tony Abbott; Costello remains an exceedingly unlikely starter, but in grim circumstances every option demands consideration: and Costello, to be sure, is a better candidate than any MP in the Liberal party room.
It’s the week for comment on the run this week, it seems, as this morning sees me lined up for a very heavy schedule indeed (and to those who inquired privately, the trip to the dentist yesterday resolved the problem at hand but raised another of replacing four ancient amalgam fillings at a cost of well over $1,000 — something to look forward to indeed).
Three years ago — and with leadership speculation swirling around Tony Abbott as it intermittently has since the day he became Liberal leader in 2009 — we briefly spoke of the prospect, speculated in the press at the time, of Peter Costello returning from his political retirement to lead the Liberal Party at the 2013 election and returning victoriously to Canberra as Prime Minister.
At that time, I could not foresee circumstances in which Costello might ever return to Canberra: having chosen not to contest the Liberal leadership after the defeat of the Howard government and after subsequently sitting out the leadership change to Malcolm Turnbull nine months later, Costello left Parliament in 2009 to be remembered — to many — as perhaps the greatest Prime Minister Australia never had, and thus he seemed destined to remain.
Yet in what seems to be the final phase of Tony Abbott’s tenure as Prime Minister, the prospect of a Costello return has been floated once again by Daily Telegraph journalist Alan Howe, and whilst nobody can be blamed for exploring every possible alternative to Malcolm Turnbull (who, after all, is completely unsuitable as the leader of a party composed mostly of conservatives and libertarian liberals) the notion of Costello emerging as Prime Minister remains, sadly, an improbable illusion.
Costello would need to be tempted out of his lucrative political retirement, for starters: a consideration that offers no cause for criticism, given the stellar legal career he gave up to go into politics in the first place, and which no-one could take issue with him for wishing to pursue now.
There are those who will speak of duty, of course, and whilst Costello would certainly change the political dynamic, to pretend he is under any obligation in this regard is fatuous.
Now 57 years old, Costello is the same age John Howard was when he first took office back in 1996: one the one hand, the additional experience he has accrued since then more than counters the charge he faced in 1995 — when he declined to contest the leadership to allow Howard a clear run — that he was too young and inexperienced, then aged just 37.
And Costello — four years younger than pretender Malcolm Turnbull — remains young enough to potentially serve multiple terms as Prime Minister in any hypothetical return, something Turnbull might struggle to do, given the electorate evicted John Howard at 68.
Yet on the other, one of the great synergies Costello once offered as a touchpoint with the electorate — a man from middle Australia with a young family whose issues largely mirrored this classic Liberal Party constituency — is no longer relevant, with Costello’s children all now of adult age and he and his wife getting on with their lives as so-called empty-nesters.
I really like the idea of Costello returning to Parliament to lead the Liberals, but there are two big problems I see with any attempt to make it happen; the prospective reticence of the man himself notwithstanding, of course.
Firstly — having failed to secure the Liberal leadership during the party’s last period in office and subsequently declining to serve in the post as opposition leader, Costello would face a powerful campaign against him on the basis that when faced with a stint in opposition, he’d thrown his toys out of the cot and refused to play; I think this is neither fair nor justified, but for all its blather about “fairness” the ALP cares little about such notions when the opportunity to score political points exists.
I don’t think Costello can be criticised for his post-Howard career trajectory; following the election defeat in 2007 he was explicitly clear he would not serve as Liberal leader, explicitly clear he would leave Parliament at some point to pursue business interests, and proceeded to do exactly as he said.
Keeping one’s word is hardly a hanging offence. Changing one’s mind, to be clear, isn’t either. But rightly or wrongly, Costello would never be allowed to live it down were he to return to active politics.
And Secondly, the issue of finding a seat for him might be harder than it seems, with Kevin Andrews’ seat of Menzies already the subject of pre-emptive horse trading in the event he is appointed as ambassador to the Holy See; the seat in Melbourne’s north would be suitable, and any diplomatic post for Andrews could always be announced earlier than usual as a pretext to vacate the electorate and parachute Costello in at a by-election.
But is it questionable as to whether Andrews — a Howard-Abbott loyalist not necessarily well disposed toward Costello — would move willingly to make it happen; and even if he was prepared to quit his seat to smooth the way for Costello, the need for the latter to be in Parliament in this scenario is immediate, with a fresh ballot on the Liberal leadership perhaps only a matter of days away.
Still, it is interesting that Costello’s name is being discussed again: and not for the first time, perhaps the man himself now regrets his decision to depart Canberra when he did. Certainly, he could have made a brilliant Prime Minister, and in fighting Labor one would expect a far tougher (and more authentic) effort than the present Coalition approach represents.
And at the very minimum, no-one would expect Costello to have any truck whatsoever with the ridiculous “govern-by-adviser” farce that has played out under Tony Abbott: and just like Julie Bishop, a Costello leadership could be expected to begin with the insidious Peta Credlin being booted from spheres of influence in Canberra forthwith.
I think — with regret — it remains unlikely that Costello will re-enter the fray to become Prime Minister and, that even were he now prepared to do so, that firm obstacles remain in his path that are likely impossible to overcome in time for it to come to all that much.
It therefore comes back to a question of Malcolm Turnbull on the one hand, and Julie Bishop (in a moderate-Right deal that sees Andrew Robb as her deputy) on the other.
For those who wish to avoid a Turnbull leadership under any circumstances, I can only encourage as much support as possible, as vocally as possible, for Bishop: at some point very soon and to justify a move to deny Turnbull, Ms Bishop is going to need all the support — among MPs and in the country — she can muster.