Liberal Party Bunfight: Kroger, Costello, It’s Time To Let It Go

Two days ago, this column outlined why Peter Costello would never return to Parliament; today I am going to outline why he and his buddy, Michael Kroger, need to knock it off. The public fracas they are engaging in is unedifying to both and, simply put, is an embarrassment.

I would like to predicate my remarks by pointing out that I don’t know either of these gentlemen well; Michael Kroger I briefly met for the first and only time outside St Paul’s Cathedral at former Liberal Premier Lindsay Thompson’s state funeral in 2008.

Peter Costello I have had more to do with, crossing paths with him at several Liberal Party functions since moving to Melbourne in 1998; but I doubt he’d even be aware that the brash and arrogant 21-year-old who applied for the role as his Chief of Staff on his ascension to the deputy leadership of the Liberal Party — all the way back in 1994 — and myself are one and the same person.

So I would entreat readers to take my comments at face value; they are not born of loyalty to one side o’er the other or from any intrigue; I simply intend to say what I think.

And that, in short, is that Michael Kroger and Peter Costello should pull their heads in.

It is a shame that it could come to this; that two of the Liberal Party’s most influential figures of yesteryear, friends and allies since adolescence, and who shared in so many triumphs together, should find an acrimonious and highly public spat signals the seemingly irretrievable end of a friendship.

The story initially circulated — that Costello’s planned comeback to politics was thwarted by Kroger, in retaliation by the latter over Costello’s purported refusal to intervene in a Senate preselection to advantage Kroger’s ex-wife, Helen — was messy enough, although the “case” for a return to Parliament was fairly easily shot down — and we did precisely that in this column on Wednesday.

Today, the country was treated to the singularly despicable spectacle of Michael Kroger doing a series of interviews on Melbourne morning radio. Tipping the bucket on Costello, he didn’t hold back — saying that he no longer went to lunch with Costello because he “can’t stand it any more;” he described lunches with Costello as two hours of sitting listening to Costello slinging off at real and/or perceived enemies, listing — for clarity — John Howard, Alexander Downer, Alan Stockdale, Shane Stone, the Kemp Brothers, Robert Doyle, Andrew Peacock, John Hewson, with the special qualifier for good measure that Costello “despised” Malcolm Turnbull.

Kroger stated that Costello was on the record as labelling Tony Abbott an “economic illiterate with DLP tendencies,” or in other words, not capable or suitable of filling any role of significance within the Liberal Party.

According to Kroger, “nobody” wanted to talk about Costello’s alleged misdemeanours publicly, so he — Kroger — had decided to do so.

Kroger also accused Costello of childishness and pettiness on account of his refusal to appear “anywhere” with John Howard since the Coalition lost government in late 2007.

There have been accusations and counter-accusations about who has what influence within the Liberal Party in Victoria at the grassroots and organisational level, and who has and hasn’t exercised that influence. The unspoken imputation has been that whichever of the two had exercised such influence had done so to somehow thwart and frustrate the other.

To their credit, both men have paid some kind of tribute to each other; Kroger was emphatic that Costello had been a great Treasurer of Australia; Costello, in turn, was similarly emphatic that Kroger was an excellent president of the Victorian division of the Liberal Party.

But this whole thing stinks of childish and pettiness on both sides — the very attributes Kroger accused Costello of in a clear manifestation of the proverbial pot and the kettle.

Costello, for his part, released a press statement today; lofty in rhetoric and filled with moral righteousness, he refuted Kroger’s charges whilst seeking to position himself above the fray, saying his reply “will go to the factual matters. I will not reply to the attacks on my character, other than to say they are false.”

The statement goes on to give his own account of the Senate preselection in question, as well as to cover off on a number of related and ancillary issues that — frankly — don’t matter a can of beans.

That’s right — what both Kroger and Costello have been up to in the last 48 hours doesn’t matter two-tenths of diddlysquat.

These are yesterday’s men; Costello elected to pack up his bat and ball and walk away from active politics; Kroger may have reinvigorated the Victorian division of the Liberal Party, but that was 20, 25 years ago, and he too is no longer the relevant daily face of the party in the way he once was.

Both men have been invaluable and brilliant servants of the party; and in looking back at the contributions of each over the years it’s difficult for me to find much to criticise.

It’s true Jeff Kennett — another Liberal I hold in extremely high regard — was not exactly the favourite colleague of these gentlemen, but wherever there are groupings and gatherings of human beings, such things are inevitable from time to time.

Maybe Kroger is right — maybe Costello really is the graceless individual he describes; maybe Costello is right — perhaps Kroger really is mounting an unwarranted and unjustified attack on him.

Either way, this is essentially a personal feud that has become public in the most vituperative of ways; and frankly, it needs to be swept back under the curtains whence it came in short order.

The irony is that whilst this stoush, the combatants involved and the “issues” they appear to be fighting over has nothing to do with current politics and does not involve the present leadership of the parliamentary or organisational Liberal Party, it risks causing problems nonetheless.

I’d ask which of these two gentlemen thought it such a brilliant idea to air this particular basket of dirty linen in public view.

At a time when the federal Labor government is on the ropes and dying; when state Labor governments around Australia are falling like dominos; when Australian electors are turning off the ALP with such venom as to suggest we are witnessing a generational political change; and at a time in which conservatives seem destined to enjoy long years in government, the timing of these events is abominable.

More to the point, both Kroger and Costello are seasoned political operators who should know better; in making their bitter vendetta public, they have afforded the Labor Party a distraction from its own woes, and clear air from which to catch its breath.

And the last thing either Costello or Kroger would want is to see the Labor Party back up off the canvass.

Whatever the deep truths behind this spat, and irrespective of how Kroger and Costello really feel about each other, the general public does not need to be party to these things, and the finer dramatics of the dispute do not need to be aired on a public stage.

Costello and Kroger should grow up, shut up, and keep their disintegrating friendship behind closed doors somewhere that does not adjoin the contemporary politics of the day.