A Peter Costello Comeback? As Sure As Night Follows Day, It Won’t Happen

I’ve read with some amusement reports in today’s press speculating that a political comeback by former treasurer Peter Costello may be on the cards; wishful thinking for some, perhaps, but it ain’t going to happen.

ABC TV reports that Mr Costello — having resigned his seat of Higgins in October 2009, and left Parliament — asked his friend and Liberal Party powerbroker Michael Kroger to sound out sitting Liberal members to see if a seat might fall vacant, thus paving the way for him to resurrect his political career.

It goes without saying that a great many people, both inside and outside the Liberal Party, remain bitterly disappointed at Costello’s decision to walk away; I don’t mind saying that I — always completely unaligned in terms of the factional structures within the Liberal Party — have long thought Costello is probably the best Prime Minister this country will never have.

But that’s the thing: he’s gone.

Having entered Parliament in 1990, Costello twice passed up the opportunity to become leader of the Liberal Party; once in 1994, when he deferred to Alexander Downer, and again in early 1995, when he opted not to nominate in order to ensure John Howard returned to the Liberal leadership unopposed.

Subsequently, Costello spent eleven and a half years as Treasurer, delivering twelve budgets, ten of them in surplus; under his stewardship of the national finances, Australia experienced economic boom times unseen in this country since the 1950s.

After the defeat of the Howard government in November 2007, Costello took less than 24 hours to announce — borrowing the words of former US President Lyndon Johnson — that he would not seek, and nor would he accept, nomination for or election to the leadership of the Liberal Party of Australia.

He promised to sit on the backbench, and to retire from Parliament at a time of his choosing that would enable a successor to become established in Higgins; and in October 2009, did exactly that.

Peter Costello had packed his bat and ball, and gone home to Melbourne.

One one level it was unsurprising; he had spent the better part of twelve years in arguably the toughest job in federal politics, and discharged that office with great success and to richly-deserved acclaim.

But he had also spent at least ten of those years bickering either openly or behind the scenes with Howard over the Liberal leadership; details of a pact made in 1994 and witnessed by former Liberal MP Ian McLachlan eventually surfaced, in which it was purportedly agreed Howard would step down at some point ahead of the 2001 election.

But this was not to be; Howard led his Treasurer a merry dance, and Costello — for his part — never commanded more than a rump of support in the party room whenever the question of a leadership ballot arose. We all know how the story played out.

So it’s understandable that he decided to move on.

At the time, I was highly critical; I felt the Liberal Party needed him, and that an unwillingness to take on the leadership in opposition was lazy at best, and selfish at worst.

And the turn of time has proven those sentiments to be correct: Tony Abbott is evidence on legs that it is possible to destroy a first-term government seeking re-election three years after a landslide win; indeed, had the Liberals won even a single additional seat in 2010 it is likely Abbott would be Prime Minister today.

Yes, Nelson and Turnbull had failed before Abbott succeeded. But Nelson was never the right man for the job, and Turnbull — having compounded carelessness and ┬álack of attention to detail in the Godwin Grech affair with overreach — signed his own political death warrant with a slavish adherence to support for Kevin Rudd’s carbon pollution reduction scheme, a policy deeply unpopular with both the Liberal heartland and in the country as a whole.

So there’s the background; to return to the question: would Costello ever make a comeback? The answer is almost certainly no.┬áThere are three reasons that guarantee it will never happen.

One, finding a vacant seat that is also a suitable seat is likely to be difficult at best; owing to the relative strength of the ALP at recent federal elections in Victoria there isn’t a great number of safe Liberal electorates in Melbourne, and of those that exist, two (Higgins and Kooyong) are held by next-generation first-term MPs in Kelly O’Dwyer and Josh Frydenberg, both of whom are long-term prospects and unlikely to step aside or be moved.

A third — Goldstein — is held by Andrew Robb, who is an important linchpin for the Coalition in the areas of policy, strategy and tactics. Robb isn’t going anywhere either.

Costello would have little interest in a marginal seat and the vagaries that would accompany it, and for the obvious reason he is an archetypal city conservative would be unsuited to a safe seat in a rural area.

That probably only leaves the seat of Menzies — held by Kevin Andrews — and it would remain to be seen as to whether the suburban voters in Melbourne’s north-east could “love” Costello the way his inner-city constituents did for so long.

Two, even were the task of finding a seat achieved, Costello would not return to Parliament simply to retake the Treasury portfolio; rightly, and understandably, having spent so long in that thankless role he would be interested in one job only — the Prime Ministership.

And the simple fact is that to get there, his likely entry point to Parliament would be the next federal election, at which Tony Abbott is an unbackable favourite to be elected Prime Minister himself on that day.

So would Costello sulk on the backbench, serve as Treasurer, or destabilise the new government with a leadership challenge?

And three, if by some miracle the ALP is re-elected and the Liberal Party requires a new leader after the election, Costello would face competition from both Turnbull and Joe Hockey, as well as potentially from other comers as well; there is no guarantee he would emerge with the leadership.

And even if he did, there would be another three years to wait until the next opportunity to become Prime Minister at an election rolled around in 2016 — and Costello, by then, would be 59 years old.

Clearly, whilst stranger things have happened in politics, Peter Costello is not going to return to Parliament, and he is not going to be the next Prime Minister of Australia.

It’s interesting that it has been Wayne Swan making the running on this issue on behalf of the government; methinks a good old-fashioned distraction is being wheeled out to help deflect attention from Swan’s lacklustre budget, and to complement the sideshow being whipped up over whether or not Dobell MP Craig Thomson should be suspended from Parliament in light of revelations contained in the recently released report into the Health Services Union conducted by Fair Work Australia.

No no no, this is simply a ruse.

Although — with no disrespect to Tony Abbott whatsoever — given the rabble that passes for a government in Australia at present, could anyone really blame the hordes for getting excited at the prospect of Costello’s return?

I think not.