Perpetuating Uselessness: Chris Bowen Channels Wayne Swan

AS BILL SHORTEN — rattled by Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension — injects panic into his spiteful, deceitful political “narrative,” shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen has opened a new front in Labor’s quest for power, avowing himself “a Keynesian” and eulogising the self-important but essentially useless Wayne Swan. Australians worried another ALP government would bankrupt the country should heed the unexpected warning Bowen has provided.

If you’re a politician, and aspiring to a senior Cabinet post at that, profiles and feature pieces in mass circulation news publications are the lifeblood that potentially connects you to an electorate wanting to get to know you, and (with luck) wins people over; the problem is that if you’re really honest — and haven’t got anything of value or substance to sell — you’re just as likely to shoot yourself in the foot.

So it is today with Labor’s shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen; the ALP — looking decidedly silly in the wake of “leader” Billy Bullshit’s declaration that penalty rates somehow enable families earning between $40,000 and $60,000 per annum to send their children to private schools (I’d like to see how) — has been gifted a piece a soft-soap coverage in The Australian today by its Editor-at-Large, Paul Kelly.

Characteristically, but unwisely, Bowen has used the opportunity not to eschew his Rudd government reputation as a mindless slogan regurgitator; the shadow Treasurer — well-regarded personally on both sides of politics, and rightly recognised as one of the ALP’s brighter talents — has instead chosen to parrot the meaningless, delusional drivel that “modern” Labor holds out as the most recent “legend” of its fine service to Australia and its people in office.

People whose decision to eject the sorry Rudd-Gillard-Rudd outfit from office at least partially on account of the disastrous fist it made of the country’s books — with some $300 billion of red ink sitting on them in September 2013, and increasing thanks to the opposition’s opportunistic intransigence in the Senate — will be alarmed to learn that Bowen, who aspires to take control of Australia’s financial reputation and welfare, glowingly ascribes Wayne Swan a place in the “upper echelons of Australia’s Treasurers.”

Brazenly declaring himself “a Keynesian” — not something one might have thought it prudent to trumpet, given the ineptitude Labor exhibited between 2007 and 2013 where its handling of money was concerned — Bowen spruiks the virtue of economic stimulus despite object evidence his party went too far, wasted too much, and never turned off the tap when it said it would: the old borrow-tax-and-spend model historically beloved of socialists the world over proved impossible to resist.

Bowen fails, dismally, to contextualise issues like GST reform and industrial relations reform by eschewing them: far from the right-wing ideological crusades Labor likes to smear both objectives as the embodiment of these days, such change (if it ever proves possible to enact) is about necessary structural economic reform.

This is especially true of the GST, at a time revenue continues to grow but sees expenditure growth (mostly the handiwork of ALP bribes legislated under Julia Gillard and Swan) rocketing away to the point the entire integrity of the Commonwealth budget is at risk.

Of the three broad sources of revenue — income tax, company tax and the GST — the PAYE system is lagging in real terms as the workforces ages and begins to retire, and as more and more income support is channelled out in the form of government benefits; business tax remains vulnerable to a cyclical downturn in the economy, which has to be regarded as better than a 50-50 proposition in the medium term after decades of uninterrupted growth.

It is only by taxing consumption — efficiently, as broadly as possible, and with adequate offsetting compensation to the least well-off — that offers a sustainable river of revenue that can be consistently relied upon to grow.

Similar criticisms can be made of Bowen’s refusal to countenance labour market reform; this is not, despite his attempts to dress it up as some “third way” to realise gains in productivity and workplace flexibility, but an unabashed sop to the thuggish unions that dominate the ALP and demand their interests remain completely unmolested by government (and I use that word most deliberately, for the protection of their rotten sinecure is so personalised by the union thugs who stand to profit from its existence that “molestation” is in no way an inappropriate term to describe the accountability and compliance at law they are so desperate to shun at any cost).

The simple truth is that reforms championed by conservatives — like GST reform, or industrial reform — speak to further liberalisations in the economy that are entirely consistent with the open, market-based reforms commenced by Labor in the Hawke-Keating years; one is about the sustainability of the government portion of the system. The other is about realising improvements in productivity and the cost of labour, which are areas Australia now lags most comparable Western countries, thanks to byzantine strictures of the Fair Work Act. No fairy story or populist deception will fix those problems. And to date, Labor has nothing on the table other than slogans and rhetoric and fairy stories.

Yet just like the effective sloganeer he proved to be during his brief tenure as Treasurer under the reborn Kevin Rudd, Bowen is quoted as seeking “an age of entrepreneurism” that sounds suspiciously like an “education revolution” or a “ladder of opportunity” that exudes the distinct aroma of magic pudding; Bowen claims it is “not the job of Canberra” to determine where jobs come from. But even in a friendly piece such as Kelly’s today, the only thing he offers are a “collection of ideas” and a “sector by sector” approach, whatever that might be in the absence go government intervention.

Ignore those, and you will miss nothing.

But the most alarming aspect of the Kelly piece about a man who aspires to assume control of the national economy is his extollation of the cretinous, self-important, pious, vapid, useless, imbecilic, sanctimonious, gormless, shameless, oxygen-thieving oaf Labor imposed on a trusting public for the better part of six years, and on whose watch great harm was committed against the rigour of Australia’s economic management and the health of its financial fundamentals.

It is true Bowen acknowledges Swan wasn’t perfect — noting the mining tax and the carbon tax failed tests of “political durability” — and as Kelly notes, talk of an “open and broad engagement with business” could be interpreted as an implicit criticism of Swan, who wasn’t exactly noted for seeing any value in Australian enterprise aside from smothering it with regulation and taxing it.

But to place Swan in a pantheon of Treasurers past just one rung below Paul Keating (in his view, our best ever –a subjective call I only partly disagree with) and alongside Peter Costello (which is an outrageous and baseless insult to Costello) is ridiculous.

Talk of stimulus aside, the fact remains that Swan’s the Treasurer who pissed away $45 billion Costello had squirrelled away in sovereign wealth funds — and did so before the GFC had even been heard of — succumbing immediately to the stereotypical Labor temptation to spend whatever money was in the tin the moment it got itself into office.

Swan’s the Treasurer whose “reforms” directly created $300 billion in government debt where none existed beforehand: and whilst protestations of the GFC and “stimulus” are well and good, the fact remains that even the most generous estimate of how much money was spent on it extends only as far as $96 billion.

Swan’s the Treasurer whose legislative handiwork entrenched a gaping structural budget deficit whose underlying quantum seems to be in the order of about $30-$40 billion: hardly the craft of an astute manager of money.

Swan’s the Treasurer who, alone and/or abetted by Gillard, offered no fewer than 600 solemn public assurances that by 2012-13, the budget would be restored to surplus. Yet despite the greatest sleight of hand and creative accountancy on a scale rarely (if ever) seen in this country — pushing out official accounts for expenditure, pulling revenue forward, raising certain taxes and so forth — the target was not only missed, but missed by $18 billion.

Despite a cynical exercise in trying to glitter the turd, Swan’s best efforts didn’t even come close to the mark.

And Swan’s the Treasurer on whose watch a reprehensible effort to “booby trap” the federal budget to ensnare a future Liberal government and render it powerless to properly manage Commonwealth finances was contrived.

None of this seems to perturb Bowen, however, who claims with no basis in fact that Swan “got all of the big calls right.” You’d hate to think of what might have been had he got them all wrong.

And who — for the love of God, who? — implements a tax that raises no money? Even by Labor standards, it’s an errand that should be impossible to screw up. Yet Wayne Swan managed to do exactly that.

What all of this shows is that Labor — and Bowen — have learnt precisely nothing from their mistakes in office: a sobering reality indeed, given Labor remains competitive in polling despite the initial “sugar hit” of a change of Liberal leadership propelling the government into the lead for the first time in 18 months.

It is not inconceivable Labor could form government after the next election: even under the national embarrassment it parades as its “leader,” and notwithstanding the paucity of a meaningful agenda it offers when slogans, thought bubbles and other populist gobbledygook are excluded from consideration.

Those people who concern themselves with the proper management of national affairs — and those mums and dads who worry about an insurmountable burden of debt being bequeathed to their children — will find nothing to allay their fears from the kid-glove spotlight that Paul Kelly shines on Labor’s would-be Treasurer today.

Chris Bowen is a nice enough and decent enough fellow — to whom I have no personal objection whatsoever — but as a potential Treasurer of Australia, he gives every inkling that he would be little better than Swan himself, and that is a disastrous indulgence the country simply can’t afford a second time: and especially not so soon after the last time Labor performed its usual trick of systematically trashing the budget.

But whatever value might be found in getting to know the alternative Treasurer and in the space The Australian has provided him, Bowen’s attempts to capitalise on it falls abysmally short.

Timing, of course, is everything, and whilst the Kelly piece was likely compiled well in advance and over a period of weeks, Labor desperately needed a circuit breaker after Shorten’s latest idiocy over penalty rates.

Today’s article in The Australian is not it.

Institutionalised uselessness and incompetence: even if it sounds like another of the vapid, vacuous, excruciating “modern” Labor slogans this column so vigorously takes aim at so often, it neatly sums up all the ALP has to offer; and far from being soothed or cajoled by Kelly’s profile piece, anyone who reads it ought to be mortified.

With such luminaries as Bill Shorten, Chris Bowen and Wayne Swan at the very forefront of Labor’s loathsome sales pitch for an early return to government, you have to wonder just how much damage the ALP could inflict on itself if the “rats in the ranks” were to find their voices, and to decide to speak out.

 

Sort It Out: Ridiculous GST Posture Could Finish Abbott

A RIDICULOUS SUGGESTION by Tony Abbott — that the states should “sort out” how GST revenue is carved up — shows to an appalling lack of leadership; with a risky budget due shortly from a Treasurer whose record in the job is poor, Abbott’s GST gaffe could yet sound the death knell on his leadership of the Liberal Party. ALP “leader” Bill Shorten, meanwhile, deserves to be crucified for typically filthy point scoring that is bereft of alternative ideas.

First things first: I have, as readers know, been a staunch supporter of Tony Abbott’s for many, many years, and have mostly defended him to the hilt in this column in the face of almost unprecedented levels of unpopularity, dysfunctional in government that apparently nobody is responsible for, relentless and unjustifiable abuse from the Left, and — most importantly — own goals from his own boot or worse, things he says that on reflection, simply, he shouldn’t.

That defence is getting more difficult to maintain.

This morning we looked at the scathing attack launched by Peter Costello in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph on management of the federal budget by Treasurer Joe Hockey, but through the prism of a constructive way forward on both tax reform in Australia as the way to address the (valid) criticisms made by Costello.

What a difference half a day or so makes in politics.

Tony Abbott’s unbelievably crass assertion that because the GST is a tax that “belongs to the states,” “grown-up adult” state governments should “collectively…make a decision” shows an appalling lack of leadership at a time he and Hockey should be trying to get control of the government’s economic management responsibilities ahead of a make-or-break federal government, not abrogate those responsibilities in favour of the states.

The fraught issue of how to distribute GST revenues has reared its head lately on account of recommendations from the Commonwealth Grants Commission that Western Australia’s share of the tax should fall to below 30 cents in every GST dollar raised in that state; for some years — courtesy of the impact of the mining boom in WA, and the windfall it has received from mining royalties — that state’s share of GST monies has fallen, offset by royalties receipts, with the difference being redistributed to the so-called “mendicant states” (read: South Australia and Tasmania) whose economies are too small and weak to sustain their bloated bureaucracies and deliver an acceptable level of government services to their constituents.

It’s become a tug-of-war: larger states capable of raising more revenue in their own right (but which nevertheless face a backlog when it comes to infrastructure requirements and the funds to deliver them) increasingly resent handing money away to “mendicants” that should be swimming in money, but are so addicted to the torrent of tax revenue they receive that it’s spent each year before they even get it.

The big states increasingly resent giving away more and the “mendicants” refuse to countenance being denied a cent of it: a fire fanned, cynically, by Bill Shorten and his Labor cohorts, with their taunts that Abbott and Hockey will “rip billions of dollars” out of Tasmania and SA in a glib attempt to snooker the government and make it impossible for it to resolve the problem.

More on Shorten — and his fatuous rhetoric — shortly.

But for Abbott to effectively throw up his hands and walk away is a poor look, and one that does not befit a leader; for all the difficulties the government faces and for all the obstacles Labor seeks to put in its way, the issue of GST allocations is the government’s problem to fix: and a tart decree that the states can sort it out for themselves is an almost unforgivable lapse of judgement.

Perhaps — with an eye to the “strategists” and “tacticians” who populate the Prime Minister’s Office — someone thought it would be half-smart and a good idea to handball the whole matter of Commonwealth grants to the states; perhaps they thought the states would be wrong-footed. Perhaps they thought it would render them more pliable in any future discussion about increasing or broadening the GST rate. Instead, it seems merely to have encouraged them to dig in.

Or perhaps it was more prosaic: over a few beers, somebody simply decided that for once they couldn’t be bothered. Either way, it is not a good look.

I read an excellent piece on this issue by Judith Sloan in The Australian today, and Sloane notes that just as WA’s share of the GST revenues it generates is set to fall below 30%, South Australia’s is about to increase to 135%, and that state’s (Labor) Treasurer has had the nerve to try to blackmail the (Liberal) Abbott government against reducing his state’s allocations by suggesting that to do so would necessitate the end of Federation.

We’ll come back to that too.

But I tend to think that if Abbott’s view (or the view of the clearly brain-dead individuals who devised his GST stance in the interests of astute political strategy) is one the Prime Minister is welded to, then the resumption of public muttering over his leadership of the Liberal Party must be imminent; already I hear that far from being silenced by their failure to engineer a spill against Abbott, the mutterers for the time being merely retreated behind closed doors having been repelled, but by no means beaten.

Whether he likes it or not, the Commonwealth Grants Commission is a federal body answerable to the federal government and responsible for (in this case) apportioning the share of GST revenue each state receives. Perhaps a public conversation — or argument — to till the ground and win over voters to the case for change might better serve Abbott’s government in this regard.

But such conversations have proven not to be the Abbott government’s forte. Winning arguments of this nature have proven next to impossible. And not because there is no case to be made, or because the arguments cannot be won, but for the deadly reason that the wrong people in the wrong jobs are the ones charged with making and winning them.

In a few weeks’ time, Hockey will deliver his — and the government’s — second budget; bugger this one up as badly as he did the first, and Hockey will have signed the government’s electoral death warrant, and it won’t matter whether Liberal MPs manage to dump their leader or not (although you can bet your life they will do it: faced with electoral doom, these days dumping the leader is fashionable, and rhetoric about “not being Labor” won’t stop it a second time from happening).

And I find myself questioning Hockey’s sincerity about GST reform just hours after remarking that it was “refreshing” that he at least put it on the table: one has to wonder whether talking a little about the GST is intended to make the government appear serious about economic reform, trying in the process to extract some mileage from the Liberal Party’s traditional reputation as the party best suited to manage the economy — just to set the scene for Abbott to come along behind him and declare, in effect, that it’s all too hard.

I have two points to make.

One, that GST is merely presenting as the latest in a long list of issues that point to the states having completely outlasted their use-by dates; perhaps their abolition — reaping savings in the tens of billions of dollars — and the disbursement of monies from a central government to a decentralised network of local provincial authorities on a per-capita basis or something very close to it, would resolve this idiocy of who gets what, on what basis, and who wins at whose expense.

After all, the only real role the states perform these days (aside from the digestion of billions of dollars duplicating bureaucracies) is to play themselves off against each other, and — depending on their political complexion at any given time — act either to antagonise the government sitting in Canberra, or to “stand up” to it to extract more money that is, usually, spent with no regard for accountability or for any tangible benefit.

And two, it is about time the contemptible specimen charged with “leading” the ALP is crucified by the mainstream press, and ripped into so many pieces that a sparrow wouldn’t fill its beak at a peck; as usual, Shorten has been out name-calling and landing tawdry cheap shots over the conundrum Hockey (in particular) finds himself in: unable, through political reality (largely formed at the hand of Labor and the Communist Party Greens in the Senate) to overhaul the GST (or much else), but more or less doomed to fail as Treasurer unless he somehow manages to do precisely that.

Hockey, like Abbott, and like the lackeys who serve them who were recruited primarily for compliance and not performance, deserves censure for his performance as Treasurer since assuming the role, and I have been more than fair (lovely term) in handing out criticism in this column where it is due in the case of the Coalition.

But Shorten — seeking to be taken seriously as he twists the knife in Hockey — should be given no quarter.

Labor presents no alternative vision for economic reform; it refuses to even acknowledge a problem with the budget, let alone that that problem is its own fault and responsibility.

Shorten’s ideas (when he has any) are vague, vapid, contradictory, and the few that can be pieced together at all — like the half-arsed plot to unilaterally abolish the private health insurance rebate — would cause monumental crises in public service delivery, and in that particular case, the collapse of the healthcare system in this country.

Shorten is no leader, and whilst Abbott and Hockey might have their problems, Shorten has been allowed to behave like a schoolyard smart-alec — but without the inevitable smack in the face such conduct invariably (and justifiably) elicits out in the sandpit.

Abbott might be flirting with his tenure as Prime Minister, and Hockey with the government’s electoral mortality.

But if the media simply stopped reporting the puerile rubbish that passes for Shorten’s contribution to policy debate, he would be neither seen nor heard — and maybe, if that happened, his parliamentary colleagues would realise the liability they saddled themselves with 18 months ago, and sign a petition for his removal.

60% of them, anyway. After all, that was the threshold set down by Kevin Rudd, in the confident expectation it would never be breached — or at least, not until the next guy came along.

 

Tax And Oblivion: Costello Highlights Hockey Dilemma

CONTRIBUTIONS TODAY in the Murdoch press by former Treasurer Peter Costello highlight the bind the Abbott government finds itself in with a tricky federal budget looming, and the degree to which it has surrendered the debate to economic vandals in the ALP and the Communist Party Greens, who block most constructive measures in the Senate. Treasurer Joe Hockey has a tough but clear path to walk. Whether he does remains to be seen.

Today’s article is aimed at sharing two items from Sydney’s Daily Telegraph — an op-ed piece by Howard government Treasurer Peter Costello, and the paper’s editorialisation of his argument — to highlight what ought to be a no-brainer for a responsibly calibrated government (and especially one moulded by liberal and conservative thought) in contrast to the high tax mentality that underpinned current Treasurer Joe Hockey’s loathsome 2014 federal budget.

The old adage that “no nation ever taxed its way to prosperity” seems to have been honoured in the breach to date under Hockey’s approach to budget repair, relying heavily on a mixture of bracket creep, additional income tax slugs aimed at the core Coalition voter base, and a sympathetic view of various band-aid measures such as new bank taxes, multinational taxes, a populist increase in GST from online purchases by lowering the threshold at which it applies that is uneconomical to collect, and so forth.

Add in the clamour for other taxes from those who are the enemies of both the Liberal Party and Australia’s best interests — Labor and the Greens — on superannuation, individual companies (read: their detested News Corp) and, incredibly, the besieged mining sector, and what we have is a recipe for taxing Australia into economic oblivion in the name of taxing it into economic security.

It is true that this column has, once or twice, advocated a windfall tax on banking profits (built, it must be said, on reaping obscene fees, penalties and charges from the banks’ customers) as a way of effecting redress upon the budget deficit.

But that advocacy, made with no enthusiasm whatsoever, was born of sheer frustration with the inability of governments — first led by Julia Gillard and now, it seems, stewarded by a Liberal Treasurer apparently bent on perpetuating the “tax as salvation” myth — to find the appetite for serious structural reform of Australia’s tax base, and to build on and expand the foundations of an efficient and simple tax regime as laid down by Costello over 12 successful federal budgets between 1996 and 2007.

The idea that taxes that are as broad as possible and levied at relatively low rates is counter-intuitive only if it is accepted that businesses will pocket profits rather than hire people if their taxes are cut, and the proof that such a conclusion (even now, 40 years after it first gained prominence) is wrong can be seen in the “Thatcher miracle,” the “Reagan miracle,” and everywhere else so-called supply-side economics were implemented in the 1980s, leading to employment growth, steady rises in prosperity, and budget surpluses achieved from — surprise, surprise — rising revenues off a base of taxation measures levied at lower rates as broadly as possible.

It is refreshing of late to see that Hockey is showing signs of at least putting the GST (and possible increases to it) onto the table, for consumption taxes are an efficient and straightforward way of raising significant revenues to enable the business of government to be carried out.

Based on his track record, however — and the woefully inept record of the Abbott government to date in selling anything — it is doubtful this conversation will progress very far.

Instead, great attention is being paid by the government to the favourite hobby horses of the Left — slugs to superannuation, making it harder for the self-funded to continue to pay for themselves in retirement without government handouts, and chasing multinationals to reap a windfall no Western country has, in fact, reaped to date — and this merely shows how far control of the economic debate has been surrendered by this government, and the degree of real influence the economic vandals and wreckers in the ALP and the Greens still retain over a conservative administration elected, in part, to explicitly end such madness, not perpetuate it.

Remember, too, that both Labor and the Greens are pledged to the reintroduction of carbon and mining taxes as soon s they are restored to office.

Even extending the current GST at its present rate to cover everything except healthcare spending (remembering that at present it applies to just 48% of all goods and services in Australia) would be enough to fund offsetting increases to pensions (thus insulating the less well off from its effects) and to enact modest cuts in income and company taxes, and without the complicated fancies being bandied about for new and inefficient taxes.

Doubling the GST, to 20%, would enable benefits for the needy to by increases further, alongside a program of slashing other taxes rather than raising them.

But I think Hockey — were he truly ambitious — ought to contemplate going further again, with an even greater program of cuts to personal income and company taxes sitting alongside a broadening and lifting of the GST.

The experience of such a program of tax realignment internationally has been that businesses — far from simply banking fatter profits — will hire a lot more people, simultaneously cutting welfare expenditure and increasing PAYE tax collections; those employees would obviously spend more on goods and services, increasing GST revenues, and the collective impact of these measures would be an overall increase in government revenues from a regime that imposes lower rates of taxation generally.

Yet the flat Earth proposition put by the Left — that only higher taxes can fix the criminal negligence inflicted on Australia’s finances by its own hand when last in office — is doggerel.

If Hockey took the road less travelled (in Australia) of far broader but overall lower taxes, he would provide the Abbott government with a powerful point of difference, and a compelling proposition to sell electorally.

He would also be able to equip the Liberal Party with a series of double dissolution triggers based around tax cuts (the compulsory Labor scare of a GST rise notwithstanding) as the package is inevitably blocked by an opportunistic Senate, controlled by Labor with the Greens, and bent on obstructing their way back into office so they can get on with the job of taxing Australia into economic irrelevance.

And the end destinations of this process?

On the one hand, a double dissolution election based on slashing taxes, raising pensions, and a program for low tax torpedoed by Labor and the Greens. The idea of an election to confront the Left over its petulant torpedo of wholesale tax cuts is a delicious one.

On the other, capitulation: continuing down the route of higher taxes, bracket creep, the Left’s populist new taxes, and a likely electoral hiding from angry voters who rightfully feel betrayed.

I know which is the better option, and it isn’t throwing new taxes around like confetti.

Hockey should listen to Costello, confront the government’s opponents head on, and press ahead with the broader, lower, more efficient tax plan that would boost economic activity and — crucially — fill the government’s coffers by increasing the size of the economic pie, not taxing it into disincentive and disrepair.

 

Liberal Leadership: Someone Drops The C-Word

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.

 

G20: Abbott’s ALP Critics Answered

BRIEFLY REVISITING an issue we discussed last week — namely, the outraged criticism of the Labor Party in the face of the fact Tony Abbott dared to allude to its uselessness as an economic manager at an international forum — someone with a better idea of the realities of such matters has returned fire; former Treasurer Peter Costello, who has more economic credibility than the entire ALP, has called the Labor attack for what it is.

I don’t intend to dwell long on this; to be sure, the intention here is really only to follow up on an issue we’ve discussed at length — and one which has generated a reasonable debate among readers.

Most will recall my response to the indignant criticisms levelled by Labor at the Prime Minister last week on account of the brief allusion he made to the previous government; some — here and in other forums — sought to ridicule my analysis, and in particular where knowledge of the previous government’s track record among our international trading partners is concerned.

I don’t pretend to know everything, and whilst the odd “whisper in my ear” backgrounds me to some of the issues I cover in this column, for the most part my calls are made purely on political instinct — which is why, whether I get those calls right or wrong, they usually appear here before they do so elsewhere.

Even so, my judgement — that Abbott’s mention of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government at the G20 was a signal to international colleagues who really already knew the truth of that outfit too well — appears to have drawn support from perhaps the most credible quarter in Australia, with Peter Costello arguing many of the same points in his weekly column today for the Herald Sun in Melbourne.

I’m not going to drill into this too far; those who missed my earlier piece can access it through the link above, and I think everyone who makes it that far should check out Costello’s article from the Murdoch press. His remarks carry the clout of somebody who actually ran the system — for 12 years, brilliantly, putting Australia on the soundest footing it has enjoyed in decades — against the sniping and petty mudslinging of a party that managed to comprehensively trash that system in, literally, half the time.

For those who do not have time to read the Costello article in full, I draw attention to one key paragraph:

“Labor worked itself into a huff and pretended this was some international gaffe; that Abbott had no right to point out the previous government had woefully underperformed against the expectations it set itself. But Labor showed sensitivity, not sense. Does it really think other countries are ignorant of what has been going on in Australia? Does it think this is a closely guarded secret? Other nations know what has happened. What they are interested to know is whether it will change.”

I think that says it all.

I can dish it out and take it with the best of them, but the one thing I cannot abide is spivs and shysters from the ALP with their heads wedged so far up their own backsides in self-denial that the shit they talk actually starts to influence the gullible, the stupid, and those who really couldn’t care less.

To the boys over at the ALP: here’s your bone, fellas — go and tear Costello apart. You won’t get off quite so easily if you try it, methinks.

 

 

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.

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  lack 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. There 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.