Peter Costello has finally put to an end all speculation of a challenge to John Howard’s leadership this side of the Federal election, according to a discreetly placed Sydney newspaper report.
The Treasurer has reportedly told his eager backers to cease all their behind-the-scenes lobbying on his behalf and to concentrate on the job of re-electing the Government.
An open acknowledgement that there would now be no test of John Howard’s leadership would have only raised speculation of an aborted challenge, so the Treasurer’s minders apparently provided a “background briefing” to send a clear but non-damaging message to the media, the backbench, and presumably Mr Howard himself.
So, barring any cataclysmic event, John Howard has one fewer headache in the lead-up to that increasingly daunting task of winning a third term in office.
However, the Costello decision to stomp on the leadership bug still raises several interesting questions, not least of which is the nature of Costello’s ultimate ambitions.
Few politicians ignite such strong opinions as Peter Costello. The smirk, the bravado, the supreme confidence in his own abilities, and the ambition to become Prime Minister of Australia he has had since his colourful student politics days, add up to a politician very much in the Paul Keating mould. People either swear by him or love to hate him.
Even his strongest Labor critics admit Costello is a politicians with considerable qualities and personal charm and charisma who can dominate the Parliament and hone in with withering skill on the weaknesses and contradictions in Labor policy.
On the other hand, while the content of his argument is often devastating for the Opposition in Question Time, there is still too much of “the Keatings” in the Costello theatrics for some people’s liking.
There are basically two views on Costello’s leadership aspirations.
The first is that Costello is lacking in the true fire of ambition, and is in his own way not dissimilar to Kim Beazley.
Costello, according to this version, wants the leadership on a platter, but lacks the “ticker” or ruthlessness required to take the job in the same way that Howard and Keating were prepared to cut people down to reach the top in the time-honoured way.
Costello’s critics (and even some allies) say he won’t do the nasty behind-the-scenes work, he does not try to woo his backbench, nor does he try to build coalitions of interests inside and outside the party.
The second view is that Mr Costello has been extraordinarily loyal despite the many opportunities he has had to undermine and knife Howard, and that his time as leader will come.
It is true that if Mr Costello had, in the words of one well-placed Liberal colleague, even “lifted his little finger” during critical low periods of the Howard Government, there would have been enormously damaging speculation and division in the party leading to some kind of challenge.
In fact, the only time Costello has ever reacted has been to periodic newspaper reports questioning his loyalty to Howard. And these have usually occurred because over-eager Howard loyalists have briefed press gallery journalists on Costello’s shortcomings and even suggested he was “counting the numbers”.
Costello “grew up” watching the insane blood-letting of Liberal Party leadership challenges during the 1980s.
On two occasions he has refused the crown, firstly in passing it to Alexander Downer after the downfall of John Hewson, and then declining to contest for the job after Downer’s downfall.
The truth about Costello is possibly a mixture between the two. Costello is still young – just 44 – and has been in Parliament for only 11 years.
Most post-war Prime Ministers have reached the top only after about two decades of experience in politics. Becoming Prime Minister for a few months just to make the history books is not Costello’s idea of making his mark on history. He is prepared to wait until the time is right.
Admittedly, the prospect of being Opposition Leader should the Coalition lose government would not be an appealing prospect, particularly as he would constantly have to deal with the ambitions of others.
Other rivals could also emerge from left field, including former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett and former Australian Republican Movement chief Malcolm Turnbull.
If Costello is serious about politics he will be around for another decade or two, and whilst it is true that ambitious rivals emerge all the time, he has plenty of time to lead the party. Costello also probably admits that Howard is the party’s only chance of winning office this time around.
That seems unlikely at the moment, but politics is anything but unpredictable and Howard could yet win.
In which case, Costello’s current strategy will finally be rewarded.