Peter Costello’s contribution to Australia was significant. To what degree will be debated by both sides of politics for some time.
Peter Costello’s surprise decision to quit parliament may fix a short-term problem for the Opposition, but leaves a gaping chasm for the Liberal Party over the long term.
Malcolm Turnbull now has a clear run until the next election. Barring any calamity he will not only not face a challenge, but has been handed the opportunity of being able to develop an alternative policy platform without distractions or backbench rumblings about his performance.
He will certainly need the space because Kevin Rudd is odds-on favourite to win the coming election, particularly if he opts to go early, as the speculation inside Labor increasingly suggests.
Soon after Mr Costello made his announcement, leading columnists argued that, while ever he remained in the parliament, the former Treasurer was going to pose a threat to the leader.
This, it was argued, would be the case, whether it was Mr Turnbull, Joe Hockey or whoever else was elevated to the top job.
Sadly, this says as much about the depth of talent in the Liberal Party as it does about Mr Costello’s stature.
Certainly, Mr Costello possessed considerable political abilities, unmatched experience in government and a certain charisma.
At his best, he dominated the parliament with his oratorical skills and wit; and his self-deprecating sense of humour was a rarity in politics.
At his worst, his occasional displays of petulance and his thin skin created doubts in peoples’ mind about what sort of prime minister he would make.
Sadly, we will now never know.
Ironically, one of Mr Costello’s key problem was his sense of destiny, born sometime in his youth, that one day he would be prime minister.
Early chances of taking the top job after the demise of the leadership ambitions of Dr John Hewson and Alexander Downer were passed up because these did not suit his timetable.
When John Howard repeatedly refused to hand him the prize when it was his “turn”, he chose not to challenge, fearing he would split the party.
But after Mr Howard was beaten, he again refused to lead.
The only job he wanted had passed him by.
Regrettably, Mr Costello wanted the job on his own terms and, when it didn’t happen that way, he chose to call it a day.
Having at least one elder statesmen in the party, who could be a potential fall-back leader, is important.
Simon Crean is a good example in the Labor Party — a man with a long track record in the parliament who could step into the leader’s shoes if a series of accidents were to hit the party.
No doubt, Mr Crean still nurtures ambition, but keeps this to himself for the sake of the party.
Mr Costello would have made an important contribution to policy had he chosen to stay.
More importantly, his conservative social values and his connection with the mindset of the great bulk of everyday Australians would have been a powerful antidote to the philosophy of the affluent inner-city set which is taking over the Liberal Party.
Mr Costello became federal Treasurer at the unusually young age of 38, and at not quite 52 he is still four years away from the age John Howard was elected prime minister, after which Howard went on to become the second longest-serving leader after Sir Robert Menzies.
Had he chosen to take a mentoring role, Mr Costello could have made an enormous contribution as a parliamentarian, while being a fall-back alternative if younger rivals pulled up at the hurdles.
Another decade in politics may or may not have given him the job he most craved — being prime minister.
Certainly, other good men such as R.G. Casey, Sir Paul Hasluck and the two Beazleys could have been fine prime ministers but were denied that opportunity by history, circumstance and more ruthless opponents.
All that having been said, Mr Costello was not obliged to remain in the parliament and is more than entitled to choose a second career.
His contribution to the country was significant. To what degree will be debated by both sides of politics for some time.
Liberal colleagues have described Mr Costello as the greatest Treasurer since Federation, while Labor argues that the Howard years were wasted years and Costello’s treasuryship a lost opportunity.
At his final media conference, Mr Costello cited two great achievements — the remaking of the tax system and the elimination of government debt which he said put the country in good stead for the current downturn.
But he lamented that all the work on eliminating debt had been reversed in a few short months, showing just how ephemeral politics can be.