Friday, October 10, 2008

Costello is the new Nixon

The former treasurer has something in common with the disgraced US president.

When I say that Peter Costello is the new Nixon, I do not mean -- as many Labor partisans would -- that Australia's longest-serving treasurer will join America's 37th president in the ash heap of most maligned political leaders.  I mean that Costello, like Nixon before him, may be on the verge of making a remarkable political comeback.  As this is decidedly a minority view among commentators and political professionals, let me explain.

Nixon, for all his faults, was one of the great political warriors of the modern era.  During a career that spanned his election to Congress in 1946 to his resignation as president in 1974, he was able to recover from each setback and bounce back with tremendous force.

We all know about Nixon's "last press conference" following his defeat in the Californian gubernatorial election in 1962.  "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore," he sneered at the journalists, "because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference."  Less well known is the publication of Nixon's political memoirs -- or, as history showed, volume one at least -- in 1962.

Which brings us to Peter Costello.  Having spent the past month promoting what he himself calls "volume one of my memoirs", John Howard's former heir apparent is at precisely the same point in his political career as Nixon was during the 1964 Republican presidential convention.  Just as the GOP celebrated the arrival of its rising star Barry Goldwater, the Liberals are today embracing their own rising star Malcolm Turnbull.  And just as Nixon loyally backed his new leader on the sidelines only to see him crash spectacularly against LBJ and set the scene for Tricky Dick's own presidential victory in 1968, so is Costello loyally backing his new leader from the parliamentary back bench while he patiently waits for the political and economic circumstances to change.

During the past year, the conventional wisdom in Canberra is that Costello refused the very leadership he had been craving for more than a decade.  "I will not seek, nor will I accept, the Liberal party leadership," he has consistently insisted since the 24 November election.  Selfish, petulant, resentful, weak -- all of these adjectives have been hurled at the 18-year parliamentary veteran, and in the weeks since his book launch, the criticisms have become so widespread that virtually every commentator has ruled out Costello's leadership ambitions.  What Time magazine said of Nixon in 1962 could easily be said of Costello today:  that barring a miracle, his political career is over.

Not so fast.  For there are two good reasons why Costello will continue to sit tight on the back bench before he runs for the leadership.

Let's start with some history.  For one thing, every opposition leader whose party has just lost government struggles to gain traction against a newly elected prime minister.  Think of Kim Beazley against John Howard in 1996;  or Andrew Peacock against Bob Hawke in 1983;  or Bill Snedden against Gough Whitlam in 1973;  or Ben Chiefly against Robert Menzies in 1950.  One could provide more examples, but the point here is clear:  Brendan Nelson was only the latest opposition leader who could not make much headway into a new PM's popularity.  Australians, moreover, are temperamentally a conservative lot, wary of change and prepared to give the new government a fair go.  Remember:  we've changed governing parties only five times in the 23 elections since 1949.

In these circumstances, why would Costello want a poisoned chalice?  The people have made their decision to kick out an 11-and-a-half-year-old government, and they're unlikely to change their minds so quickly -- unless, of course, the Labor government turns out to be embarrassingly bad.  For all Rudd's flaws, though, his government is not quite in the same pathetic league as the Whitlam government, and even Gough, remember, somehow got re-elected.

The second reason why Costello wants a break from the rigorous life on the front benches is just that.  "Sometimes, people need time out," he recently told journalists.  "I remember Malcolm Fraser said to me once:  "The trouble with politics is that you should go and live in a monastery for three months every several years."  And I think if our politicians had the ability to spend some time thinking rather than the incessant demands of the media cycle, who knows, we might get better politicians."

He's right:  there's nothing wrong with a time-out from the front-line of political battles.  All successful leaders have periods spent outside of the limelight, waiting for the right moment to jump back into the fray just as the circumstances change.  Nixon is one among many.  Think of John Howard, following his loss of the Liberal leadership in 1989, who spent nearly a year on the opposition back bench and another five years on the shadow front bench before making his move for the leadership (and prime ministership) again.

Or think of Colin Barnett, the new Western Australian Premier, who had not only announced his retirement from politics but had also written his political memoirs.  And yet within weeks of the recent state election, he suspended both his retirement and publication plans and threw himself back into the arena.

For Costello, a "time-out" means spending time on the back bench, serving his constituents faithfully, and politely reminding people of the good old days from 1996 to 2007, over which he helped preside.  But when the circumstance changes -- the economy nosedives just as Turnbull crashes and burns, for example -- he will be ready to play another season on prime-time.

At last month's book launch, a journalist asked:  "You've said you'll give Malcolm Turnbull all the assistance that you can.  Wouldn't the best assistance be to resign from parliament, and so remove yourself as this sort of shadow in the background that's threatening his leadership?"

Costello's response:  "No.  You can see why I love the press."  Nixon could not have said it any better.


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