A FUNNY business this politics, isn’t it? As I have observed previously, all politicians are fibbers to some extent and the people at large sense or know this and yet they have come to take it for granted which I suppose makes us all compliant in this continuing erosion of political morality. It is a pity but lying has become a “given” in the daily theatre of politics.

Take the most recent phase in the long-running Howard-Costello fandango. Seemingly out of the blue, former federal minister, Ian McLachlan announces that he was the third party present at a meeting in December, 1994 when John Howard undertook to hand over the leadership of the parliamentary Liberal Party and the prime ministership to Peter Costello —  if they had won the coming election — after serving one and a half terms. As we now know it didn’t quite work out like that.

Perhaps the first point to make about this pact was that it was arrogant and presumptuous of Howard and Costello to assume that this would be so without any prior consultation with the parliamentary party. Indeed, if they did consult the party in advance — which I don’t believe was the case — how could they sensibly seek that endorsement when it would not be theirs’ to seek or the party’s to give, not least because the composition of the parliamentary party could and did change before the proposed changeover date occurred, given that it would be after the next election.

McLachlan is known to be a man of high integrity — which is perhaps why he was a relatively short-term politician — and he is one of the few to emerge from this saga with his reputation intact. The only question that I have of McLachlan is why it took him so long to reveal the Howard/Costello arrangement after the term and a half deadline had been passed. Perhaps it was up to either of the principals to take the initiative themselves.

Sillier and more naive

Costello’s role, however, is much more difficult to understand notwithstanding that he too is regarded as being a highly principled politician. Why, then, did he so meekly — or so it seems — allow the farce to continue many years past the deadline without taking action. Perhaps he hides behind the “I didn’t want to destabilise the party” defence. If so, he is sillier and more naive than I thought to allow Howard to walk over him — and ignore the “pact” — for so many years. If the man had any fibre, any gumption any consistency of principle he would surely have gone to the backbench the moment Howard welched on the deal after the qualification period of one and a half terms. He would probably have been applauded by both the party and the people for doing so. Remember Keating? Of course and it was the model Costello should have taken up. Then there is the further valid question as to why Costello should assume some kind of divine right to the succession anyway. As commented above, the whole saga reeks of Howard and Costello with nary a mention of other possible aspirants, some of whom could reasonably have claimed legitimacy to put their aspirations and qualifications forward.

This whole grubby story is yet a further reminder that our federal parliament has increasingly become overloaded with politicians at the expense of statesmen, let alone independent spirits within the respective parties. The principal parties are peopled almost exclusively by politicians, operators who do something else for a while — farming, trade union work, the law, teaching, etc. — then find a seat, nurture it into a state of reasonable stability and then go for the dizzy heights or settle for being “division fodder” and await the pension. Malcolm Turnbull is a breath of fresh air or at least I think he will be when he is allocated a portfolio of substance.

Of course, one of the problems of parliaments and parties being overloaded with politicians in the worst sense is that policy and substantive progress takes second place to politics and politicking, especially the winning of elections and the socalled spin-doctoring used to convince the public at large that the government works only for them and does so with wisdom, immense energy and absolute integrity. While these days John Howard does a good deal of posturing as a statesman, especially as the favourite “buddy” of the unimpressive president of the United States, he is fundamentally a politician and one of the shrewdest of the breed that we have seen for many years. Political skills are important in winning elections, developing a team and holding it together but they don’t necessarily always make for good policy development.

In this context, it has to be said that John Howard’s prime ministership has been notable more for longevity and solid administrative oversight — with the exception of a couple of areas, notably immigration — than its policy outcomes. True, we did have the GST but, apart from being telegraphed long in advance, it was more in the nature of a refinement to the taxation system than a major policy breakthrough. In response to my view, the government — in the unlikely event that they cared about my view —  would produce the ever-ready massive catalogue of achievements most of which would probably have been done by any government in the course of routine house-keeping. Peter Costello would claim sparkling success at the Treasury and a large parcel of that success list would be what most observers would also regard as routine house-keeping, reactive rather than pro-active policy development. Beyond all that, in my view Costello still doesn’t articulate economic and financial policy issues with any confidence that he actually knows what he is talking about, in terms of either the concepts or the detail.

Let us look at Costello

So, let us look at Costello in the context of the current drama. This is a man who came to an understanding — Howard says no “deal” was done, which I would regard as diversionary hair-splitting — that he would assume the Parliamentary Liberal Party leadership after Howard had served one and a half terms as leader and, as events have transpired, also as Prime Minister. So, instead of really standing Howard up by taking the deal issue public, putting it to the party, probably losing and then taking his bat and ball to the back-bench, Costello did none of that. He wimped it while Howard became the second-longest prime minister in the history of the nation. Howard stuck in there and, apart from being able to preside over one of the most buoyant economies in the world — provided they didn’t meddle too much — he blithely ignored the alleged non-deal with Costello, won successive elections and implanted himself in the public mind as both competent and popular. Costello has been out-manoeuvred, out-gunned and out-flanked at every stage of the process because he just did not have wherewithal to take on one of the toughest, trickiest, smartest, most ruthless and most resilient little political operators we have seen for many decades. Costello never had a chance and he thinks he has been dudded. He certainly has been dudded and it happened when McLachlan watched them do that deal all those years ago. It took Peter a while to work out that John was always thinking in a much longer time frame than one and a half terms!

Having reached that conclusion it does not follow that Howard will continue in his present job for as long as he wishes. He too has been bruised by the events of the recent past and I think the “tricky” and “fibber” labels are being generated more widely and sticking that bit harder. No one with whom I have spoken believes anything other than that the “understanding” between him and Costello all those years ago was declared by all parties at the time to be a firm commitment. Howard may have had his tongue in his cheek but for tactical reasons at the time he would have wanted Costello to believe his, Howard’s, commitment to the change-over after one and a half terms.

I reckon the odds about Howard taking the party to the next election may have shortened a tiny bit but not at any speed yet. Right now, however, the best thing he has going for him is the Labor Party which continues to convey the image of a bevy of time-servers who are going through the motions until the time is ripe to pick up the pension cheque. In my view they are on the cusp of the best chance they have had for a long time to roll the government if they are prepared and able to seize the moment. A well researched, highly professional and astutely managed campaign — supported by good, telling, readable but not strident brochure material and strong door-knocking which should already be underway — could well see them on the Treasury benches. They would have a chance but not in my view with Beazley. He may be a decent and intelligent fellow but he is yesterday’s man — verbose, seemingly stolid and pedestrian. Gillard, Tanner, Rudd and any of a few others would be immeasurably more credible.

Nick Evers

This whole grubby story is yet a further reminder that our federal parliament has increasingly become overloaded with politicians at the expense of statesmen, let alone independent spirits within the respective parties.

Costello has been out-manoeuvred, out-gunned and out-flanked at every stage of the process because he just did not have wherewithal to take on one of the toughest, trickiest, smartest, most ruthless and most resilient little political operators we have seen for many decades.