The wreck of the Peter Costello
Finally, one of the most ridiculous non-stories of Australian politics is over.
Peter Costello will never, ever be Prime Minister. He will never challenge Howard. He will never beat Howard. He won't even win an open leadership contest where Howard is not a candidate. Peter Costello will no more become PM than Cheryl Kernot or John Hewson or Kim Beazley. He is politically dead. In the coming election nobody will listen to a single word he says about anything: this may even happen at APEC next month.
He could stand down. However, the new Treasurer will struggle to find his/her feet, and will involve moving ministers from areas of policy requiring extensive knowledge (the experience and trust thing, you see). Either way, the departure of Peter Costello will stuff the government - almost as much as the slow twisting of his carcass in the wind. The Howard government cannot come back from this.
How many hundreds of hours of airtime, how many hectares of newsprint, have been wasted on the idea that Costello is circling Howard like a shark and waiting to strike generational change into the heart of the Liberal Party? How many "insider" journalists have hyped this up as though it's imminent, as though the Hawke-Keating rivalry set some pattern that is bound to be repeated, only to identify no firm or building momentum for a spill?
It's possible that Howard promised Costello that he'd only stay as PM for a term and a half, or two and a bit. Even if he didn't, the passage of those "deadlines" must have given pause to those who regarded it as part of the Canberra landscape on which they were bound to report. Even the passage of the deadline Costello set in 2005 should have seen the three silly journalists who agreed to hush-up Costello's bragging come forth with the goods.
If he did, and I believe he did, what a masterstroke! Fancy stringing someone along for eleven years - there are people in prison who get treated better than that. John Howard can be a polarising character - some think he's brilliant, some think he's a shit; but this is one area where both will find plenty of sustenance for their views. Same with this going-over from a toothless old dingo.
In a story that shimmers and fades like a mirage, this outburst by Costello was one of the few nuggets of fact that might have built a real, actual story - but they sat on it, for what? On what grounds are they peeved? What juicy insider tips did Costello hand-feed them to keep them sweet? Are you more likely to read The Bulletin or watch The 7.30 Report as a result of all those exclusive deals? Me neither. Those journalists might not be liars but their credibility is pretty much damaged, which is a shame as I had thought their pieces seemed well-considered.
Still, it could be worse - Jason Koutsoukis will need counselling and job retraining. Fortunately, the Australian government provides ...
Peter Costello did the best he could. So far as one can tell from this angle, he did not siphon government money, political donations or other largesse into his own pocket, nor those of his mates. He didn't engage in sordid sexual affairs. He did some good and he missed a few opportunities to do more with what he had, a bit like many of us really. Vale Peter Costello, and thank you.
Maybe there will be a Liberal Prime Minister from Victoria at some stage into the future. By then it will be the country's third most populous state and it will have some of the humility it lacked from its days as the party's engine room, days which are now long past. Sentimental Victorians made up much of Costello's base. So too did moderate liberals, who are now either going, gone or Chris Pyne: Costello was never a moderate, but he shared the same air of bemusement that moderates have, and that was enough when you're standing in line for the "showers".
Like his predecessor as Member for Higgins, John Gorton (except he became Prime Minister, ner ner!), Costello has lied to the press and been caught out. As with Gorton, this is the beginning of the end. While it's true that journalists and politicians lie to each other all the time, what's different here is that Costello is damaged goods. It's one thing to be lied to by someone powerful: if you call them on it, they could deny you the kind of juicy tidbits referred to earlier that seem to be the very essence of what the parliamentary press gallery does. Annabel Crabb is wrong again: all has changed, changed utterly. The press gallery rose as one in refusing to cop that sort of treatment from a loser.
Journalists will eat all sorts of shit - and pass it onto you, dear reader/ listener/ viewer/ citizen, under the GIGO principle - but not if you're on the way out.