An easy tool
Peter Costello will never become Prime Minister. It will be too hard for him to shake the already-calibrated Labor theme that he didn't do enough to head off the economic predicament we're now in, and the political predicament the Coalition is now in.
Never mind Tom Elliott the economic commentator/fund manager, the commentary on Costello belongs to a less-consonanted Tom Eliot from yesteryear:
And I have known the eyes already, known them all —
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
The idea that Costello had idled his way to a near-recession will counteract the hopes people have for him as an economic messiah.
There are two aspects to the economic predicament Australia is in. First, there is the US sub-prime mortgage crisis. Costello deserves no blame for this, but there is no ability to give him any credit for heading it off, or for giving pointers on how to avoid it now that its impact is being felt. Had Costello warned Swan to act, and had Swan ignored that advice, the Liberals would now have a stick with which to beat the Coalition: he didn't, so they don't.
Second, there is the impacts of global warming, and attendant measures such as an emissions trading system. Costello has done no more on the environment than anyone else. He might have been less strident a climate-change
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all” —
So: Peter Costello doesn't have the economic credibility his boosters would hope. What does that leave his fans with?
- His Parliamentary performances? These were only morale-boosters for those who were already Coalition MPs, and did nothing for those who would maintain or boost the numbers of Coalition MPs to government levels.
- His personal warmth? Might be able to match Rudd on that score at times, but that diffident reserve will not be denied.
- WorkChoices? Not quite the deal-breaker Labor would hope, but the Coalition have a lot to live down. It's not clear that one of the founding members of the H R Nicholls Society can make the case that the Coalition are not going back down that track.
- A Costello leadership means a higher profile for Chris Pyne. Oh yes.
- Walking across the Bridge in support of Aboriginal reconciliation? Yeah, probably - depends on how he handles the inevitable changes to the Northern Territory Intervention.
It's all very well for hair-shirt commentators to demand that Nelson make Costello challenge him, but he won't. Costello will leave any thrown-down gauntlet where it lies. Nelson is gone whatever happens, he'll simply be removed and replaced - but if he is replaced with Costello, Nelson will be entitled to feel ill-used. Costello won't look tactically clever for having avoided the hard decisions Nelson has faced (and not handled well) since November - if he becomes leader Costello will look, to coin a phrase, mean and tricky.
Jackie Kelly was right: Costello is not your man to win back Liberal seats in western Sydney (or, for that matter, seats like Bennelong). He's flat out finding a suitable candidate for eminently winnable seats like Chisholm.
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous —
Almost, at times, the Fool.
Opposition Leader Costello has some hard decisions to make in charting Liberal policy in a number of areas: balancing competing interests, including those feeling slighted by Rudd without taking on politically poisonous ideas, establishing clear differences with Rudd without being divisive, establishing political superiority in areas that matter. Costello would keep Rudd on his toes at times but Labor already have his measure. The next Liberal Prime Minister must be able to build an appealing and credible post-Howard Liberal narrative. Costello can't do that and won't.