Could be worse
Imagine if Peter Costello actually did become Opposition Leader. It's a ridiculous thought and I still don't think it will happen, but let's imagine:
- By the end of his first week, every journalist in the country would ping him on the lazy notion that a vote for Costello would automatically mean 'happy days are here again' and the Libs will outpoll Labor on better handling of economic difficulties.
- You can be a hard-arse on industrial relations reform when jobs are easy to get, when take-it-or-leave-it can be leavened by a range of opportunities if you do leave. You can't cede to Labor the appearance of caring-and-sharing toward job loss as well as that of best economic policy to suit current and anticipated economic circumstances; this is exactly what Costello would do, and what Turnbull is seeking to avoid.
- The rise of Costello would see the increased prominence of Tony Smith and Mitch Fifield, who play Biff and Happy to Costello's Willy Loman but otherwise offer nothing to the nation, Victoria or the Liberal Party. Costello has made the Victorian Liberals in his image, and what a sorry bunch they all are. No electorates in Victoria now held by Labor would vote Liberal because of the man from Malvern.
- Beyond Victoria, a victory for Costello in the current context would be a victory for the far right, and voter-repellent candidates like Alex Hawke and Peter Dutton. Chris Pyne would cut a deal to stay in the game were Costello to get up. Costello wants a Liberal Party intact and rivals exhausted, but he also wants to use the Liberal Party as a hammock rather than a springboard: he isn't strong enough to buck the right and move toward the centre, wherever that centre ground might shift. Having represented himself to the right as the keeper of the Howard flame, he can't represent himself as a post-Howard Liberal like Turnbull can and does. Costello can't through the switch to vaudeville, because like that other vapid Victorian Andrew Peacock neither the smirk nor the scowl are convincing.
- Costello would win no rural votes, none.
- Costello would win no votes in outer suburban seats like Lindsay, Macarthur and Robertson (NSW), McEwen, McMillan and Corangamite (V), Forde and Longman (Q), Solomon (NT), Hasluck and Canning (WA), Bass (T), Kingston and Wakefield (SA) and their equivalents in other parts of the country.
- "Parliamentary skills" count for nothing. Nothing. No polling says that it does and any that says otherwise is wrong. Costello at his best is inferior to Keating on a bad day: Keating got to be Prime Minister, and he lost; only the latter is true of Costello.
In short: for the Liberals to hand Peter Costello the leadership of the Liberal Party would be suicidal, before 2010 or after. He'd win no votes for the Liberal Party and repel many.
WorkChoices is to the post-Howard Liberals what abolishing Medicare was post-Fraser. Time and again the Liberals vowed to abolish Medicare, and loyal supporters cheered them to the echo as it reflected everything the Liberal Party stood for. Time and again voters voted against abolishing Medicare. In 1996 Howard dropped his objections to Medicare and voters dropped their objections to him: never did the Howard government move to abolish Medicare, not even with control over the Senate, despite the nudge-and-wink campaign of people like Minchin to rally the faithful in '96. That's how you deal with the Liberal Right: lie to them, give 'em nothing.
Just because Peter Costello has been to a G20 meeting or two doesn't mean he'd know what to do at the current meeting, or the next one. The message that these are uniquely fraught economic circumstances has well and truly got through, and cuts out any advantage Costello may have in economic policy.
Costello embodies the idea that a return to Howard-era policies is viable. He is not, in himself, any sort of potent threat to Labor.
Wen Turnbull was first elected leader, Rudd tried to raise the idea of a republic to wedge the Liberals: Turnbull blunted this brilliantly by talking about the economy and other big issues, and implying that Rudd was being irrelevant and obtuse by focusing on the republic. It was brilliant and worked brilliantly.
Labor are doing something similar by focusing on Costello: the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is a joke and the Murray-Darling a tragedy. Wayne Swan goes all the way to Britain, where the Labour government is convinced that Australia has nothing to teach them. Peter Garrett may as well go back to his old job, and so might all of Labor's ministers theirs for all the good they appear to be doing. Costello is the diversion they've been looking for - and with a lazy press gallery, they're of course covering Costello as though he mattered, rather than that confusing economics stuff.
John Howard achieved more in Opposition than Peter Costello did in government. Deny it if you dare: that statement is the rebuttal to all those "political professionals" who insist that winning government is all, and that principle, policy and even guts are secondary to holding office.