13 May 2009

Feeling sorry

You'd be surprised how easy it is to avoid commentating on the hoo-ha at The Monthly, even when you're a subscriber. However, if I was a former Federal Treasurer on the day following a Budget delivered by my successor, I'd hope for a bit more decorum and gravitas than Peter Costello had shown here. The article starts with the perpendicular pronoun and plunges into a self-absorbed morass of twaddle.
To quote Eddie McGuire, Warhaft was "boned" at the magazine

The whole controversy over that comment by Eddie McGuire, then CEO of Channel Nine, about the prospect of dismissing a female employee was the crude sexism of it. Costello does himself no favours by bringing that back up and smearing it over himself. Costello is probably not a sleazy man, but why even go there? He's a former industrial relatios lawyer, he should be able to come up with another euphemism for "sacked" (if not use the word outright) to describe Ms Warhaft's state of employment.
[Sally Warhaft, then editor of The Monthly] had been inviting Malcolm Turnbull to write for her magazine and said if I was Opposition leader she hoped I would respond to those invitations. She went on to say she didn't "want to live in a one-party state." After our television appearance, Warhaft proposed to her editorial board that they publish a reply from me. She wanted to open the pages up to different parties.

Assuming, of course, that Costello and Turnbull are in different parties, and that the idea of Turnbull not being Opposition Leader because he has my full support, &c.
The Monthly is owned and financed by Morry Schwartz. He has done well out of the capitalist system and he uses his own money to publish the magazine. He has every right to decide what views he wants to publish. If he wants to criticise market capitalism then so be it. If he doesn't want a contrary view then so be it. It's his magazine.

But he cannot hold the magazine open to only one side and then claim it is open to competing views. Plainly his magazine is not open to both sides of debate.

I think you need more evidence than your own personal experience to make a claim like that. It is a lively and vigorous journal which does publish competing points of view on a range of issues: civil liberties, various controversies in the arts, questions on Aborigines and their place in our society, a range of matters which involve more sides of a debate than one or two.

If Schwartz or Robert Manne had wanted a piece on Peter Costello's views, they could just contact Peter Coleman directly. It is inconceivable that Manne and Coleman, two former editors of Quadrant, haven't met. Indeed, Coleman's book The Costello Memoirs sets out as much as anyone would want to know about this ruse whereby Costello lumbers around signing things and Coleman explains to him and through him why he did them.

This is Costello at his student politics worst: complaining that he's being "censored" when he's just being ignored. As many people as were ever going to buy The Costello Memoirs have already done so, and rather than ask for a bit of media space to squeeze out a few more sales he thunders about censorship - a frightful apparition to a liberal like Manne. We've all seen this trick before - conservatives shriek about "censorship" when they are not published in a non-conservative magazine - then once they bend over backwards to accommodate them, said magazine becomes "a confusing mishmash of styles" in unfavourable contrast to the dull conformity "strong clear voice" of the tory mags.
And this is where I feel sorry for Warhaft. She was asked on live television whether she would publish a reply to Rudd. She said she would. But in fact she was not allowed to - at least not allowed to publish one from me. What should she have said on television that night? "No we won't publish Costello because we disagree with his view."

Firstly, Costello doesn't have a view, as such. Secondly, as Costello points out, he has other opportunities to publish: a regular column in The Daily Fairfax (taking over Josh Frydenberg's old spot) and as much of Quadrant or The Strain Spectator or whatever. Thirdly, for all his pity for Warhaft, he's asking her to second-guess her superiors about a decision which hasn't been put to them. Schwartz and Manne are right to regard Costello as beneath, rather than merely opposed, to their publication.
In 1982 Manne edited The New Conservatism In Australia. This was not a book bemoaning conservatism in Australia. It was one extolling it. Manne wrote in the introduction "much of the more original and interesting social and political criticism in Australia seemed to come from those whom I regarded as being, in one way or another, on the political 'right'."

To be fair to him, when he wrote that he was going through a conservative phase. As he explains in his book Left Right Left he has now shifted back again the other way.

But it might still be true that there is interesting social and political criticism on the conservative side.

No, it isn't. The political energy that was with the conservative side of politics has dissipated since 1982, into a dark pit of Cheneyism or shallow news-cycle politics like you find from David Cameron (like the government-by-press-release we have in NSW, only the Tories aren't in government).
You'll never know if you don't hear it.

Heard it, read it, got the T-shirt. Costello is hardly the only conservative writer out there grappling with the sheer bankruptcy of their position, and even if there were a renaissance Costello would be following rather than leading it. There's nothing there, Peter, and nobody knows that better than you. There's no alternative to work with, let alone to work for - and even if you do bully your way into The Monthly like Miranda Devine has with the SMH, you'll produce nothing of value.

Time was that a small number of publishers owned and controlled media outlets in this country, and that if they had some real or imagined grievance against you, you were pretty much silenced. This is no longer the case, and Costello knows it. He could probably produce an extended piece of tendentiousness no better than Rudd's, if his father-in-law is good enough to write it for him - but that would be beside the point.

In picking an intellectual fight with some old lefties running a little magazine in Melbourne, Costello is trying to pick a fight that he doesn't have the weaponry or the guts to wage. He can't even take on Wayne Swan's mixed performance in his old job, but a couple of guys in Jimmy Watson's Wine Bar minding their own business are worthy opponents, apparently. Pick on someone your own size and you might be considered PM material; pick on the sort of people you were going after as a student activist or in the HR Nicholls Society, and you might find yourself bounced back into civilian life sooner than you might like. It is one thing to come off second-best to John Howard, or to bounce ineffectively off the sheer hide of Rudd and Swan, but at this stage Sally Warhaft has achieved about as much in her field as Peter Costello has in his. No wonder you feel sorry for her.


  1. Costello as leader would be the best thing that could happen to the Liberals. The subsequent electoral anihalation will give them the realisation that they have to shake of the spectors of the past - the Howardian legacy.

  2. Wish I could agree with you Slim, but scroll down to my piece "Bonfire of the dead wood" to see why I can't. Those who remained wouldn't wake up, they'd just think "we haven't sold our message well enough" and would keep on with the same old crap.

  3. Andrew,

    As always an interesting take on the behaviour of the Member of Higgins.

    My opinion fwiw is that Costello's gauche behaviour seems to arise just as murmurings of leadeship challenges emerge. I don't think Costello has any great admiration for Turnbull. However, in Cossie's world being promoted to leader to take a bollocking at the polls is not what he has in mind.

    It's a variation on the "Oh Lord! make me pure, but not just yet".

    He seems to want to wait out the ascendancy of Rudd and Labor and launch his grab for the Crown at just the right moment that he'll also secure the PM position.

    But on the current performance of the Libs, he could be wandering in the wilderness for a long time.