12 July 2006

The weasel vs the chicken

For ten years the Australian media have speculated about when Howard will retire and hand the Prime Ministership to Peter Costello. Acres of newspaper and blogspace, days of airtime have been lavished on this. It separates politics nerds from those who aren't: the Howard-Costello thing is fascinating to those who are insider-wannabes, terribly dull stuff to those who aren't. We all have to work with people we don't like, and the ambitious find their way blocked by time-servers. When I think what other public policy issues could have been investigated instead of Parliament House scuttlebutt, I could weep.

Only now that it has come to a head is it an interesting topic of conversation. Costello can't back down without crippling himself as a man of principle and resolve. Howard has shown himself to be the opposite. He will only hand over to Costello (or someone else) if he thinks he'll lose.

There is only one way forward for Costello: to the backbench; read some fat books and pen some thoughtful articles, get to know his family, smirk at the unfolding disaster.

There is only one way forward for Howard: a different Treasurer, and a clear demonstration of how shallow the talent pool really is. The economy will start to sputter over coming months, a bit of inflation here and a few job cuts there - a Costello resignation/dumping could be one of the great hospital passes in Australian history. Abbott, Downer or Nelson are the obvious choices as Treasurer: each would do the bidding of Howard's office and none would achieve anything independent of that. Downer would make some silly remark that sent the markets into a tailspin (he, Howard and Vaile are also vulnerable to new revelations over AWB, in a way that Costello mightn't be); Abbott would make a sincere statement of belief that sent the markets into a tailspin, and would show his colleagues that he is not really a tough guy but just a prick; Nelson would have the entire staff of the economic policy organs of government engaged in inquiries so that no one did any work, sending the markets into a tailspin. Each of them would feel Costello's smirk burn into the backs of their necks like a brand, as did Kerin and Willis in 1991.

Oh, and Vaile needs a domestic portfolio after the end of the month if Cole doesn't sink him. Treasury would be way too hard for him, the markets would see through this small-town pollie and the Libs would undermine him.

Costello may play no role in the coming election campaign, but that may be no bad thing if it is a disaster for the Coalition (a narrow victory is the most likely outcome). His most likely fate is to end up like Michael Heseltine, the man who coulda-but-didn't. After a long-term Prime Ministership the heir is likely to be someone who wasn't even on the scene at the start: Holt was not the heir-apparent to Menzies in 1949, or even 1959. Truman was not FDR's heir apparent in 1933 or '43. While Costello is unencumbered by milk-of-human-kindness issues, someone who would wield the knife and wear the crown needs patience that Costello lacks.

This is only a win for Labor if you believe in zero-sum politics. The wounds will heal quickly if temporarily, and an early election ought not be ruled out after a few housekeeping issues. A narrow loss next election would be Labor's worst-case scenario: not in government but Beazley vindicated and unwilling to make any changes.

Did you see Liberal activist and Senate reject John Ruddick with that silly banner outside Kirribilli House - the one with love-hearts over the "O"s in "John Howard"? What a dipstick.

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