Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Waiting In The Wings… But For What?

It’s hard to know just what Peter Costello thinks he is doing, lurking on the Liberal Party’s back bench. It has been reported that after Julie Bishop stepped aside as Shadow Treasurer, Mr. Costello declined an invitation to take up the post. And who can blame him. After all he had eleven years as the real Treasurer, so why would he want to be the Shadow? There is speculation that the only front bench position that interests him is that of Party Leader. But if that was true, wouldn’t he already have the job?

There is no doubt that there is plenty of support for Mr. Costello to play a senior role in the opposition, whether as Shadow Treasurer or otherwise, both from his colleagues and from Liberal voters. But it’s hard to see any good reason for him to take anything less than the leadership. It’s also questionable whether he would be as good for the Party as some seem to think. Despite his reputation as a lively Parliamentary performer, he now carries the baggage of the past. He may have presided over a period of economic prosperity, but the timing of the plunge over the precipice makes it clear that the current government is not to blame. Even more divisively, Peter Costello will be forever connected to Work Choices, the single most crucial factor in the Liberal Party’s loss of office.

Not only has the nation moved on, it appears as if Peter Costello has not. He is now seen as a ditherer, someone who had the opportunity, but didn’t have the fortitude to take it. Even when Brendan Nelson’s leadership crumbled, Peter Costello could not bring himself to make a move. Whatever his motivations might be, people could easily see that as indicating one of three things. One, he wants it, but only if it’s handed to him on a plate. Two, he wants it, but is waiting for a better opportunity. Or three, he actually doesn’t want it at all, but is just occupying space on the back bench because he has nothing better to do and the money’s good. Could it be that the nation’s once great treasurer forgot to save up enough to provide for his retirement?

I suspect, but I have no way of knowing, that Peter Costello is experiencing a combination of all three feelings. Perhaps there really is nothing else he would rather do than be in Parliament. Perhaps the opportunities which he expected to open up in the corporate world simply haven’t emerged. Perhaps he really does still want to be leader, but believes that now is not the time. Perhaps he is waiting for a time when Malcolm Turnbull will somehow self-destruct, and the Party will turn to him in its time of need and beg him to become leader. Perhaps he sees it as somehow beneath him to have to actively seek it out, rather than be invited by desperately grateful colleagues, much the same as John Howard was after they ran out of other alternatives. The only problem with such a plan is Malcolm Turnbull won’t fall by the wayside quite so easily as Nelson, or Downer, or Hewson.

Some would suggest that if Peter Costello is not going to play an active part in the leadership team that he should get out of the Parliament and make way for new blood, as Brendan Nelson has done. It might well be in the best interests of the Party for that to happen. But it seems that Peter Costello is more likely to be considering the best interests of Peter Costello, even if the rest of us can’t be entirely sure just what those interests are.

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