Peter Costello: Walking in the overshadows

Cartoon credit: TandbergHappy Birthday to Larvatus Prodeo, which turns four on the stroke of midnight or thereabouts. Consistently Australia’s best group blog over the last few years, it is also a model of (mostly) civil and intelligent discussion in comments. Here’s wishing many more years of good debate from LP.

While this post is entitled “Peter Costello”, the subtitle is partially about the birthday blog and one of its commenters, so bear with me.

I am also grateful to Peter Black who inspired another part of the title. “What a great opening sequence to Insiders, wrote Black this morning, ‘beginning with “Peter Costello went for a walk”’.

It was indeed a great opening. There were plenty of other things going on in Australian politics, but the plot was thick with Costello talk. The ABC’s Chris Uhlmann agreed with Barrie Cassidy’s suggestion the former Treasurer was “up to no good”. I was enjoying his analysis when my ears really pricked up at a sentence he used. “Costello of course I think should be dubbed The Overshadow now,” said Uhlmann, “because no matter what he does he seems to have an effect on the party.”

The Overshadow. It seemed as if Uhlmann was claiming the dub for himself but I knew that Uhlmann was not the first to describe Costello so. I thought I heard it initally through Larvatus Prodeo so I decided to check it out.

I went to Factiva and ran a search for mainstream media articles that had Costello and overshadow in the last three months. The first article of interest was from the ABC. On 17 February, Hayden Cooper reported on the aftermath of the Julie Bishop demolition from the role of Shadow thus: “Hockey’s elevation overshadowed by Costello speculation.”

In this scenario Hockey was the shadow and speculation was the overshadow. Nevertheless – the speculation was close enough to Costello for someone to make the right connection.

That someone was Paul Burns. By 7:06pm on the 17th, Burns had either read the article or listened to it on The World Today. Over at Larvatus Prodeo he was ready to comment about Hockey’s promotion. He prefaced his statement with a grumble. “Occasionally the RW troglodytes who’ve taken over the ABC get it right.”

Just a bit of LWRW point scoring so far. But by channelling Cooper he was ready to deliver the knockout blow.

“Peter Costello = The Overshadow”.

In one mathematical equation Burns nailed the nebulous Costello.

An overshadow is something that blocks light from above. But it has a second meaning: something that “exceeds in importance”. Costello has certainly had no shortage of self-importance, he does smug in spades. And he has never been able to shed the negatives of his upbringing in a way that his brother Tim can.

When Mark Latham wasn’t dissing out his colleagues in the Diaries, he was fruity with Opposition figures too. In the introduction to the book, he agreed with Costello that all politicians indulge themselves in politics and as a result, families suffer. But that was about as good as it got for Costello from Latham. By page 50, he was wishing a pox on Costello and his then boss Howard for “their stinking rotten budget”. It was 1996, and it was the newly elected Howard and Costello were acting, said Latham, like the Bourbons on Bastille Day: “Self indulgent and arrogant.”

There was Treasurer Costello, the youngest ever Liberal MP commissioned to deliver a Budget of non-core promises to the people that elected his party. He was fortunate the odour of meanness and trickiness stuck on his boss.

Nevertheless Howard had the numbers and the loyalty of a whole bunch of politicians who grew up in power and who didn’t mind the smell.

For ten long years Costello let Howard eat cake. But when it became obvious in 2007 Howard’s time was up, Costello wouldn’t move against him. Just like in 1994, Costello hadn’t the numbers or wasn’t prepared to take the big chair. Rudd torpedoed the Libs in November 2007 and Costello went down with the ship.

Except he didn’t. The big offers from private industry didn’t come, so he hung on tight in his Higgins liferaft. Costello’s margin in Higgins is 14 percent. It covers the wealthy south-east Melbourne suburbs of Prahran, South Yarra, Toorak, Armadale, Malvern, Glen Iris, Camberwell and Ashburton and has always been held by Liberals.

(Pic: The Overshadow). Costello whiled away the days writing his memoirs and taking valuable column inches from new leader Brendan Nelson. Cast away in his backbench boat, he watched as Nelson’s column was toppled. When Nelson resigned, he used the one weapon at his disposal to damage Costello. His leadership spill took most of the media coverage away from Costello’s book launch.

But once again The Overshadow hung around. Turnbull inherited the leadership but Costello turned down a position on the front bench. Turnbull was more solid than Nelson but still could not lay a glove on the Government. The Liberals allowed themselves to be wedged on the stimulus as Turnbull forgot the basic rule: never get between the voters and a bag of money.

The Australian has jumped on the bandwagon with an editorial on 12 March that said Costello knows the next election will be fought on his issues. “Turnbull must embrace the Howard agenda,“ pontificated the Australian, “If he declines to do it, the party should look for a leader who will.”

Despite all the wind and noise about Costello over the years, one fact needs repeating: Peter Costello has NEVER contested for the Liberal leadership. Maybe he never had the numbers to make a run at the federal Liberal leadership. Maybe he simply “never had the balls“.

There is one thing that Costello has learned from his Faustian pact with Howard: In politics, longevity is everything. Unless he is challenged for pre-selection in Higgins, Costello will sit tight until the party comes begging for him. And if that date happens to be 2009 or even or 2012, then so be it. But then the Liberals must accept they will not regain the agenda until he comes out of the shadows.

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