Bring back Cossie


Should Peter Costello come back to politics and save the Liberal Party?

So says the radio host Neil Mitchell, while rallying about the “current lot” of “amateurs”:

Peter Costello has been talking sense.

He’s made a couple of speeches in the past week which made, I think, more sense than what the politicians have made for a year.

He’s only 59.

He will have learned from his time out of politics (and) I reckon he would regret getting out when he did.

If he stayed he would have been Prime Minister by now.

For the record, I believe that the Liberal Party is in dire need of saving. I’m struggling to think of anyone in the Parliament at the moment with sufficient experience to be able to do so. I’m also a big fan of Peter Costello, and I think that in principle he would make a great Prime Minister.

But it won’t happen.

Peter Costello is perhaps the best all-round politician in Australia’s history to have missed out on being the prime minister. Accounting for why he did in fact miss out will no doubt continue to divide the Liberals for many more years to come. It remains one of the big “ifs” of politics: what would have happened if John Howard retired in 2006 after a decade at the top and Costello then achieved his ambition of leading the nation. We will never know, though at least some Labor strategists thought that Kevin Rudd might not have won (or certainly not so easily) in 2007 had he been pitted against equally young and dynamic Costello.

Another big “if” comes from 2009. After Howard’s end, Costello refused to take up what just about everyone then saw as the poison chalice of opposition leadership. With hindsight that was a mistake, though I understand why Costello demurred. But an even bigger mistake for Costello was retiring from politics half-way through the parliamentary term. I know he was disappointed and tired and over politics, but he should have stuck it out until the next election. Had he done so, once Malcolm Turnbull stumbled over his support for Rudd’s Emissions Trading Scheme, Costello would have rolled him a lot more convincingly than Tony Abbott did, and I believe he would have won the 2010 election against either Rudd or Julia Gillard. As it is, Costello missed out by literally a matter of weeks when he left in October 2009. There were people who saw the writing on the wall about the ETS who begged Costello to stay on a bit longer and see how the events unfolded, but his mind was made up.

There will not be any more chances. Seven years is an eternity in politics; the political and parliamentary landscape is now completely different. Costello might have been the leader in 2007 or 2009, but by 2016 he’s old news and a yesterday’s – or even the day before yesterday’s – man. Political comebacks never work because you can’t simply take up where you left off; by the time you come back you are a stranger to your old party. New political generations have arrived in the meantime, and everyone has got several more years of hard slog and accumulated seniority under their belt; these people don’t look kindly on interlopers trying to jump the queue to the top. This is why political messiahs don’t really work in our systems of government and party politics: quite apart from the fact that they are often an unknown quality and in practice prove temperamentally unsuited to politics, their colleagues, rightly or wrongly resent them and tear them down.

However warmly the party rank and file might remember Costello as a great treasurer and a great Liberal, there are now in Parliament an ever increasing number of members and senators who have never served with him. Those who did have moved on, either within or out of representative politics. Costello is now a memory and history, like Howard or Menzies. Even if he wanted to come back – and there are no indications that he does – and somehow managed to find himself a seat, get preselected and then elected, he would not be welcomed with open arms.

Neil Mitchell knows that too. “It won’t happen, but it should,” he says, and he is right.

That still leaves the Liberal Party in a lot of strife, being led in an increasingly hostile parliamentary and public climate by a do-nothing prime minister, who has always been an ill-fit with the party he presides over. As dreadful as Labor under Bill Shorten is, and as early in the electoral cycle as it is, the opposition should be considered the favourite to win back power in 2019. The Liberal Party seems unmoored and lost, not quite sure what it still really stands for and uncertain of the future, with no good options should Turnbull fall – or be pushed – under the proverbial bus. There is a bad moon rising, and as much as Turnbull is not the answer, neither are Abbott and Costello. And that’s not funny.