Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Howard on Costello

I have not yet had the pleasure of reading John Howard's autobiographical work Lazarus Rising. I am looking forward to it because Howard at his best was forthright and honest and should be so in the book. Of course, I will also think he will be mostly wrong.

I'm particularly looking forward to Howard on his formative years and the dark days after losing the leadership the first time. I've been led to believe that the book tells the story of the four defining political combatants of Howard's career - all notionally on his side - Fraser, Peacock, Bjelke-Peterson and Costello.

On Costello the Oz published an extract on the weekend. This covers only the latter phases of the decision not to stand aside. In various articles Howard's actions have been described as hubris and arrogance as he first in trying to pressure him to quit, Costello completely misread both [Howard's] temperament and personality and then showed what was best for the Coalition took second place to Howard's concern that he might appear cowardly.

Paul Kelly declares that the repeated theme in Mr Howard's reluctance to retire is the fear that such action would be interpreted as cowardice.

Interestingly that is not at all how I read what Howard wrote. Howard was clear that the leadership could change by Howard standing aside or by Costello mounting a successful challenge. Costello never had the patience for the former, nor the support for the latter.

The telling portion for me is the conversation Howard initiated in 2003. Howard writes;

I told him that it was the views of colleagues that mattered most. He never seemed very receptive to this notion. His rather elitist dismissal of what his fellow MPs thought on a whole range of issues was one of the main reasons why the widespread respect for Costello's abilities within the parliamentary party never translated into enthusiastic support for him as party leader.

Peter is not a good listener. His colleagues knew that. They had experienced it first-hand.

Howard was always encouraged by his front bench to stay because they didn't want to be led by Costello. Howard tried to coach Costello that this was the issue he had to fix, but he never did. On the few occasions where he did try to stake his claim it was by either making public positions about it being time or by trying to broaden his appeal to the public at large.

Neither endeared him to the front bench colleagues whose support he needed most.

The ultimate reason why Costello didn't do a "Keating", that is challenge, fail and return to the backbench to wait the fall of the leader was that Costello could ONLY succeed Howard by default. To stand aside would have seen his colleagues all fall in and support an alternative new leader.

It was not Howard who ever stopped Costello, it was Costello.

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