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Chris Saliba reviews The Costello Memoirs

The Costello Memoirs, by Peter Costello with Peter Coleman
Reviewed by Chris Saliba

Many commentators have described the elegiac tone of The Costello Memoirs, the faint sadness and sorrow that an ‘orderly transition’ was not achieved, that John Howard’s perfectly attuned political clairvoyance could not divine the dark clouds gathering, and finally that the terrible tragedy of the coalition losing government came to pass.

Yes, it’s true there is much lamentation in these memoirs and brave stoicism from Costello, who seems intent on styling himself a modern day Marcus Aurelius. He was always the good and faithful servant, who did not press his case for taking over the leadership, always the one keen to preserve stability and unity for the sake of the party. In parliament he acted the clown, the court jester, ridiculing and mocking opponents to devastating effect. Behind the scenes, he worked as an intelligent and astute servant of the government, making sure the nation’s economy was in order.

The way Costello writes it in these memoirs, it was never really about him or his ambitions for the leadership of the Liberal Party, but rather about ‘orderly transition’ (a theme or idea he returns to again and again, even in the appendix). He cites how when Menzies handed over the leadership voluntarily to Harold Holt, how Holt took the Liberals on to win an election with an increased majority.

The reader is invited to draw the inevitable conclusion: if Howard had done the same, then Costello himself would have achieved similar results.

Throughout these memoirs Costello really follows the same pattern as he did in government with regards to the leadership: wanting it without saying so.

One wonders why Costello is so coy. He wouldn't work for the leadership directly, nor would he challenge Howard for it. He barely made a dent in carving out his own political persona during his twelve years as Treasurer, which at least would have given voters a clue as to what a Costello government would have looked like.

Rather Costello chooses to keep believing that it is in the natural order of things that Howard will hand over in an ‘orderly transition’.

Of course there was the 1994 ‘undertaking’, witnessed and documented by Ian McLachlan, where Howard offered to step down after one term and let Costello ‘have a turn’. This was kept a secret until 2006. But as Costello says throughout the book, Howard would simply never have stepped down as long as he kept winning elections.

Yet if Costello knew this to be an integral part of Howard's personality, why complain about it now? Costello seems stuck in a contradiction: desperately hoping that Howard would hand over, but holding the cynical view that he was hopelessly addicted to power.

This brings us to Howard. Very skillfully Costello avoids doing a hatchet job on Howard. For someone who worked so closely and so long with the former PM, you’d expect a fully fleshed portrait – Howard under pressure, Howard having a laugh, Howard with his family etc. etc. Instead, we get this strangely vacant, empty outline where Howard should stand, a real hollow man. Kafka kept coming to mind as I read. It was like Howard was some cardboard cut out authority figure that walked corridors and sat behind office doors.

Costello can only criticise Howard obliquely. To openly criticise would give away too much of Costello’s inner nature. Surely his feelings toward Howard, whom he supported in the early nineties ahead of other Liberal party leadership contenders, must be complex.

For example, he talks about how Howard liked to surround himself with fawning airhead MPs like Jackie Kelly, mindless yes men and women who worshipped him uncritically (you will remember the anti-Muslim leaflet scandal that broke in the last days of the 2007 election, where Kelly’s husband was secretly dropping these fake flyers that claimed to be by 'The Islamic Australia Federation', a non-existent organisation, and thanked the ALP for supporting terrorists involved in the Bali bombings. While Costello doesn't relish in the sordidness of the affair, he certainly gives enough detail for the reader to do so.)

On page 244 Costello describes Howard’s office scouring for material to find instances of where Costello had denied there ever was an undertaking made in 1994. Howard’s office was ‘feeding’ this material to the media. On such dubious enterprises are our tax dollars deployed.

One other interesting aspect that The Costello Memoirs highlights is how much prerogative the Howard family took in decision making. They’re like a royal family that must be consulted before any decision affecting the nation can be taken.

Alas, in the final analysis the problem with Costello’s Memoirs is the fact that the author never makes it clear what he wants himself. He likes to make it plain that Howard actually offered to step down after one term, and that he never proposed the idea himself. Yet Costello seemed to think himself an heir to the prime ministership, a young Liberal Party prince, rather than an aspirant. When Howard left the leadership door slightly ajar in 1994 by proposing a handover, Costello doesn't get ready to later kick down that door. Rather he sits waiting to be crowned as leader. One is left wondering, did Costello ever want to be PM?

All of these matters aside, I found The Costello Memoirs a surprisingly enjoyable read. Costello does a good job of making a lot of government and treasury business interesting to read and the details easy to grasp. His style is clear and lucid. The rancid tone of his famed parliamentary performances is nowhere in evidence. Obviously Costello feels he is writing for history, and wants to be seen kindly.

I also found the sections in the book that dealt with the media very interesting, as it highlighted how much politicians rely on the media to get their message out. Their feigned disdain and contempt is all fake as they constantly ‘feed’ the media and try to manage it to get the best results. They even go out on fancy dinners and lunches with journalists to try and curry favour (Costello describes a dinner with journalists from The Age, a paper not friendly to the coalition government, which was conducted in order to create better relations with the paper.) The far too cosy aspect of these relationships does give one the creeps. It seems we need an independent media unit covering the interdependent relationship between media and politics.

Indeed, the Howard government was a major media 'content maker' itself, as it spent billions on media advertising during its eleven years in office.

As to whether Costello was the greatest treasurer Australia has ever had, whether he was responsible for the boom of the Howard years, I leave this question to the economists and financial experts to slug out. I note is passing that Costello makes no mention of his debt truck, and how personal debt ballooned on his watch. No wonder when Tony Jones brought this up with John Howard on the ABC's Lateline program the former PM was very coy.

Here is the excerpt, from 2004 (current foreign debt is around $600 billion):

TONY JONES: Mr Howard, you've made that point repeatedly, but when you had that debt truck, you called it the foreign debt truck.

The figure on the side of it was $194 billion - a very scary figure, I think you'd agree.

Do you know what that figure is now?

JOHN HOWARD: I don't dispute that's a different figure or that there's a higher figure.

TONY JONES: It's a higher figure, $393 billion.

It's doubled, in fact, under your Government?

JOHN HOWARD: Tony, I don't dispute that.

I also note that the boom in commodity prices and burgeoning trade with China came as a complete surprise to the Howard government, resulting in a bonanza of tax receipts. By Costello’s own admission, the halcyon days of the Howard years were part ‘superior economic management’ and part fluke.

'Truth may seem, but can never be' wrote the honey-tongued Shakespeare. German philosopher Schopenhauer opined that history should be read as fiction, as it was impossible to get a universal, objective, agreed upon truth. History was, 'the long, difficult and confused dream of mankind'. From the suggestions of these eminent minds, The Costello Memoirs should perhaps be enjoyed more as fiction than held as an indisputable chronicle of the times.

What’s the take away? For Costello, he has learnt that the Liberal party has a cult of the leader. Too many in his party saw Howard as a virtual god. For the reader, we have discovered not to trust the promises of a hungry politician, for they'll step on anyone's neck to get to their desired destination. Voter beware!


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What's to feel sorry for?

Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, it just shows what a dill Costello was and thank God Howard did hang on for grim death.

If Costello hadn' t worked out in the first couple of years of the Howard government that this PM was completely untrustworthy, ruthless and a liar to boot, then he didn't deserve to go any further.

Even worse, he doesn't even lay into the old codger and give him the good written thrashing he deserves.Why not is a mystery. The old coot must be chortling into his beer at the golf club as he watches the Costello tome lie dormant on book shelves,

Even in defeat, he's still one-upped poor old Peter and Pete doesn't seem to get it. Just wait for the Howard memoirs when Costello will be tearing his hair out as he get's sidelined to a fairly unimportant underling who took orders from Johnny. I can't wait.

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