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Time's up

Norman Abjorensen is co-author of Australia: The State of Democracy, to be published soon by Federation Press. His essay Time’s up was originally published on Inside Story, and is republished on Webdiary with Norman’s kind permission.

Time’s up
by Norman Abjorensen

Peter Costello’s foreshadowed exit from politics brings to an end what must be the most protracted sulk in Australian politics. Yet already the myth-makers are adorning him with the mantle of “best prime minister we never had.” The reality, along with that of Bert Evatt and Alexander Downer, is quite the opposite.

It is doubtful whether Costello was ever a serious contender to challenge John Howard in government. Unlike Paul Keating in Bob Hawke’s Labor government, Costello never enjoyed a significant support base within his own party. At the peak of his popularity in the latter Howard years, he could have counted on no than 27 votes, at best, out of a party room of more than a hundred.

And it was never just a lack of numerical support within Liberal ranks that forced Costello to sit on his hands; it was also a lack of real quality support. A quick glance at those who identified as Costello campers always made the Howard majority smile: they were in the main the duds, the malcontents, the disappointed, the rejects. Very few of them could have been classified as enthusiastically pro-Costello; it was far more a case of being anti-Howard.

Howard knew this and taunted Costello remorselessly. When Howard posed as the loyal and faithful servant of the Liberal Party by vowing to serve as long as the party wanted him, this was pure confected humility that served only to throw sand in Costello’s face and demonstrate to the party how powerless he really was. What Howard was boasting in this oft-repeated mantra was that he had the numbers, and his rival did not.

Costello might have won some solid support had he been more assertive, but in the run of things Howard simply played him off a break – and the party knew it. A more ruthless operator, such as Robert Menzies, would have contrived a resignation on a matter of high principle and confronted the leader from high moral ground, just as Menzies did under Joseph Lyons in 1938 after Lyons abandoned a national insurance scheme. Menzies, of course, went on to prosper politically after a stumble or two, but his confected resignation did nothing to hurt his prospects (and, indeed, brought the prize even closer by adding to the mounting stresses that killed Lyons early in 1939).

On another front, Costello has to be seen as culpable in his role in securing the leadership of Downer, whom he served as deputy before the latter was humiliated into standing down in favour of a recycled Howard in 1995. Costello must have known of Downer’s limitations. If so, why did he support him? If he did not know, then what sort of a judge of character was he?

Again, the annals of Liberal Party history show that Costello was not the first contender for leadership who supported a dud along the way. Back in the 1950s an ambitious NSW Liberal called Bob Askin saw his party chafing and divided in opposition, with two equal camps pushing for dominance. He decided to provide the circuit-breaker, arranging for his old commanding officer, Murray Robson, a socialite solicitor, to emerge as an acceptable compromise. Robson never cut it, as Askin must have known, but the brief interlude of Robson’s leadership bought Askin time to build the numbers to eventually have a crack at Robson’s successor. Costello appeared to have no such strategy.

Was Costello ever really representative of an alternative face to the Liberal Party? Certainly, he was a republican where Howard was an ardent monarchist, and he made favourable noises about reconciliation with Indigenous Australians in contrast to Howard’s silence. And he was younger. But there is little difference in substance, and if looked at from the perspectives of policy and ideology, Costello was far more gung-ho about the issue that was causing Howard so much grief in the electorate – industrial relations. Howard, for all his bluster, was a pragmatist, but Costello, a foundation member of the radical right H.R. Nicholls Society, was an ideologue. This was never any alternative for the Liberals; indeed, it might be argued that a switch to Costello would have dug them ever deeper into the hole Howard had made.

Politicians always say they pay scant attention to opinion polls, which is really like a clergyman dismissing the bible. Politicians sniff the wind like a stockbroker sniffs the gossip at an insider trader’s cocktail party: it is their lifeblood. Howard knew, and the Liberal Party knew, that Costello had a big resistance factor out there in voter land. And it wasn’t hard to fathom why. Costello could not connect, and the voters knew it.

A prime example was a few years ago when the perennial question of rising petrol prices was raised with the then Treasurer on a talkback radio show. Why not do as I do, he told a hapless caller, fill up on Tuesdays when the prices are always lower? Had Costello forgotten (or perhaps he never knew) that for many workers, pay day – Thursday – is the only day they are cashed up? And that’s when the prices go up.

Finally, what sort of a treasurer was he? Only a complete curmudgeon would argue that he was not competent; he was. But these were boom times and the economic sunshine was in abundance; even Bill Hayden’s old drover’s dog could have made a fair fist of it. Wayne Swan, to be sure, has a far harder job. If Costello’s policy legacy is the GST, he will be remembered as the most regressive treasurer yet, shifting the tax burden from the wealthy to the rest.

Within the Liberal Party, there are those who will not forgive Costello for his post-election sulk, leaving the party to flounder in the unfamiliar waters of opposition while he retired to the easy life of the backbench. In any case, his decision to finally leave the stage might not have been his alone. His continued presence, and the speculation that provoked, was always going to hamper Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership. Did the Victorian party president, David Kemp, a party man through and through, have a quiet word, as party presidents are supposed to do?

If so, there is historical irony at work. Both Costello and Kemp entered parliament in 1990 as beneficiaries of a former pro-active party president in Victoria, Michael Kroger, who was intent on reinvigorating a moribund party. When the quiet words failed, Kroger went for the scalpel. Costello, at least, knew his time was up.

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But wait – there’s more…

In today's Crikey, a suggestion that Tom Switzer is being considered to take over from Brendan Nelson in Bradfield.

What next? Janet Albrechtsen to inherit Mackellar from Bronwyn Bishop? Miranda Devine for Berowra?

It's a truism that we get the pollies that we deserve. So how about some proposals for suitable candidates to replace the ageing deadwood – on both sides of the House?

After all, with a double dissolution not totally out of the question, this could indeed be a time for reinvention.

Liberal preselections

Well, I can now look forward to being represented by young Turk Josh Frydenberg, who has been preselected as the Liberal candidate for the blue-ribbon seat of Kooyong.

And if Peter Costello keeps his promise and does not renominate for Higgins, there's every chance that John Roskam, executive director of that highly progressive organisation the Institute of Public Affairs, will put his hand up - and probably gain preselection. Change and renewal? I don't think so.

Yet another Liberal-held seat is up for grabs - Chris Pearce quietly announced last week that he would not be recontesting Aston, in Melbourne's outer eastern suburbs. I heard a rumour yesterday that the party is considering parachuting Andrew Bolt into the seat.

They can't be serious. Can they?

vandals at the gate- a new Dark Age

Re Fiona's comment, it is indeed terrible to witness how the inbred and siege driven mentalities of ossified, decadent political formations infected with laziness, fight off renewal.

Contempt prior to investigation becomes the norm - it's shoot first and ask questions later, if there is any doubt that the new acolyte is not submissive and subservient to the dominant personalities and their goals.

If the earth is not flat, you dare not say so. Rather, you nurse the vanities of the dominant figures in the hope of a sinecure of your own in parliament later, from whence to build your own little networks of patronage and back-scratching.

Whatever you do, you do not point out a reality when this conflicts with the enculturated beliefs of your betters; when belief has become fact, so to speak; when they finally believe their own bullshit, as they did with Dr Haneef and the mindlessly repeated to stupor and meaninglessness "terrorism"mantra.

The Americans in Iraq proved what happens when the truth gets in the way of a good story. Cheney led America to disaster thru the application of a suite of plausibly deniable half-baked theories involving things like arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, in order for a group of snake oil salesmen like himself, Ken Lay and Bernie Madoff, in the deregulated and war distracted neocon bred environment of the early twentieth century, to get at the treasures of the common wealth across two societies.

In the meantime, real issues like true economic, social and educational reform and ecology including climate change, were dismissed as "radical"and denied action on, in preference to looting.

Likewise Turnbull, who believes his job is to destroy an innocent man thru coldly confected smear, rather than oppose constructively on the issues and develop and present constructive thought-out alternatives. Too much like hard work, that, for the born to rule guardians.

Because his political culture has taught him his goal is power, not good government - in fact (preferably) at the expense of, good government.

Like the Republican orchestrated attack on Clinton in the nineties, where the concern was not with Clinton's propriety, but that propriety as an excuse for dog in the manger undermining of good government in the interests of acquiring future power to loot the resulting train wreck regardless of all the suffering eventually caused to the masses.

Likewise Turnbull did not care what harm he did to this country in trying to bring down Rudd; was only interested in the capture of control by any means, presumably for the benefit of himself and a few close cronies of the sort who also yearn for the deregulated days when they could plunder at will, free of their post-recession exposure.


Too many politicians see their role in life as orchestrating a feeding off of prematurely written off sheep butts of democracy like bot maggots, rather than the patient and innovative construction of a healthy society, and they will ruthlessly suppress any attempt to have the public's attentions diverted back to real issues that conflict with their ignoble, rapacious and lack of consciousness driven and hence unconsidered goals.

They are too ill-disciplined to take time to nurture the goose of democracy. In their rude haste they decapitate it, but no golden eggs are rescued, and the cheated people, left only the task of cleaning up the intestinal mess as a "dividend", pursue their unrewarding task in the absence of their "betters".

Mr Grech isn't a fake email

The other Malcolm: "I didn't base any accusation on a fake email, I based it on Mr Grech's testimony."

Errr - but wasn't Mr Grech's testimony based on a fake email? 


How Reith wanted to use serving Australian troops as scab labour on the waterfront? The bloodless coup of '75? The sheer bloody born to rule mentality of these creeps? I dunno about Turnbull.  His group during the Constitutional Convention became known as the "Turnbullies" subsequent to the absence of personal charm he exhibited to those of differing views.  In this instance he might just be a bunny for the chicanery of his seedy mates.

However, after watching Media Report (ABC) I'd keep my eyes peeled and fixed on Smirkin' Joe and Eric Abetz for further developments. 


Jay, for heaven's sake, the electorate offices pass on queries from constituents to the public services, the final say can come thru ministerial discretion, which is an end of process resolution feature of the system when the decison is within the law. Remember, Ozcar was a response to the failure of reckless (capitalist) behaviour of type Turnbull's parallel behaviours closely resemble, which threatened to damage many innocent indiviuals (if a used car salesman can ever be considered innocent) without immediate action from the default apparatus: the government.

But you are right. The thing is a storm in a tea cup, and no big deal until those with sociopathic traits go to their moles in the public service to manufacture false emails to smear bystanders - in this case the PM, not even involved - for political gain. Setting up the government  on knowingly bogus information is not the role of opposition. That is ugly, immoral and likely criminal, despite the sqawkings of the likes of Joe Hockey on Lateline last night. Hockey incidentally had the cheek to stubbornly claim his first loyalty was to his political mates rather than the Australian community that pays his wages, in refusing to answer a Tony Jones Question as to the revealing of the sources for the false email (where was Turnbull, btw, for this interview?).

Had they stuck to having Swan explain his role in the process, which Swan has since done sufficiently to cover his arse any way, the opposition would have retained credibility to later tackle the government on more serious problems.

But now the boy has been not only shown to have cried "wolf",  but done so maliciously and with utter disrespect for the role of opposition in a democracy, hence the notion of accountable government is critically compromised.

The opposition leader must resign immediately, for his reckless, irresponsible abuse of trust, in order that a new leader with (more) credibility to restore the role of opposition, that is to pursue real issues, as is its proper role as credible taxpayer-funded reviewer of government.

night carting

Do we get two for the price of one, so to speak, in the wake of the unintended "ute-man" revelations of the last few days.

Costello and now  Turnbull

gone, in other words?

What filth these people have demonstrate themselves to be.


The current Rudd/Turnbull fracas seems to be arguing about trivialities while ignoring fundamental issues - perhaps because both parties are guilty.

The concept that Ministers/MPs can support/champion/network for constituents is corruption. If MPs believe their constituent is getting a raw deal because of a faulty system, their job is to fix the system - not lobby for an individual. Perhaps worse is that Minister's offices seem to be handling matters that should (if anything) be dealt with by their electorate staff.

The same is true of Treasury. If the loan system operated by Ford was faulty or misunderstood by car dealers, then Treasury should ask Ford to fix the system, not champion specific individuals.

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