Paradoxically, Peter Costello leaving the parliament is his country's loss but his party's gain. It's a definite loss to our country because there aren't too many of his native talent and proven capacity lining up to serve.
Every day in the parliament must have been an agony to Costello as lesser men traduced his policies while exploiting the surplus he had produced. His departure is the Liberal Party's gain because it will end the inevitable leadership speculation that may otherwise have benefited a Labor government that is starting to deserve to lose.
Yesterday, Costello paid a well-merited tribute to the family that has supported him through 20 years of public life. Of course, he owes his family more of his time, attention and remunerative potential; every politician does. Still, given the comparisons that inevitably would have been made between Costello and anyone else leading it, it was the party as much as his family that he put first yesterday.
He would have been more than human not to have taken hard the Howard government's defeat. For almost 12 years, as deputy leader of the Liberal Party and federal treasurer, Costello was indisputably the second most powerful person in the country after the prime minister. For much of that time, knowing that no government lasts forever, he was understandably impatient to inherit the top job that he rightly thought his talents and track record entitled him to. Even those, like me, who never thought that the former government would have been stronger without John Howard than with him regarded Costello as self-evidently the only worthy successor.
Some have accused Costello of lacking the ticker to challenge. No one who was on the receiving end of a Costello critique or who watched him in parliament, where he was the most effective hunter-killer of his generation, could seriously have thought him weak. Political prizes should not go the most unscrupulous and self-interested.
To his credit, he was not prepared to wreck the Coalition government to lead it. It's also to his credit that he decided not to remain on the back bench and inadvertently fuel accusations the Liberals weren't fielding their strongest team, despite arguments put to him that he should stay as insurance in case the present leadership was found wanting. He sacrificed his final chance to become PM to strengthen Malcolm Turnbull's prospects.
Just as the former government should be judged on what it did rather than on how it lost, Costello is entitled to be regarded as Australia's greatest treasurer, rather than as the most accomplished politician never to have become prime minister. While the memories of the government's last term are still fresh it may be hard for him to value his achievements over the prize that eluded him, but there is much that will be a lasting monument to the "best years of his life", as he described them yesterday.
In his first budget, in the teeth of ferocious criticism, Costello cut almost 1 per cent of gross domestic product from commonwealth government spending. This historic achievement was the foundation of the vast surpluses (which Labor now says should have been even bigger) that eventually allowed the repayment of all the Keating government's debt. Without Costello's surpluses, the Rudd government's stimulus packages would have involved even more debt, even more risk to interest rates and a possible threat, as with Britain, to the country's triple A credit rating. The incorrigibly partisan nature of Australian politics means Costello will rarely get the credit for this that he most certainly deserves.
Costello never let disappointment with his former leader prevent them from becoming the most successful political partnership in Australian history. Even so, quite unfairly, he has been credited more with being "chippy" than with magnanimity. Although prime ministers tend to get the credit, they can't be effective leaders in a Westminster system without strong ministers. With Howard's support, Costello did the detailed work that modernised Australia's tax system. With Howard and Costello's support, Peter Reith reformed the waterfront and established the modern workplace relations system that Labor is eroding to help its union paymasters.
Although sometimes thought of as social progressive, Costello and Howard were Siamese twins on issues such as the war on terror, border protection, welfare reform and the Northern Territory intervention. None of the government's additional social spending would have been economically responsible without Costello's routine resistance to anything that didn't pass a reasonable cost-benefit test. In the end, the Howard government's longevity owed as much to its deputy's forensic skill as to its leader's political savvy.
Turnbull can now consolidate his leadership and refine his policies using Costello as a political counsellor rather than having him at arm's length as a potential rival. Kevin Rudd's more than usually self-satisfied smile in parliament yesterday may have been relief that he no longer potentially faced Australia's best economic manager. Still, thanks to Costello and compared with Rudd's own record so far, the Liberal Party's time in government looks like a lost golden age.
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