Giving advice to Peter Costello is clearly a soul destroying task. His words and actions this week are those of a man acting on a whim of the moment rather than being part of a considered strategy. As his Irish ancestors might say, if I wanted to get to the Prime Ministership I would not be starting from here. Yet describing John Howard as a welshing liar is where the Treasurer is at and he now must make the best of it.
On his way into this morning’s Cabinet meeting, Costello invoked the childhood advice of his parents that if you have done nothing wrong there is no harm in telling the truth. Peter, you should keep plugging away with these suggestions that Howard is an untrustworthy liar while you are an honourable and honest man. Damaging Honest John’s reputation is now a pre-requisite to getting rid of him.
Most of your Coalition colleagues are angry with you this morning because they think their seats are safer with Howard as leader. Once they fear he is a loser, the anger will be re-directed. That change will not happen overnight, but it is amazing what a succession of bad opinion polls can generate. You can rely on Labor to take up the “Howard is a liar” chant, so you can afford to be careful with your own choice of words. Contact the St James Ethics Centre about giving a learned speech on the importance of morality in public life.
First, though, you must decide whether to stay as Treasurer or go to the backbench voluntarily if Howard is too gutless to make the decision by sacking you immediately. Give him a few days to squirm over it and use the time to keep pushing your anti-states campaign at the COAG meeting. That conference is a great opportunity to remind your colleagues that you are the government’s real reformer even if Howard is the one who hogs the credit. Manufacture circumstances at COAG where it is clear the differences between the two of you are not just personal but differences of substance about reforming the way this country is governed. If Howard still will not sack you, he will begin to look really weak.
All the time, keep referring to this dispute as being not something for Howard and Costello to settle. Agree with the welsher that leadership is a matter for the Liberal Party. Then start giving the Party reasons to start thinking about this being a time for a change – a time for regeneration, a time for a new generation. Get the parliamentary library to turn up the arguments that led the US to limit presidents to two terms to stop the Franklin Roosevelt dynasty. Give them to Glen Milne so he can write one of his insightful pieces about the dangers to a country of having the same leader for too long.
If the squib still has not acted within a fortnight, go to him and say you think it is in the best interests of the Party for you to move to the backbench for as long as he remains Prime Minister. Sit there and enjoy the freedom of talking about the kind of Australia you would like to see and hope the polls move strongly towards Labor.