Perhaps Peter Costello has been reading some Homer.
At the beginning of The Iliad, nine years into the war between the Greeks and Trojans, we find the great warrior Achilles is sulking in his tent, refusing to fight because Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, has taken Achilles’ prize slave (the beautiful Briseis). Achilles sits in his tent moaning about his honour having been trampled, but all who read it can see he is just having perhaps the biggest sulk in history – indeed he even prays for his side to lose just so they will realise how badly they need him. In the end, after the Greeks have suffered some major defeats, he returns to the fight and defeats the great Trojan prince Hector.
Now I’m not sure if Costello sees himself as Achilles, but it’s obvious some in the Liberal Party do. For the last few days the scuttlebutt has been running hard that Liberal Party insiders are looking to remove Brendan Nelson and install Costello as leader. The issue got a run on last Sunday’s Insiders, and came on the back of a story in The Australian regarding a book, Inside Kevin 07, which showed polling suggesting that Costello would have been a more difficult opponent at the last election for Rudd than was Howard.
To those who think this is a great revelation, I say welcome to Australian politics, good to have you on board.
Of course Costello would have been a better leader for the Libs at the last election. Howard was old and out of ideas. This news is no news: Alexander Downer, Nick Minchin, and Joe Hockey let it be known on 4 Corners in February that they thought Howard had stayed on too long. And when even Downer, Minchin and Hockey know something, you know it is pretty damn obvious. Geez even Andrew Bolt knew it!
But Costello never challenged Howard; instead he sulked at not being given the leadership. His sulk continued after the election when to the shock of everyone he decided not to take over the leadership.
To recall how taken by surprise the Libs were by this, here is Downer on Insiders about 2 hours before Costello held his press conference announcing he wouldn’t be standing:
Look, I've not spoken to too many people since last night. I've spoken to about two people. So I hope, as a former leader myself, let me say I hope that the party will just get behind Peter Costello and elect him unopposed.
I think that's the right decision for the Liberal Party. Peter Costello has enormous talent and remember he does have a great deal more experience, almost infinitely more experience than Kevin Rudd, and it will be a tough job for Mr Rudd to confront somebody who is as experienced as articulate, and as formidable as Peter Costello.
I think Mr Rudd will find, of course he will have a honeymoon for a while, but I think he'll find dealing with Mr Costello very heavy going as time goes on. ...
Nobody in the party, well, I suppose at least in theory with the exception of me, but I'm not running for leader, but no one in the party has the experience of Peter Costello and I think there shouldn't be a contest to the leadership. It should just go straight to Peter Costello.
But instead of taking the leadership, Costello sulked, and it is not hard to imagine he was praying the party would keep losing so they would realise how badly they needed him.
But they needed him then. On 24 November 2007, the Liberal Party’s stocks were at their lowest in history; they turned to Costello to lead them out of the wilderness, and he responded with the big finger.
This was the second time he had turned down the leadership. Most people forget he could have had it after John Hewson, but he knocked it back and let Downer have it.
Just think on that fact. Name me one great leader in history who when presented with a chance to lead has said oooh errr... ummm look how about you let this complete dill do it instead... he’ll be better than me.
To be a leader you really only need to have one prerequisite (great leaders need a few more) and that is you have to have an amazing sense of self belief that you are the best person for the job; in fact not just the best, but the only one for the job. Say what you like about them, but do you think Keating, Hawke, Howard, Fraser, Whitlam or Menzies ever thought anyone else could do it better than he could?
Keating of course had Costello’s number early on, as this youtube clip so wonderfully shows.
If he didn’t want the leadership when he was young and brash in 1994, why would he want it now? And if he didn’t want it in 94, and didn’t want it in November, why should anyone in the Liberal Party want to give it to him now?
The fuel for this is the belief that Costello will be able to beat Kevin Rudd. To those of that belief I remind them that in the latest movie version of the Iliad, Troy, Achilles is played by Brad Pitt. And sad to say, Costello is more Pitt than Achilles.
Now Brad Pitt is a huge movie star. He is on every magazine cover, he is in the gossip sections, and he sells magazines by the truckload. He must be the hottest movie star on the planet- his name must be box office gold! Actually, no. Let’s have a look at the US Box Office of Pitt’s last 15 films (and bear in mind $100m is the minum requirement for success in the US):
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Mr. & Mrs. Smith
Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas(Voice)
Meet Joe Black
Seven Years in Tibet
The Devil's Own
As you can see, Pitt needs a good cast around him to crack the $100m mark. Oceans 11, 12 and 13 are as star studded as it gets, and Mr and Mrs Smith coincided with the biggest break-up and affair in history. I’ll give him Troy, he certainly carried that, but it’s hardly Pirates of the Caribbean (by comparison that took in $305 million).
Now I’ll grant you a lot of Pitt’s other films are vanity projects – the Jesse James flick was never going to beat Titanic in popularity – but compare it to the $53.9 m that Russell Crowe’s 3:10 to Yuma made in the US and you see he ain’t that big a draw card.
Disagree? Seriously when was the last time you ever said - hey Brad Pitt’s new movie is coming out, I’ve got to see that? No one has ever referred to any of the Ocean’s movies as Brad Pitt’s – they’re George Clooney’s, and even Clooney does better than Pitt in his other films – Leatherheads, $31.2m; Michael Clayton, $49m; heck even Syrianna made $50m, and 98% of those who saw it still don’t know what it was about (the other 2% are lying just to sound intelligent).
The point is Pitt sells magazines, but not movies. Costello may sound good in focus groups and do ok in the odd poll, but he won’t win an election. He looks good as second banana, but like Pitt needs Clooney; Costello needs Howard (and yes, I realise I have now compared John Howard to George Clooney, don’t worry I’m not about to compare Julie Bishop to Angelina Jolie).
In fact I’m betting the ALP are wishing and hoping, thinking and praying that the Libs will go for Costello. Why? Because they’ve already got the attack plan ready – it’s sitting on the shelf all good to go. We saw a sneak peak of the plan on 24 November on the same Insiders that Downer revealed he and Costello aren’t exactly close confidants. Penny Wong was interviewed and this is how she described the victory:
And I think what this is not only a response to the positive things Labor and Kevin were putting forward, but also, frankly, a rejection of Peter Costello as the future Prime Minister. Australians went to the ballot box yesterday knowing very clearly that their choice was for Peter Costello to become Prime Minister, and they made their views on that very clear.
... and I think Australians know this is the man who said there was no housing affordability crisis, and this is the man who was the driving force behind the Government's extreme industrial relations agenda, people know what Mr Costello's views on these issues are.
The arguments for the ALP are easy if Costello is the opponent. Take the one issue that the Libs have had any traction on – petrol. Well Costello is against the rebate reduction, so that’s gone.
How about climate change and the ETS (or whatever the acronym is now)? Well Costello can’t attack the ALP for rushing, because they’ll counter by saying they would not have had to “rush” if he hadn’t been on a cabinet that knocked back an ETS in 2000 and 2003. He can’t support it but say that he would do it better, because they will counter by saying he had his chance to do it better but he had been on a cabinet that knocked back an ETS in 20o0 and 2003 (noticing a pattern?).
Back in 2006, Costello would have been new and vitalising to the electorate. Now he is old and has all the baggage the Howard had in Nov 07.
And best of all for Labor, if Costello does take over the leadership, the leadership of the Liberal party will continue to be an issue. Why? Because Malcolm Turnbull has never thought anyone was better at any job than he could be.
So what will happen? My bet is Costello won’t take the leadership – Jack the Insider’s blog points out some good reasons why – and he’ll merely use this media focus to help sell his book. And then he’ll quietly slink off into the land of forgotten dreams, ever knowing he’ll die wondering.