by Chris Wallace
Peter Costello hanging around, cruelling Malcolm Turnbull’s chance at putting together an effective Opposition, is an act of utter bastardry.
And why not? He learnt at the feet of the best.
Having absorbed what he perceived as John Howard’s bastardry for years, Costello is no doubt enjoying this opportunity to be the bastard himself. That’s how abuse works. You get abused, then you become the abuser.
There’s a lot of bastardry to go around in the Liberal Party right now.
Liberal deputy leader Julie Bishop made her share of errors as shadow treasurer to deserve criticism. But enough to lose the portfolio?
Cast your mind back over the shadow treasurers on both sides of politics for the past thirty years. There were a couple of honourable incumbents but, generally speaking, the position has been marked by performances ranging from the mediocre to the invisible – and invisibility was often preferable to mediocrity.
Opposition is a swirling pool of poison at the best of times. It’s usually directed at leaders.
This time the shadow treasurer presented a softer target than the leader but the effect of Bishop's destabilisation has been the same: Turnbull has been destabilised and the Opposition’s standing as a whole has suffered.
Governments love this. It keeps them in office years after their natural use-by date. Wayne Swan has Bishop’s head to mount on his office wall and no doubt is eyeing another space for Joe Hockey’s.
Because the end game Peter Costello has in mind is obvious. It’s slipping into the leadership a few months out from the next federal election. This guarantees leadership and frontbench instability inside the coalition for months to come.
It’s the peloton theory of the politics. You let some other mug cop the hills and headwinds on the way to election day, and you pop up fresh and unmarked from inside the peloton to win the race.
Rudd did it in 2007. Howard did it in 1996. Hawke did it in 1983. Fraser did it in 1975. The last person to do it without the protection the peloton strategy provides was Gough Whitlam in 1972 - and 1972 might as well be 1872 for all the relevance politics as practised back then poses for the digital era now.
The bottom line?
Turnbull has only one shot at the prime ministership. Coalition MPs need to decide whether to back him properly now to give him (and them) a real chance of winning. Such a decision would require them to shun and punish Costello’s bastardry right away.
The government, obviously, will up the pressure on the Liberal leadership. If Rudd has to face Costello at the next election, he needs him out of the peleton early enough to drag him down, dent and exhaust him. Even if the government goes full term, the next election is not all that far away.
[email protected] 18 February, 2009