It’s hard to leave politics. When you spend many years of your life caught up in the exciting cut and thrust of Question Time and the Parliament canteen, it can be a real wrench to return to the everyday hum-drum world where you are only respected as much as you deserve.
Look at Alexander Downer, Kim Beazley, Simon Crean; men for whom failure, mockery, humiliation and irrefutable evidence of their own inadequacy were never enough to persuade them to leave public life. Why, only this morning I heard that Crean had been in Geneva, astounding the participants in the Doha round of trade negotiations with the unexpected news that he was present.
Liberal politicians, though, seem to have particular difficulty fading into the background. Jeff Kennett’s recent remarks equating a gay football trainer with a paedophile nicely illustrate the old aphorism that you can take the boy out of the Liberals, but you can’t take the vicious right-wing homophobe out of the boy.
And this brings us, of course, to former Treasurer Peter Costello, the jolly goblin king of Australian politics. Costello, believe it or not, is actually still a member of Federal Parliament, spending his time since the election sitting on the backbench with his laptop, tapping away at his memoirs and emailing LOLcats to Michael Kroger. He seems happy enough with this lifestyle. Apparently, he’s in no hurry to get a real job. This, in spite of the millions of big offers that must be streaming his way from the corporate world as major companies fall over themselves to recruit the one man who can ensure that every government in Australia will hate them.
A great choice looms before Costello. There are rumblings within the party that the members would rather see him lead them than Brendan Nelson, and not just in the usual "we would rather see anyone lead us than Brendan Nelson including Bob Brown or Agro" kind of way. Apparently Liberal MPs genuinely want a Costello return, which would be, in a way, a return to the glory days of the Howard government — but without the "Howard" and "government" parts. Nevertheless, the Liberals need a strong, decisive leader, and Costello is nothing if not strong and decisive, having spent 12 years repeatedly making strong decisions to wait patiently for John Howard to suffer a fatal embolism.
However, this time it is not just the MPs calling for change. Newspoll reveals that voters also want Costello to replace Nelson. Mind you, I am sceptical of such polls. Motivations for answers can vary widely, especially when it comes to who you would like to see leading the Opposition. If polled, Kevin Rudd, for example, would surely answer that he would rather Nelson lead the party, because he enjoys having someone else do most of his work for him. On the other hand, an ordinary Coalition voter might prefer Nelson to be leader simply due to extremely low intelligence.
Thus we see that polls are unreliable on the issue — how can we tell the Costello-backers aren’t actually willing him to fail? How can we be sure the Nelson-backers aren’t just looking for some cheap laughs? Why don’t more people want Tony Abbott to lead the country? Are they scared he’ll start biting people? These and many other questions remain unresolved by our political discourse.
The point is, Nelson appears to be very much "on the nose" to the general public, who rank him not only below Costello, but below even Malcolm Turnbull, who — admittedly — wants to take quick action to address climate change, but on the other hand probably hunts homeless people for sport.
Why is this? Is it Nelson’s policy? Is it his personality? Is it his timidity, his cowardice, his stupid motorbike, the way he answers questions as if undergoing a severe attack of angina? Or is it simply the wrath of a vengeful god, such as that which befell Cheryl Kernot when she met Gareth Evans? Nobody can really explain Nelson’s malaise without a careful examination of the man himself. This price has hitherto proven too high for any journalist.
The real question is, will Costello be the saviour? Will he ride into the Liberal party room on a white charger, waving the banner of hope and brandishing the lance of rejuvenation, ready to slay the dragon of stuck-up nerdy little Chinese-speaking diplomats, so to speak? The call has gone out — will Costello answer?
There is, of course, a snag, in that the Liberal leader will at some point have to face an election in order to become Prime Minister, something that Costello has always found painfully unfair. Throughout the Howard years he devoted himself quite selflessly to the promotion of the philosophical principle that if a man is well-dressed enough and supplies sufficient quantities of tax relief, he should be allowed to lead his country without being forced to undergo the indignity of being "elected" to the position.
The fact that his colleagues for those 12 years were rude enough to keep him from the Prime Ministership on the rather contrived basis that he should first face the voters, or at least actually challenge the current leader, has not dulled his passion for this basic principle. It is for this principle — and not petulance or selfishness or deepseated character flaws or callous disregard for his colleagues and supporters — that he currently waits on the backbench, the flame of the true believer burning fervently in his breast, sure that someday, the people will see the light and come, on bended knee, to beg him to be PM.
And on that day, he will smile gently, and he will take this country by the hand, forgiving us our promiscuous dalliances with false prophets and democratic processes, and he will lead us to a better tomorrow, a tomorrow where men are no longer judged by the savage standards of the baying mob, but rather by the strength of their conviction that they have a God-given right to rule over their fellow humans.
On that day we will have evolved to a higher level of existence, and entered the Age of Costello.
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