The ends of Howard and Costello?

Mark Rolfe, University of New South Wales

Peter Costello with Peter Coleman, The Costello Memoirs Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 2008 (384 pp). ISBN 9-78052285-582-1 (hard cover) RRP $54.99.

Peter van Onselen and Philip Senior, Howard’s End: The Unravelling of a Government Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 2008 (272 pp). ISBN 9-78052285-435-0 (paperback) RRP $34.95.

Fashions come and go in academia and politics as in the rest of the world. However an enduring theme in observations of political leadership is a focus on the individual at the expense of placing that person in the context of circumstances, relationships and judgments in which they lived and acted. That is, the focus is often on what social scientists call ‘agency’ rather than on the dynamic relationship of individual agency and broader social forces. This focus is particularly evident when observers claim that a political leader succeeded or failed because he (less often she) was charismatic, strong, principled, arrogant, ideological, popular, in touch with the people, or an out and out bastard. Such judgments usually ignore the more interesting dilemma of how leaders must be all of those things at different times.

Instead, a rise or a fall becomes easy to explain with one of these traits. Keating and Howard lost power because of arrogance, which accusation implies a loss of touch with Australians. But this explanation ignores the fact that the Liberal Party tried, and failed, to hammer Keating with the arrogance tag in 1993 during recession, and tried, and succeeded, in 1996 when economic times were better. Arrogance was not a terminal condition for Menzies, Whitlam and Fraser: it actually got them elected. In fact, it must have taken more than a touch of arrogance for them or for Keating, Howard and others to think that they could comfortably occupy the top political job. Wall flowers don’t become prime ministers.

A simple focus on agency reinforces ideas of politics as a two horse race, either between opposing leaders of parties or between contestants within a party. That way, the narrative endures while an endless queue of characters waits to step up to their assigned roles. The narrative is reinforced with labels like ‘the Menzies Era’, ‘the Hawke Years’, and ‘the Howard Years’. Against this background, it is interesting to see whether the two books under review fall into the familiar pattern.

Wall flowers don’t become prime ministers.

The van Onselen and Senior book follows a long and honourable tradition of post-election journalistic accounts, such as Pamela Williams The Victory (1997), Laurie Oakes The Making of an Australian Prime Minister (1973), and Alan Reid’s The Gorton Experiment (1971) or The Whitlam Venture (1976), in which the authors were inside witnesses to the events or, in this case, interviewed participants in the events. Therefore, van Onselen and Senior present a good useful blow-by-blow struggle between Howard and Rudd and their teams for the year leading up to the 2007 election. So, for example, we find out the use of the media by politicians’ offices to signal moves, with leaks of leadership disputes from Downer’s office to Sky news during APEC in response to Howard’s appearance on the 7.30 Report which was designed to squash Liberal dissent (p. 97).

It is a good story within the terms of the narrative. Van Onselen and Senior start with 1 December 2006, when Rudd announced his challenge to Beazley. This date effectively sets the parameters for explaining Howard’s defeat. In a contest of certain qualities and tactics between Rudd and Howard, the latter came out the loser. What may have happened before that date to build the momentum towards defeat is mostly beyond the book’s horizon. For example, Rudd’s listening tour (p. 9) was a replay of Latham’s 2004 bus tour of New South Wales to numerous meetings with groups of locals; Rudd also ended his tour with a Whitlamesque announcement of a major cities program (p. 13). These parallels go unremarked.

More importantly, the restricted chronology of the book sits rather oddly with the introduction, which presents a range of plausible reasons for Howard’s defeat—the public shift on climate change and David Hicks (see below), the pincer of interest rate promises and rises crushing Howard, the tiredness of the government, the Iraq war, arrogance, the extremism of Workchoices, and the failure of Howard’s ‘antennae’ (p. vii)—but leaves them there because there is no means of tying them to the rest of the book.

Van Onselen and Senior attribute the shift in public opinion on climate change to the influence of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth (p. vii). This seems to be a propaganda explanation, assuming that Australians were taken in by the film rather than changing their minds deliberately, on basis of events and reasons. Also, the claim doesn’t match a later statement that there was mounting evidence of climate change (p. 25). Arrogance is not enough of an explanation nor is tiredness when one remembers the second Menzies government lasted five years longer than Howard’s.

The most important weapon of a politician is character credibility with audiences. Once it is fatally damaged, most people will not listen no matter how good the message (Rolfe 2008). This explains Howard’s frequent exasperation as he attempted to get his message across during 2007 (for example, pp. 39, 54–5, 67). It explains why accusations of ‘arrogance’, ‘clever politician’, and ‘tiredness’ got traction at this time and not other times. But this damage to credibility happened before 2007. It not only built on historic public knowledge about Howard as a ‘mean and tricky’ man but also ensued from a crucial shift in public opinion around 2005.

The most important weapon of a politician is character credibility with audiences.

In the wake of the July 2005 bombings in London, Howard continued what had been his successful stance as ‘wartime prime minister’ guarding national security. However, other events undermined this rhetoric and put his climate change scepticism in an unfavourable light. That is, public opinion became less concerned about terrorism and found plausible reasons to believe there was something in this climate change business, because of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, a national drought that inaugurated water restrictions, and a 2006 cyclone in Queensland that sent bananas to $15 per kilo. Moreover, many big businesses were seen to be taking account of the environment, hence ANZ’s withdrawal, in 2007, from funding the Gunn paper mill.

Further undermining Howard’s national security discourse was the worsening civil war in Iraq. Against this background, there was a successful PR campaign by the legal team of David Hicks. This Australian was captured in Afghanistan while serving the Taliban, handed to American forces in 2001, and sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he lingered with little public sympathy. Many Iraqi deaths and the iniquity and US Supreme Court rejection of the military tribunals were changes in social forces that allowed a PR opportunity for Hicks’ team.

Also in 2005, and providing further evidence of changing social forces, was the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, which found that most people didn’t like what they heard about Workchoices and disliked it more as they learned about it (van Wanrooy 2007, p. 182–92). In addition, interest rate rises diminished Howard’s reputation as the battlers’ friend and nullified his 2004 scare that rates would be higher under Labor. Thus, his 2004 election tactics did not work in 2007 (p. 116).

It is easy to conclude from van Onselen and Senior that Rudd won because of media style over substance, particularly with his tactic of ‘me-tooism’ (see p. 7). This issue is left in the air in the epilogue when they give Julie Bishop pride of place but no comment on her ‘we wuz robbed by propaganda’ argument:

We won the policy debates at the last election. What we didn’t win was the media manipulation and the spin. And perhaps we tended to believe that good policy would sell itself, but we find that Labor outspun us in the way it put forward its policies (p. 191).

Bishop makes no allowance for persuasion or for the evidence voters picked up about Workchoices in 2005. It’s the same excuse the Liberals delivered after the 1993 election. There are two conclusions to be drawn from Bishop’s stubbornness: first, all those who voted Labor are manipulated suckers and, second, the Liberals will stay in opposition if they all believe this. The Liberals spent all last year dismissing Rudd as a man of stunts and that has been their line about him this year, as if Howard’s ‘debt truck’ of 1996 wasn’t itself a PR stunt of the sort that all parties indulge now and then to make their point.

The Costello memoirs can be best described as ‘Clayton’s rancour’..

Now let us turn to the way Costello constructed his narrative, which is less concerned with the academic fairness van Onselen and Senior aim for, and more concerned with self.

Costello starts with the night before the 2007 election at a dinner with his family and his staffers. It allows him to display—but not mention—his qualities of love, friendship and loyalty and, as importantly, the big ‘what if’: what if he had become prime minister and replaced John Howard? And, what went wrong? As you would expect, the two questions are linked. These personal qualities allow Costello to set the tone of the book by taking a swipe at Jackie Kelly and the furore around bogus Labor leaflets stirring anti-Moslem sentiment. She came into parliament in 1996 with ‘no background in the Liberal Party’ and ‘Her loyalty was to Howard’ (p. 2).

Costello often uses the words ‘loyalty’ and ‘patient’ in conjunction with the Liberal Party and leadership (for example p. 43). He describes himself ‘patient’ (pp. 240, 244) with Howard rather than ‘agitating for the leadership’ (p. 240) and ‘undermining’ him through the years (p. 230). Patience indeed became a virtue in the light of Howard’s undertaking in 1994 to Costello, and before Ian McLachlan, to stand down after one term as prime minister. The incident arose publicly in 2006 when McLachlan revealed his note of the meeting, but in 2003 McLachlan had broached with Costello his frustration at Howard’s failure to uphold the agreement. Costello already knew of the note but, significantly, told McLachlan ‘You do what you think is right’ (p. 240). This statement has all the political clarity and cunning of Pontius Pilate washing his hands of responsibility and provides a window on the nature of friendship in a party. Costello gave no concrete advice on what to do, so he could disclaim responsibility but still benefit if McLachlan exposed the agreement. He could have given clear instructions rather than leaving the responsibility with McLachlan.

The quality of loyalty in Costello stands in the book in stark contrast to the acts of disloyalty by Howard, although this is a conclusion left to the reader. For example, there was the famous Shane Stone memo of 2001 which described Howard as ‘mean and tricky’ but also, says Costello, included ‘special venom directed at me’ (p. 156). He was ‘surprised that Howard had not told me about it or at least told me of the areas that criticised me’. When he confronted Stone about the public leaking of the memo, Stone’s reply ‘was effectively saying that the leak came from the Prime Minister’s office’ (p. 157). In this remembrance and in his choice of cartoons, Costello leads the reader to the prime minister’s door and then leaves them there. In a Moir cartoon Costello is underwater holding Howard above the waves in the 2004 election and in a Cook cartoon there is a senior’s moment of 2016 with the aged pair and Howard announcing ‘I will contest the next election’.

In other words, the Costello memoirs can be best described as ‘Clayton’s rancour’, the rancour that you have when you’re not having rancour. Writing a political memoir after great success but bitter disappointment must be very hard for a politician who must then tread a careful line between a desire to tell all and a public perception of overweening resentment. One need only remember the public reception of Hawke’s autobiography. Costello had a more recent reminder of how not to go over the top when Latham won the gold medal for Dummy Spits. The choice of starting point, of incidents and of what is left out can say it all without ‘doing a Latham’.

There are few certainties in politics because the world is imperfect and full of contingencies.

Public ridicule awaits inappropriate authorial decorum: politicians must match their words and tone very carefully to their audience. A thumbs-down can be devastating to ambitious politicians for several reasons. They thrive by projecting credibility and certainty of mind when dealing with the great problems of the day, hence the need for the touch of arrogance I noted earlier. Certainty is part of their credibility with the public and their colleagues. One can see why Kim Beazley and Brendan Nelson became political fatalities.

Winston Churchill was always certain throughout his long political career. In 1908 he was president of the Board of Trade and was so certain that the huge expense of a battleship-building programme would break the British budget that he attacked the proposal put forward by the First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1911 he was First Lord and was certain that his bigger proposal for a battleship-building programme was needed. By 1923, he was Chancellor of the Exchequer and was so certain of the need for less naval spending that he almost broke the government (Jenkins 2001, pp. 154, 211). Admittedly circumstances change and therefore one changes one’s mind but Churchill was a fierce advocate for whatever political enthusiasm he had at the time. So was Paul Keating who fought tooth-and-nail for a GST in 1985 and fought just as passionately against a GST in 1993.

Costello is still the advocate barrister and his story is of a long series of victories that have left Australia better off, including balanced budgets, independent Reserve Bank, and a well-regulated financial system. This is fair enough except that he is as afflicted by the usual partisan amnesia that refuses to concede the continuities between governments and that economic success did not suddenly start on the day of winning government. As much as Costello lampoons Wayne Swan for not admitting good financial regulation was his doing, he does not credit that Labor may have contributed to his ‘Age of Prosperity’. The narrative does recognise mistakes have been made—mostly made by other people. So Costello has fewer regrets than Sinatra in My Way, and remember that even then Cranky Franky sang ‘I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention’. He mourns the opportunities lost with Aboriginal reconciliation, the republic and mandatory detention of refugees.

However much certainty is admired in politicians, there are few certainties in politics because the world is imperfect and full of contingencies. Therefore, it is often only possible to know that a right decision had been made until after all the events and consequences had played out (White 1978, p. 275). Then the story can be constructed with hindsight and so spin a narrative thread that excludes the uncertainties, complexities, urgencies and deficiencies of information when decisions are made. This is how Costello has constructed his memoir.

The plague of contingency upon politics means that politicians must continually evaluate means and ends. This is often condemned as opportunism in a leader, as Guy Rundle did of Howard (2006). However political flexibility has been rightly understood as a valuable political asset by many authors from Aristotle to Machiavelli to Robert Tucker because of the need to bypass obstacles and to understand the novelty of different situations, while still grasping general principles of conduct (Tucker 1977; Mulgan 1977, p. 9–10). It means never completely closing off options, or never say ‘never’, as Howard found out after 1995. Howard frequently exhibited flexibility so that he could plausibly say ‘You know what I stand for even if you don’t like me’ and yet back flip at moments of his choosing, such as fuel excise in 2001. He grabbed the opportunity presented by the Little Children Are Sacred report in 2007 (Anderson & Wild 2007) to intervene in the Northern Territory but failed to redefine himself on climate change by creating a Shergold Report (Prime Ministerial Task Group on Emissions Trading 2007) sooner than he did.

It can’t be a simple oversight that led Costello to ignore Workchoices..

This issue of flexibility means I don’t think Costello completely closed off the option of Liberal leadership when writing this memoir. It can’t be a mere coincidence that his father-in-law (and co-author) and brother both came out on the same day to say young Pete still had the ambition to be prime minister (‘Costello could still lead: father-in-law’ 2008; Lewis 2008). According to reports in August, Costello backers were gauging support for him to replace Nelson. Some Liberals were open to the possibility as long as he did not ‘dump’ on Howard in his book (Karvelas & Franklin 2008). Here was another reason to maintain authorial decorum and craft a ‘Clayton’s dump’ rather than spit the dummy.

It can’t be a simple oversight that led Costello to ignore Workchoices apart from a favourable comparison over its Jobsback predecessor of 1993 (p. 57). Its unfairness and unpopularity are not raised. Similarly, he ignores the unfairness of American judicial process that led many people to change their minds about David Hicks. Along the way Costello raises what I describe as a legitimate Machiavellian point, when he states that the border security policy saved lives by dissuading people boarding unseaworthy boats. (By Machiavellian I do not mean the popular pejorative implication of deceit and evil but rather that public political morality is different to private morality and may prove counter-intuitive to what is generally thought the path to a good outcome.) Yet he undermines this by ignoring the play on prejudice in 2001 and the hypocrisy and deceit about what passed between ministers, ministerial advisers and bureaucrats that seriously damaged public accountability during the Tampa affair (Weller 2002, pp. 72–4, chapter 4). It is hard to believe Costello really went through the 32,000 documents in his files (p. xi) to come up with this book.

Hence, the perpendicular pronoun—I—features so much that you would not know from this book there was a deputy prime minister involved in major decisions. Rather than it being a Coalition cabinet with Howard as leader, Costello always seems to be at the centre of government action with Howard and always seems to have the correct position that either confirms or refutes Howard’s decisions. This style reinforces the ‘two horse race’ view of politics as a simple matter of agency. It not only fits neatly with a general trend of political analysis, but also with the philosophy of liberalism, which focuses on the individual and their qualities to the exclusion of other factors. Hence there is the elevation of Menzies and Howard to mythic status within the party but also the extraordinary powers given to the leader to hire and fire and to set party ideology—if they are a winner. If they lose, they are out. Therefore, Costello’s call for a cultural change in the Liberal Party from a cult of personality to a means of leadership transition is understandable but difficult given the nature of the party.

The paradox in Costello’s call is particularly evident in the way the book comes back to Prince Peter saying all problems would have been solved if he inherited the crown from King John. This is the agency focus. However, this ignores how the times suited Howard and may have passed with the financial collapse. In all his fiscal rectitude and complaint of Howard’s fiscal laxity (p. 96), Costello is either deliberately obtuse about the basis of the ‘Age of Prosperity’ (p. 9) or didn’t understand the political and economic strategy of Howard who gave new meaning to that old observation of Sir Keith Hancock: ‘Australian democracy has come to look upon the state as a vast public utility, whose duty it is to provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ (1961, p. 56).

Howard put the state to the service of individual interests. In the process, he did not so much reduce the state as shift its political priorities and stitch together a coalition of constituencies that sheltered within his language. Menzies did the same (Rolfe 1997, 1999) except Howard overlaid Menzies’ ‘home-owning democracy’ with his ‘credit democracy’ and ‘share-owning democracy’. Certainly, this was an achievement of Howard but he was working with the social forces of the time—the Australian finance sector and other services keen for privatisation, the global growth in producer services that also provide jobs, the economic changes wrought by Labor, and the long tradition of government policies for families and homes. For all the encomiums lavished by conservative commentators on Howard’s deep and permanent connection with families, it was but a passing moment in the grand sweep of change that must always eventually pull them apart.

The Howard strategy had come to the end of its political and economic run.

‘The Howard Battlers’ was an amorphous and rhetorically attractive term that was not simply composed of traditional Labor voters of the outer suburbs who deserted Labor in 1996, but also included working and middle class swingers finding it difficult to make ends meet (Green 1997, Brent 2004). He shifted tax rebates and subsidies to suburban families with family benefits, the baby bonus (of which Costello is proud), rebates on private health insurance premiums, and support for private schools in a similar fashion to Menzies (Murphy 1995).

These families lived in homes that benefited from past housing policies and from asset inflation, which generated a ‘wealth effect’ that led to increased consumption, which in turn led to increased economic growth, and so it went on as long as the house prices kept rising to pay for the credit and consumption. Meanwhile, an insouciant Costello replied to complaints about the burden of high prices on new entrants that nobody complains about rising house prices. The First Home Owners Scheme did not much restrain house prices in its first three years, but instead injected $4.3 billion into the industry. Negative gearing also spurred investors and dwelling construction with, for example, $4 billion of tax benefits in 2002–3 (Berry & Dalton 2004, pp. 79–81).

‘Mums and Dads’ were also encouraged by the Howard Government to own shares. There was $95 billion worth of privatisation during the 1990s by Federal and state governments (Walker & Walker 2000, p. 23) and more was opened up after the Ralph Review, with its recommendation of capping capital gains on shares, and tax reform, with airports, lumps of Telstra and other businesses. According to one analyst in 1999, state assets sold for $30 billion were worth $75 billion. In other words, shares were sold cheaply to boost their sale and popularity with financial heavies and small investors alike (Feil 1999). Limitations of space prevent me from detailing other state intervention.

This was state intervention that encouraged the service sector during a boom time for globalisation, stimulated the wealth effect, and built on the market and superannuation reforms of the Hawke and Keating. It was also part of a government strategy in the late 1990s to leapfrog the stricken Asia economies and position Sydney as a global financial services city. This is one of those little things that Costello fails to remember (see Hockey 1999; Costello 1999) because it didn’t catapult Sydney into the top of the league. And now the elements holding the various constituencies together, including those battlers, are sundered by the financial and housing collapse. Obviously, many people were already starting to feel the economic pinch last year and responded to Rudd’s complaints about prices. Ominously for Rudd, government coffers won’t have the same largesse for attracting alliances as they did under Howard.

In other words, we can see the circumstances in which Howard’s language and credibility worked, and why a simple transfer of the crown to Costello would not have been the only solution to Liberal problems. The Howard strategy had come to the end of its political and economic run, as did that of Bruce in 1929, and so much of Howard’s credibility was built on it. Given Costello’s part in the Howard government, he would have had to reinvent his credibility on the scale of Keating’s achievement in 1991–92. Judging by this book, it is unlikely that Costello could have done it. A Coalition train wreck was gathering pace in 2005 and was probably inevitable by 2007. Costello’s credibility and reputation would not have been enough to counter the well-executed Labor campaign described by van Onselen and Senior, and constructed on a combination of influential events and shifting public opinion.


Anderson, P. & Wild R. 2007, Little Children Are Sacred—Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, Northern Territory Government [Online] Available: [2008, Nov 16].

‘Costello could still lead: father-in-law’ 2008, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 September [Online], Available: [2008, Oct 24].

Berry, M. & Dalton T. 2004, ‘Housing prices and policy dilemmas: A peculiarly Australian problem?’, Urban Policy and Research, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 69–91.

Brent, P. 2004, Howard’s battlers: The electoral evidence?, paper presented to the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference University of Adelaide 29 September – 1 October 2004 [Online], Available: [2008, Oct 29].

Costello, P. 1999, Transcript No. 99/08, Doorstop interview, Melbourne, 22 February [Online], Available: [2008, Oct 29].

Feil, M. 1999, ‘Privatisation: Sham of the century’, The Age, 11 October.

Green, A. 1997, ‘The battler and the ballot boxes’, AQ: Journal of Contemporary Analysis, September–October, pp. 6–11.

Hancock, W.K. 1961, Australia, Jacaranda, Brisbane.

Hockey, J. 1999, Speech to CEDA: Australia as a centre for global financial services, 28 January [Online]. Available: [2008, Oct 29].

Jenkins, R. 2001, Churchill, MacMillan London.

Karvelas, P. & Franklin M. 2008, ‘Peter Costello backers do numbers’, The Australian, 2 August [Online], Available:,,24115367-2702,00.html [2008, Oct 24].

Lewis, S. 2008, ‘Peter Costello still wants Pam’s job, says brother Tim’, The Courier-Mail, 13 September [Online] Available:,23599,24336620-5007133,00.html [2008, Oct 24].

Mulgan, R. 1977, Aristotle’s Political Theory: An Introduction for Students of Political Theory, Clarendon Press, Oxford England.

Murphy, J. 1995, ‘Social policy and the family’, in The Menzies Era: A Reappraisal of Government, Politics and Policy, eds S. Prasser, J. Nethercote & J. Warhurst, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney.

Prime Ministerial Task Group on Emissions Trading 2007, Report of the Task Group on Emissions Trading, Dept. of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Canberra ACT. [Online] Available: [2008, Nov 16].

Oakes, L. 1973, The Making of an Australian Prime Minister, Cheshire, Melbourne.

Reid, A. 1971, The Gorton Experiment, Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney.

Reid, A. 1976, The Whitlam Venture, Hill of Content, Melbourne.

Rolfe, M. 1997, ‘The promise and threat of America in Australian politics’, Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 187–204.

Rolfe, M. 1999, ‘Faraway Fordism: The Americanization of Australia and New Zealand during the 1950s and 1960s’, New Zealand Journal of History, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 65–91.

Rolfe, M. 2008, ‘From big to little screens: Recurring images of democratic credibility and the net’, Scan, vol. 5, no. 1, May [Online], Available: [2008, Oct 30].

Rundle, G. 2001, ‘The opportunist: John Howard and the politics of reaction’, Quarterly Essay, no. 3.

Tucker, R. 1977, ‘Personality and political leadership’, Political Science Quarterly, vol. 92, no. 3, pp. 383–93.

van Wanrooy, B. 2007, ‘The quiet before the storm? Attitudes towards the new industrial relations system’, in Australian Social Attitudes 2: Citizenship, Work and Aspirations, eds D. Denemark, G. Meagher, S. Wilson, M. Western & T. Phillips, UNSW Press, Sydney.

Walker, B. & Walker, B. 2000, Privatisation: Sell Off or Sell Out? The Australian Experience, ABC Books, Sydney.

Weller, P. 2002, Don’t Tell the Prime Minister, Scribe Books, Carlton.

White, D. 1978, ‘The right decision in politics’, Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 273–85.

Williams, P. 1997, The Victory: The Inside Story of the Takeover of Australia, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards Sydney.

Mark Rolfe is a lecturer in the School of Social Sciences & International Studies at the University of New South Wales, dealing with rhetoric, satire and propaganda, Australian prime ministers, and Americanisation. No prime ministers were harmed in the making of this article.