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January 2009

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A Review - by Helen Derrick

A Review - by Helen Derrick

January 2009

In 2008, ABC-TV dedicated a lot of time to The Howard Years, a documentary overview of the Coalition‘s 12 years tenure in Government. While the series had its own intrinsic interest as a media event; in each of the four episodes, events were sketchily covered and the interviewee’s responses seemed perfunctory. There were no fascinating insider revelations. Whether this had something to do with editing or bias is a matter of conjecture .The series ground on to its dreary and disillusioning climax with all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, as the Coalition imploded at the 2007 elections. End of story.

No such outcome dominates The Costello Memoirs, published in August 2008. Costello’s beguiling narrative is full of detail (and anecdote), his style is lucid, and his writing is economical. His account, (with its prelude pre’96, the Dollar Sweets Case, the unloseable election of 1993 and his accession to the Deputy Leadership), puts the reader at his elbow. At each stage of the chronology, Costello sets a context for domestic or international events and like the good lawyer that he is, he goes to the heart of issues, explains the background and details Government’s responses to them. Curiously, each chapter becomes a page-turner as the reader seeks to find out what really was going on behind the 24-hour media cycle!

The chapter Unchain My Heart; a New Tax System is a case in point. Who would have thought that the 1998 fight for the GST would have been a pleasurable and informative read? 
After a chatty anecdote about his trip through Myers accompanied by Ray Martin and the A Current Affair Team (“ Like most men I hate shopping. But in the late 1990s I was the nation’s expert on the price of everything and how it would be affected by the largest tax reform in Australian history”); Costello reveals the serious business of unravelling the intricacies of the tax system ( especially the broadening of the indirect tax base) and the foundation-laying for the successful economic management of the nation’s affairs.

The description of Team Costello ( the task force chaired by Ken Henry), secreted away in a safe room “ out of the Treasury building” with “report-back directly between Henry and me”, beavering away on computer models for everything, has a certain bravura. And Costello leaves no one in any doubt about his reaction to John Howard’s suggestion (just before the materials went to the printers) that the GST be reduced to 8%. Breathing exercises for the Treasurer and his chief of staff, Phil Gaetjens, but fortunately the Prime Minister did not persist!
It is certain that the Treasurer would have been able to dine out on the story of his gold crown with ‘GST’ inscribed on the inside by the dental technician. As Costello’s dentist said “ if I ever have to identify you from dental records this should prove helpful”.

Sadly, Costello does not feel that the Federal system (despite its checks and balances) has served Australia well. He had hoped to delineate the powers between the Commonwealth and the States more clearly and to let the public see where accountability lay, by allocating all the revenue from the GST to the States. As he says “ the tax grows with the growth of goods and services in the economy”. With this inflow the States could take responsibility for their services and for providing infrastructure. This has not eventuated and it remains to be seen how State responsibility will work out under majority Labor Government rule. Water conservation and implementation policy, emissions trading, the Aboriginal intervention, health and education matters are also discussed in the light of Commonwealth/State responsibilities.

World affairs impinge constantly through the memoirs, which demonstrate the Government team keeping a steady hand on the tiller in rough seas . The description of the meltdown of the Asian economies and Australia’s financial support for Thailand, Indonesia and Korea, the role of the IMF and the subsequent growth of the G-20 group of countries in assisting imploding economies, the East Timor Crisis, immigration/people-smuggling crises and the Tampa Affair, the World Trade Centre attack on 9/11, the Bali Bombings and Australian involvement in Afghanistan and in the Iraq War are all covered. It is incontestable that the Australian Government moved centre-stage in world events at the time – along with Howard and Downer, Costello was a key player and the list of his international contacts and committees is truly impressive. And what emerges from several chapters is the truism that the prophet may not be heard in his own country –.

Media preoccupation with the leadership issue is served with a full chapter. It is obvious that Costello thought that Howard would bow out of the Prime Minister’s position as he had promised and his actions are more a reflection on Howard’s incapacity to relinquish power than on Costello’s perceived lack of aggression in wresting it from him. In his descriptions of Howard, Costello is both scrupulous and generous and as Coleman notes “declares plainly that he regards him as Australia’s greatest Prime Minister after Sir Robert Menzies”. This fairness also extends to Costello’s descriptions of Simon Crean (“a great negative campaigner” and “the best [of the five Shadow Treasurers ] I faced” and Kim Beasley (“ a second generation MP” “a good debater” “ in the wrong electoral cycle”).

For Costello, being a Liberal is about individual rights and the voice of conscience. He gives the Union Movement pretty short shrift. He notes the legacy of industrial disruption in Australia of the 1970s and 80s, the behaviour of the left-wing student unions at Monash University, the drift of the left-wing activists into the left-wing unions and the fact that power in the ALP resided with  the Union bosses - ( several now ensconced in  Parliament) He is also fairly dismissive of Kevin Rudd and notes his ‘me-tooism but I’m younger tactics’ of the 2007 campaign and the plagiarism of the Government’s programs, especially taxation policy, by the labor strategists. Generous in his assessments of the Nationals’ leaders John Anderson , Tim Fischer and Mark Vaile ( especially for his role in the Free Trade Agreement negotiations in 2004), Costello reserves censure for the antics of the maverick Senator, Barnaby Joyce who, “  made the life of the National Party leader a misery and undermined his authority in the party and in the broader community they represented”. Little seems to have changed!

It is hard to conclude what the future holds for this gifted Liberal, who, at 51, is three years younger than Malcolm Turnbull. Moderate, conservative and clever – we can certainly agree with Peter Van Onselen, that “ most Australians would be feeling more comfortable right now if Peter Costello were still running the economy”.

Read the Costello Memoirs and you’ll see why!

Helen Derrick

Reviews and comments re The Costello Memoirs  The Costello Memoirs is a frank and fearless look inside the engine-room of the Liberal Party and the Howard Government.
I Review by Chris Saliba   ABC Shop promo blurb,25197,24720724-5014047,00.html ‘Prime leader on the backbench’  Van Onselen, Peter  (2008)  The Weekend Australian, November 29-30., p. 26 Peter Costello talks to ‘Lateline’  Australian Broadcasting Corporation, broadcast 23/09/2008. Tony Jones Reporter

Some books that you might enjoy. Available from libraries and/or bookshops.:
Brett, Judith & Moran, Anthony.(2006). Ordinary people’s politics: Australians talk about life, politics and the future of their country.  Pluto Press, North Melbourne.
ISBN 186403257X
Costello, Peter & Coleman, Peter .  (2008)  The Costello memoirs: the age of prosperity Melbourne University Press, Melbourne. ISBN 9780522855821 (hbk)
Latham, Mark.  (2005). The Latham diaries. Melbourne University Press. Melbourne. ISBN  0522852157

Van Onselen, Peter & Senior, Philip.  (2008) Howard’s end: the unraveling of a government. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne. ISBN 9780522854350 (pbk)