It is very difficult to find an interpretation of the facts over the past few years that does not indicate that Peter Costello was the one who played the wrecking, and the dishonourable, role in the Liberal Party.
At least 30 per cent of the Government’s problems came from Costello and his party supporters repeatedly briefing the press and others against Howard.
There are numerous public examples of this, such as the bitter comments Costello made to Howard’s biographers, or the famously leaked dinner with senior Canberra reporters during which Costello detailed how he would destroy Howard. Similarly, Costello’s party lieutenants for years briefed journalists on leadership challenge timetables and why Howard must go.
All of this had two perverse consequences. First, more than any other factor it crippled Howard as a medium-term leader. It forced him to make the leadership compromise commitment that he would hand over to Costello midway through the next term.
This minimised the government’s freedom to manoeuvre. It diminished Howard and was a drag on the Liberal vote. Two non-political members of my extended family told me they would vote Labor because they didn’t want Costello to become prime minister. Costello, you see, was always unpopular.
But the long Costello campaign had an even worse effect for the Liberals. It reinforced Rudd’s central message; that it was time for change, especially generational change.
Costello had three honourable options.
The best, for the party and the nation, would have been to serve honourably, and not to constantly campaign semi-publicly, with occasional public tantrums, against his leader.
Honourable option No2 would have been to resign from parliament just after the 2004 election. He would have had a great political career and the party could have made other succession arrangements free from Costello’s rancorous destabilising.
Honourable option No3 would have been to challenge Howard, if Costello really believed a Howard prime ministership was damaging to the nation.
This would have done great damage to the government but, because Costello would have got a risible vote, it would have come to an end. Costello could have resigned, having suffered an honourable defeat.
Costello’s past conduct only looks worse in the light of his abandonment of the party now. The first term in opposition is always pretty dreadful for a party. It has to hold itself together and stay plausible. The Liberals would have benefited from the leadership of a former senior minister with credibility in the key area of economic management, who could have kept them credible and maybe even distantly competitive.
[ … ]
Finally, until it was far too late to change, the vast majority of the federal parliamentary Liberal Party thought that Howard was by far their best chance.
History will look kindly on Costello’s occupancy of the Treasury, but poorly on his political conduct.
In sharp contrast, John Howard was a man of principle and a gentleman.
I disagreed with quite a few of his policies and directions.
But all things considered, I view him as one of our truly greatest leaders, and a man who has helped make Australia brighter, richer, and stronger.