Spartacus raises a very good question in “A Question of Leadership”: how much is Saint John Winston Howard to blame for the current state of affairs the Liberal Party finds itself in?
For Spartacus the big “F” was largely for preventing an orderly transition to Peter Costello based on the counterfactual that Costello would have contested the 2007 election and things would be somehow different even though Rudd would still have won, albeit with less seats. I’m not sure of the logic here.
What I can say is politics and leadership determined by a party room vote constitutes a very different dynamic to succession planning in a large public or private company. There are no board of directors for starters. It’s more akin to picking the captain of the footy team amongst the player group.
There are two main reasons why Costello failed to succeed Howard as Prime Minister before the 2007 election and it wasn’t because nobody knew he coveted the job.
First, Howard brought the Liberals back into power after 13 years in the wilderness and the bitter disappointment of Hewson losing the unlosable election of 1993. He backed this up with three further election victories in 1998, 2001 and 2004.
As time went by, older politicians retired, new ones replaced them, and by 2007 the party room was largely comprised of politicians that had only ever known electoral success under the leadership of John Howard. There was simply little appetite for change even as Howard started looking more vulnerable.
In short, Howard built up a record of electoral success and level of trust and loyalty within the Party that was in the main unwavering. That Howard was a tireless campaigner, spoke to the people not down at them, and went out of his way to make himself approachable to voters, party members, colleagues and donors created a somewhat invincibility status.
Returning to the football analogy the situation in 2007 was akin to football club deciding on whether to retire a champion player or give him the benefit of the doubt of one more season. He might not be playing at glory days levels but he is still a very solid and consistent performer.
Extending the life or enforcing the retirement of a champion is a very tough call. The gamble is they can hold good form, but even so at what cost in terms of younger player development, player trades, the draft and so on? Most champion players are ultimately tapped on the shoulder.
The failure to tap Howard on the shoulder (or hard enough) was a collective one with responsibility resting on the more senior Cabinet members, Party President, and other close Howard confidents. Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t. It is impossible to know, or how hard they pressed the issue if they did in fact raise it. Or perhaps the case for succession was just not that clear cut at the time as it seems with the benefit of hindsight.
This brings me to the second reason a leadership succession failed to materialise prior to 2007, namely Peter Costello failed to present to his colleagues a convincing business case for change.
Costello seemingly believed the Prime Ministership was his right and a done deal between him and Howard existed much like the Kirribilli pact between Hawke and Keating. That alone should have set off a red flag in Costello’s brain but obviously did not.
Consequently, Costello was lazy in prosecuting the case for change and building a base of support behind it. He seemingly lost interest in the intergenerational reports over time that would have enabled him to prosecute a vision under his leadership. He rarely spoke outside his portfolio area despite Treasury offering a lot of latitude. At least not in policy development sense.
His fundraising / networking efforts were low energy and party political. His relationship with the Federal Executive and Federal Secretariat distant at best. In Victoria he was more engaged in factional warfare towards the end of the Howard years with his one-time best mate Kroger.
Despite being the longest serving Treasurer in Australian history the most common question, inside and outside the beltway was: what did Peter Costello stand for? What would a Costello Government mean? This stood in stark contrast to John Howard who was a known quantity whether you liked him or not.
So on the succession front I will give Howard a break and put it down to collective failure on behalf the Liberal Party and for Costello failing to stand up and be counted.
As to whether Howard-Costello have played a hand in the current poor condition of the Liberal Party I would give a qualified yes. Qualified, because going with the football analogy, it is up to every generation to establish its own team, style of play, training standards and match day performance. Blaming the last Premiership Team for future poor recruiting, poor choice of captain and leadership group, no game plan, and match day blow outs is stretching a long bow, especially after a reasonable passage of time.
That said Howard and Costello did leave behind a legacy that included a few reckless and poorly thought out passages of play that have seriously handicapped and divided the current team ever since and made rejuvenation difficult. Those reckless plays are contributing to the Liberals and more importantly Australia’s most pressing problems today. Where I apportion some of the blame on Howard (and Costello) I would highlight:
- GST/HFE. Poorly designed it has degenerated into a race to the bottom, penalising state economic development, and disincentivising competition between states to perform better. Un-liberal to its core.
- Centralisation of policy and the blow out in the public sector. When the Howard era finally came to an end the APS was 40% bigger than the low point in 1999. Simply put, the Howard Government lost control of the APS. Centralisation simply blurred lines of accountability between the Commonwealth and the States leading to inefficiency, diminished accountability, and greater cost for lesser outcomes. It also led to a steep rise in the power and/or number of undemocratic statutory agencies, which, in line with the public service at large, were captured by the Left on Howard’s watch. Howard should have known big government would lead to institutional capture.
- Discretionary grant spending. This exploded in the final Howard term in an attempt to pork barrel his way to a fifth term. However much of it ended up going to left wing fringe groups and organisations, providing a program platform the incoming Labor Government was more than happy to exploit. Enabling the tax payer funding of a plethora of Marxist activists and agitators is an own goal if ever there was one! (This is a partial fail in that Abbott and Turnbull could have taken to them with an axe but didn’t).
- NEM and RET. That Howard failed to see how this would be ramped up under a Green-Labor government and the adverse consequences that would follow was negligence of the first order.
- Promoting to Turnbull to Cabinet!
- Giving Turnbull the Environment portfolio! The start of the climate wars, destruction of our electricity system, and the loss of the productive use of water for agriculture.
In summary, I think Howard and Costello gave the Labor Party a five goal head start upon retirement that was on its way to being clawed back under Abbott albeit unconvincingly. But I don’t think you can blame them for current crop being unable to kick a single goal against a horrible and negative opponent.
I suspect only the wooden spoon, some forced retirements and some priority draft picks will make the Liberal Party competitive again. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can climb back up. Of course in some codes that would mean relegation. Hmmmm . . . . . .