On the face of it, the John Howard and Peter Costello leadership tensions look remarkably like those that beset the ALP when Bob Hawke and Paul Keating faced off 14 years ago, but there is one major difference.

Hawke and Keating shared a personal and intellectual chemistry for much of their time in government. As Keating biographer Don Watson has put it, it was a brotherly relationship with both men sharing a sense of adventure and enterprise.
In contrast, Howard and Costello have always been work colleagues and that’s it. They do not mix socially. Each has his own circle of acquaintances and friends, and the 18-year age gap between them seems to accentuate their ideological separateness.

The strength and depth of the Hawke-Keating relationship helped the Labor government endure the roller-coaster days of the 1980s economy and implement its massive economic reform program.

It was a team that produced eight budgets and numerous mini-budgets. It was a relationship that finally foundered because Keating was exhausted by carrying the economic portfolio for so long, and because Hawke decided he wanted to carry on being prime minister despite the infamous Kirribilli agreement that required him to pass the leadership baton to Keating well before the 1993 election.

Part of the reason for the positive chemistry enjoyed for some time by Hawke and Keating was that, despite their vastly different interests and personality styles, they were both ideologically committed to economic reform and modernising Australian society.

The same cannot be said about Howard and Costello. They have been a political pairing now for about the same period as Hawke and Keating but while Howard is a deeply committed and conservative warrior – both cultural and ideological – who is determined to remake Australia in his own conservative image, Costello has been prepared to embrace a more progressive agenda from time to time.

Most notably in the cause of the republic for which he has defied his Prime Minister continually since the 1998 Constitutional Convention when he spoke in favour of replacing the Queen with an Australian Head of State.

The same is true on reconciliation, with Costello joining the hundreds of thousands of Australians who urged Howard to reach out to indigenous Australia over the injustices of the past.

And when Howard announced, in June 2003, that he intended staying on as prime minister and refused to set a timetable for his departure, Costello told the media that he wanted to focus on the middle-aged jobless, broken families, victims of drug abuse and the disabled – all causes dear to the heart of small ‘l’ liberals and the few social progressives still in the Liberal Party.

Ideological gaps

Given these ideological gaps between Costello and Howard, the question needs to be asked: does Howard want Costello to become Australia’s prime minister at all?

Is Howard, knowing full well that his party will continue to support him while he looks like having Labor’s measure, hoping that Costello spits the dummy and exits politics some time after next week’s Budget?

That this might be the case was hinted at by Howard’s biographer, David Barnett, in The Australian Financial Review yesterday. Barnett observed that there are other contenders for the prime ministerial mantle, including Tony Abbott, Brendan Nelson and Alexander Downer.

He reckons that Costello misread the mood of the Australian people on reconciliation and the republic and that his prime ministerial mantle has slipped in recent years.

Barnett may be reflecting the views of Howard’s supporters, or even the PM’s office, and if so, then this indicates Howard wants someone to succeed him who will continue to drive Australia to the right: someone who will keep the republic off the agenda, ensure a total commitment to the George W. Bush administration’s war on terror, and someone who will continue to infuse social policy with a dose of rugged individualism and personal responsibility.

Downer and Abbott, both unashamed conservatives, no doubt view themselves as the praetorian guards of the Howard legacy. Nelson’s opportunist rhetoric makes him hard to pin down, but it’s fair to say that the socially progressive image he cultivated when he ran the Australian Medical Association has long vanished.

Howard appears to have finally broken the gossamer thread that united him and Costello. In doing so, he appears to be opening the Liberal Party’s leadership race, when it does happen, to all comers.

The Prime Minister appears to be more concerned about protecting his political legacy than he does about his frustrated Treasurer’s dashed feelings.

Greg Barns, a Tasmanian-based lawyer and commentator, is a former adviser to the early Howard Cabinet Minister John Fahey, and wrote the 2003 book What’s Wrong with the Liberal Party? This article was first published in The Courier Mail, 03/05/05.