Having perused the Costello Memoirs back in 2009 I got the impression that there were a few Labor politicians for whom Peter Costello had a grudging respect, possibly even a slight fondness. Kim Beazley was clearly one, Gareth Evans another, Kevin Rudd was definitely not one. Yet I’ve often thought the two share a great deal in common. Both have spent the majority of their time in parliament being talked up as the alternative leader of their party. Unloved by their own party rooms but gifted with the media both had the rare gift of being able to set off a round of leadership speculation with the most innocuous of speeches.
In the final years of their governments (yes I’m confident this will be the final year of the Gillard government) they had both the privilege and misfortune of being more popular than a Prime Minister who was headed for inevitable defeat. If their party was prepared to toss out the leader then this would be a relatively nice position in which to be but neither Rudd nor Costello were members of parliamentary parties which were prepared to show their current leaders the door. When you’re in this kind of position you’ve really only got two choices, you can either back away or you can let slip the dogs of war. It would seems both decisions are wrong.
Costello backed away and got taunted and sneered at for being “gutless” His unpreparedness to enter in to a bruising fight to the death with Howard saw him chastised as the man who could have saved the Liberal party but lacked the courage to do so. Rudd could hardly be accused of this, since being goaded into a challenging Julia Gillard in February last year he has, as he likes to say, made his position perfectly clear: he will remain constantly prepared to take on Julia Gillard the moment there are numbers approaching a majority of Labor MP’s who are prepared to remove her. He plays the media like a ukulele and courts public support in a way no politician since Bob Hawke can compare, and for doing so he is deemed treacherous, disloyal and a saboteur.
What this demonstrates as that fabled quality of loyalty which we see as so admirable in a politician, is an extraordinary vague concept and the more closely you rigorously you examine it the more poorly thought out it appears to be. Where a leader is popular and en route for victory the notion of loyalty is fairly straightforward but where every indicia points to the leader delivering the party a resounding defeat, and where there is plenty to suggest that removing the leader will improve its parties fortunes then surely it behooves these individuals to do all within their power to bring down the current leader. But if they fail and the current leader survives they will have exacerbated the size of the loss so perhaps its best to make like Costello and withdraw from the fray, but if you do that you are resigning the party to inevitable defeat. Either way, once you get into this position you can be sure that your detractors will lambast you furiously for everything you do, because it’s easier than conceding their own part in their parties failures.