The Costello Memoirs by Peter Costello with Peter Coleman is the first book by one of the major participants of the Howard government their time in office. Costello was Australia’s longest serving treasurer who delivered a remarkable 10+% of budgets of Australia, balanced the Australian government budget and who, even more remarkably, did not preside over a recession. For anyone who is interested in Australian politics the book is an important document.
Costello describes his upbringing as being middle class but not wealthy. His parents house was built initially without made road or sewers. His parents were both teachers. His description of his childhood is interesting, it reminds you how much wealthier people have become. He describes his time at University in the time when student unions were very radical. This radicalism shocked Costello and prompted him to move toward the right. As a Liberal student politician he met Tanya Coleman, Peter Coleman’s daughter and they married and have since had children together. Tanya was also a lawyer.
Costello describes the Dollar Sweets case as important and something that formed Costello’s views on Industrial Relations. He describes the case as one about an employer who was paying award wages but allowing his workers to work 38 rather than 40 hour weeks. The union then demanded a 36 hour week that Dollar Sweets would not comply with, saying that 38 was what was on offer. 12 of the 27 workers at Dollar Sweets were happy to work on these terms, but the 15 who were not were then replaced. The replaced workers began to picket Dollar Sweets and also assaulted some people and vandalised the factory. Some of those involved were later convicted of common assault. Costello and QC Allan Goldberg wanted and got the picket line to be removed and the Union sanctions ended. They won the case and got damages of 150K awarded to Dollar Sweets. They also showed that the common law had jurisdiction in Industrial Disputes. Costello went on to gain more industrial relations disputes and to make his name in this area. Costello also outlines what the HR Nichols society was set up for and his belief in the need for a flexible wages system to respond to changes in economic conditions. Costello concludes this chapter with him standing for and winning the seat of Higgins at the young age of 32 and when interest rates were at 17%.
The fourth chapter, Defeat from the Jaws of Victory, describes Costello’s time in opposition from 1990 until 1993 and the leadership of John Hewson. Costello describes Hewson in unflattering terms, describing him as erratic and having little political ability. This chapter is presumably why John Hewson recently wrote an attack on Costello. He talks about why they lost the 1993 ‘unlosable’ election. He mentions Hewson’s unwise description of wages of $3 an hour for young adults and other mistakes that Hewson made. Costello describes the brief leadership of Alexander Downer in brief but calm terms.
The next chapter concerns Howard’s successful campaign of 1996 and the Liberal success. He describes the campaign and the Labor estimates that were wrong. He also writes about the Sports Rorts affairs and Carmen Lawrence’s problems with a petition tabled in the WA parliament that had led to a suicide and her subsequent probable deception about the affair. It’s interesting to compare the end of the Keating government with it’s disasters with ministers to the end of the Coalition government in 1996 that was a far calmer affair that did not have the scandal that was associated with the end of the Hawke/Keating governments.
Chapter 6, Balancing the books is the first that deals with the business of being in government. Costello first tells us how he kept the Labor appointed Treasury head and then appointed Ken Henry, the current treasury head to be his successor. For all the talk of how partisan Australian politics is it is worth remembering that in the crucial position of treasury head successive new governments have retained their predecessors choice. Costello goes on to describe how the state of Commonwealth finances had been deliberately hidden during the election and how this forced the Coalition to change policies when they obtained power. He gives his assessments of ministers, praising Peter Reith and Rod Kemp. He also describes his fights with Defence to get Defence to do a proper budget. It’s a marked contrast with the US where successive administrations have failed to control Defence budgets. Costello describes the changes that the Coalition made to the RBA and it’s relationship to the government, giving it independence. Costello also describes the APRA – the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority that removed the regulatory functions previously assumed by the RBA. Again, the difference between a right wing Australian government and the failed regulatory policies of US administrations is shown. Costello talks about the Liberal achievement of balancing the budget, which is now largely derided by the Left as being easy and as being a product of the mining boom. It preceded the Mining boom and was done in the face of considerable opposition including the invasion of Parliament House by protesters led by the Trade Unions in 1996.
Unchain my Heart, the chapter on the creation and introduction of the GST and as Costello puts it “It was the only time until then (and possibly since) that a party in the Western democratic world had won an election proposing to introduce a new tax”. This remarkable achievement is in contrast to the ALP’s introduction of the capital gains tax and the proposed introduction of the ETS or the Liberal Party’s Work Choices legislation that were hinted at but not clearly put to the electorate. The drafting of the policy, the documents and the negotiations that compromised the GST but got the legislation through are written about in detail.
The book goes on to talk about the governments response to the Asian Financial meltdown, the rise of Pauline Hanson, the Republican debate and Costello’s pro-Republican stance, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the independence of East Timor, the issue of Aboriginal rights and health and well being and the issue of boat people arriving in Australia.
The book has, of course, a chapter on the Liberal leadership which details the meeting that Howard had with Costello that included Ian Mclaughlin where Howard said to Costello that if he had his support and could contest the leadership unopposed that he would resign after being PM to let Costello take over. Costello says that he did not ask for this. He also states who he knew who knew who could have leaked the details of the meeting later on. He has a theory, but also points out that Mclaughlin had told a number of others and that Costello was surprised that with the number of people who knew that it hadn’t leaked earlier. Costello clearly thinks that had there been a smooth handover of power after the 2004 election he would have been able to win in 2007. It’s not an unreasonable assumption but is far from a certainty either. After Mark Latham, whom Costello does not regard highly, lost dismally a re invigoration of the Liberal Party was needed. But given Rudd’s clever campaign that his government would largely be the same as the coalition without the unpopular Work Choices legislation it is also very possible that the Coalition would have lost regardless. Keating managed a win in 1993 that was remarkable, but if he hadn’t had the inept Hewson as opposition leader it’s likely he would have lost that election.
The book is well written and really an important read for anyone who is interested in Australian politics. Costello and Coleman are good writers who go over their material thoroughly and well. It’s also quite entertaining in parts with some of the witticisms thrown by parliamentarians included. Some of the humour is flat, but that is to be expected. Sometimes you do have to be there to appreciate it. Howard’s memoirs are scheduled to come out soon and the Costello memoirs and them provide a good start for understanding and appreciating the Howard government. Hopefully Alexander Downer will also write a book to describe foreign policy under Howard.