Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Janet Albrechtsen, Peter Costello, and the Cheshire cat takes a bow

It might have escaped your attention - and why not, you have a life to lead - that over the last six months or so, sundry commentariat columnists have yearned for the return of Peter Costello to the leadership of the Liberal Party, thus becoming the alternative Prime Minister for the lucky country.

From Piers Akerman through Paul Sheehan to Janet Albrechtsen, they've all had a go, thereby assisting in one of the greater acts of smirking, self-indulgent, attention-seeking buffoonery ever to grace federal politics.

But now the smirk is going, the Cheshire cat is disappearing from the view amongst the leaves.

But in his going, and remembering that today is "Janet Albrechtsen is from Pluto" day, it's fun to pause a moment and re-visit one of the greater acts of yearning, as performed by Janet Albrechtsen in Take your time, Peter, penned - in the new digital style - by Janet Albrechtsen on September 12, 2008.

If history is a guide, reports of Costello's political death may be greatly exaggerated, Albrechtsen led with, flourishing right at the start an ace of hearts directed at all the doomsayers and heartless scoffers.

If the political fire still surges through Costello's veins, he has every reason to sit tight. Indeed, there is no real reason for him to seek the leadership now. But fast forward nine to 12 months. The already fading Rudd shine will lose more of its gloss and the economy may well slow more dramatically. As economic and political circumstances change, so may Costello's intentions. And the Costello narrative—how he presided over the good old days and "weren’t you better off then, than you are today" —would be a powerful one to take to the electorate.

Well we've fast forwarded those nine to twelve months - even though it might have actually felt like slow motion through sludge to you - and the dream is but ashes in the mouths of the faithful.

Of course Albrechtsen was too canny to get caught out by trying to be a Delphic oracle, and predict an actual return to the leadership. She cast her eye on the runes and saw only a .1% chance of Costello making a comeback. But what a comeback that .1% might have been, the stuff of fabled legends:

History records that retirement is often a transitory state. Not just in politics. Consider the cast of sports stars and entertainers who have risen from the retirement ashes. Michael Jordan proclaimed his 1995 return to the Chicago Bulls after a failed bid at pro baseball with a two-word press release: “I’m back.” He led the Bulls to three more championships and then retired again in 1999 saying "I'm retired 99%. Of course, there is always that .1%." Sure enough, Jordan returned for two more seasons in 2001.

George Foreman, who quit boxing in 1977, became the oldest fighter to win a major heavyweight title almost 20 years later. Lance Armstrong left cycling in 1996 to fight cancer and returned to win seven consecutive Tour de France titles. And this week, he announced his comeback, aiming to win the 2009 Tour de France. In 2006, entertainer Barbra Streisand announced a series of farewell shows - seven years after her last “last-ever” tour. Ditto John Farnham.

Oh yes Costello would gleam as he looked down at the squabbling minions ready to bow down to him once again as a rightful born to rule leader:

Ah well, Lance Armstrong fell off his bike, and these days you're  most likely to see George or Mr. T selling kitchenware on the sales channel, and perhaps that's now the best career move for Costello.

But Albrechtsen was keen to give her hero every opportunity to destabilize the Liberal party and generate as much futile speculation about the solidity of actual leaders like Malcolm Turnbull as Costello could manage. Why there were precedents for this heroic boxer, who still carried a fierce punch:

If Costello is on his way out, there is no sign of a slowing political pulse. On the contrary, when he opened the office of new a Victorian Liberal senator a few weeks ago, it was an animated Costello who came out punching, mercilessly attacking the Rudd Government about its inability to run the economy and rallying the Coalition troops to persuade voters that there is a better way. Likewise, at his dinner in Melbourne last month, the Costello on stage was hardly a mellowing, retiring figure who had clearly shaken an addiction to politics. And his comments in the United States last week did not signal a man who had lost his appetite for politics.

I guess there's a difference between punching a bean bag with the power of a marshmallow and actually wanting to be a heavyweight contender, but let's not forget those historical precedents:

Moreover, media-fuelled nonsense that Costello should not remain on the backbench is as hypocritical as it is historically ignorant. Many prominent MPs in Australia and overseas have stayed on the backbench to serve their electorates after a period in power.

There has never been any media pressure on Kenneth Clarke—a minister throughout all 18 years of British Conservative rule from 1979-1997, including a four-year stint as Chancellor of the Exchequer—to leave parliament since he became an opposition back bencher in 1997. Nor was it particularly odd for Australian Prime Minister Bill McMahon to remain on the backbench and serve the people of Lowe for 10 years after his Liberal government loss in 1972. It may not suit members of the Canberra press gallery - or indeed some Coalition MPs - to have Costello remain on the backbench. But that should not be Costello's concern.

No, the fate of the Liberal party should not  be Costello's concern, and he displayed that lack of concern for the past six months in the most self indulgent, smirking manner possible.

But quick, has someone equipped themselves with a wooden stake, garlic and whatever else is necessary? Because the way Albrechtsen told it then, right now this could be still just a passing fad by Costello before he returns from the political grave, pushes off the lid from the vampire coffin deep in the heart of the castle basement, and heeds the ultimate recall by the commentariat to defeat Comrade Chairman Rudd:

Recall Richard Nixon’s famous “last press conference” after he lost the Californian governorship in 1962? He told a gathering throng of journalists: “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference”. Political orthodoxy at the time was consistent. "Barring a miracle," said Time magazine, "Nixon's political career is over. Six years later he was back as President of the United States.

Or think of John Howard. After losing his party’s leadership in 1989, he styled himself “Lazarus with a triple bypass” in ruling out any more comebacks. Then, after Alexander Downer took the leadership in 1994, Howard said: “I accept completely I’ll never be leader of the Liberal party again. It’s out of the question.” It turns out that his own reports - not to mention those of political commentators - about his political death were greatly exaggerated. Within three years, the man once disparaged as “Little Johnny” not only reclaimed his party’s leadership but won the next election in a landslide and then remained PM for nearly 12 years.

Then there's Kim Beazley who handed over the Labor leadership after the 2001 election loss, only to return in mid 2003 to challenge Simon Crean and lose, and then later that year to fight Mark Latham and lose, and then return to the leadership in January 2005. Of course, he never became prime minister, but the salient point here is that his retirement from politics was short-lived.

Well of course we could never rule out a miracle, tricky Dick Nixon style. Gone for all money and then suddenly champeen of the world. And we admit that the example of the wretched Kim Beazley - who never had the ticker or the style - might be inspirational to others who never had the ticker. But why does that Supertramp song keep running through my head today?

Dreamer, you know you are a dreamer
Well can you put your hands in your head, oh no
I said, "Dreamer, you're nothing but a dreamer"
Well can you put your hands in your head, oh no
I said "Far out, what a day, a year, a laugh it is"
You know, well you know you had it comin' to you
Now there's not a lot I can do
Dreamer, you stupid little dreamer
So now you put your head in your hands, oh no

I said "Far out, what a day, a year, a laugh it is"
You know, well you know you had it comin' to you
Now there's not a lot I can do

Work it out someday ...

... Take a dream on a Sunday
Take a life, take a holiday
Take a lie, take a dreamer
Dream, dream, dream, dream, dream, dream, dream, dream along

Dreamer, dreamer, dream along
Come on and dream, dream along (Come along)
Come on and dream, dream along
Come on and dream, dream along
Dreamer (Come on and dream, dream along), you know you are a dreamer (Come on and dream, dream along)
Well can you put your hands in your head, oh no (Come on, come on)
I said dreamer (Come on and dream, dream along), you're nothing but a dreamer (Come on and dream, dream along)
Well can you put your hands in your head (Come on, come on), oh no, oh no

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