The truth about Costello

The truth about Peter Costello's deal with John Howard has finally emerged, dispelling doubts that generational change is about to take place in conservative politics.

Peter Costello personally authorised the leaking to a journalist of the leadership "deal" that he believed he had struck with John Howard.

News Ltd columnist Glenn Milne revealed in 2006 that former Fraser government minister, Ian McLachlan, had kept a hand-written note in his wallet ever since he witnessed a conversation between John Howard and Peter Costello at Parliament House in Canberra on December 5, 1994.

The note recorded Howard as saying that if he was given the leadership unopposed, he would serve just one and a half terms.

The leaking of that version of the conversation created considerable leadership ructions within the coalition.

At the time, it was assumed that McLachlan had given Milne the story off his own bat.

But on the ABC's Four Corners program on Monday night, McLachlan says he checked with Costello before giving Milne the go ahead, and Costello had said: "If you want to do that, that's fine."

"He was relaxed. Well he wasn't all that relaxed because he knew it would create an enormous fracas," McLachlan tells the program.

The Four Corners program entitled Howard's End, interviews many of the senior players in the former government and reveals the behind the scenes machinations in the lead up to the election loss.

Costello tells Four Corners that when he met with Howard in 1994, "John asked me not to nominate for the leadership so that he could be elected unopposed which would give us the best opportunity of winning the 1996 election. He indicated to me that he wanted to serve one and a half terms. Obviously, I didn't ask him for an undertaking. This was something that he volunteered.

"He was with Ian McLachlan."

McLachlan says: "I made a note because Costello said to me 'one day I think we'd better make a note of that arrangement' and I said, good idea. So I just wrote it out on a piece of paper and tore it off and stuck it in my wallet."

The program also reveals that Liberal Party powerbroker, Senator Nick Minchin, campaigned behind the scenes to have Howard quit the leadership on his 10th anniversary in 2006.

Minchin says: "If you study the history of politics it is unfortunately the fact that most leaders don't get the timing right and I really was anxious as a Howard loyalist to see John Howard go out at the top of his game. And I thought the tenth anniversary was an ideal time.

"I thought if I could persuade Arthur [Arthur Sinodinos, Howard's chief of staff] and Alexander [Alexander Downer, then foreign minister] to that view, then there might be some prospect that could occur.

"That would be healthy for both John Howard and for the government given that the greatest obstacle we would face at the 2007 election was obviously longevity."

For his part, Downer insists it was the McLachlan leak that killed off any prospect that Howard would quit.

He maintains that the ongoing controversy hardened Howard's attitude. "But of course you can't prove that," he says.

The disclosures in the program underline the need for the coalition to shed itself of more of the key players in the Howard years so that it can move on and re-establish itself.

Brendan Nelson is struggling as it is. His political life is one huge contradiction. And Kevin Rudd is not putting a foot wrong.

Nelson's stature and the image of the post-Howard coalition is not helped by constant reminders of the bickerings of former key players.

The unanimous embrace of the apology on Wednesday and John Howard's decision to be the only "no show" among former Prime Ministers at Parliament House shone a light on the sudden irrelevance of so much of what Howard stood for. Nelson needs the room to move on.

Costello and Downer will leave Parliament at some stage during this term. Almost certainly this year.

There has been speculation that Downer will join experienced lobbyist, Ian Smith, in an Adelaide business venture advising blue chip companies, though Downer says it might be six months before he decides what he'll do next.

But there is a developing view in the party that to give the likes of Downer and Costello much of the year to find alternative employment is a luxury they cannot afford.

Such is the expectation of a mass walkout, that party strategists are already weighing up the best way to handle the by-elections when they start to flow.

Mark Kenny wrote in the Adelaide Advertiser on Wednesday that the hardheads in the party now favour a type of 'Super Tuesday', except in this case, a 'Super Saturday'.

In other words, everybody that's going ashore, do so together.

That way there would not be running stories focusing on one individual after another. And that way, none of them would have to face the embarrassment of being the first to lose.

Kenny says the idea appeals because the Liberals would portray a one-off mass resignation as "a party-driven strategy for renewal".

That would take some co-ordination. But any member, whether it be Costello, Downer, Ruddock, Andrews, McGauran or Vaile, who resisted the strategy and then quit within months, would be as popular as Wilson Tuckey on Palm Island.

Barrie Cassidy is host of Insiders on ABC TV, a former correspondent in Brussels and Washington and a former advisor to prime minister Bob Hawke

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