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A pity Peter’s not a people person

BY dint of burning ambition and his presence in Canberra as the MP for Higgins, plus his record as treasurer, Peter Costello remains a political force and may yet become prime minister.

He's been a potential prime minister for several years but failed to reach the top rung.

Let's be frank about the primary and the secondary reasons for that failure.

We know Mr Costello, as deputy to failed Liberal leader, Alexander Downer, participated in confidential leadership transition talks in January 1995 with longtime Sydney prime ministerial aspirant, John Howard.

Together they concluded that, to ensure the declining Keating government was ousted at the crucial 1996 election, it would be best if Mr Downer's replacement was the older Mr Howard with Mr Costello remaining deputy.

But they also struck a secret side deal - Mr Howard would stand aside for Mr Costello during a second term.

Mr Howard can split hairs as much as he likes - the fact is he dishonored that side deal; showing yet again that gentlemen's agreements aren't worth the paper they're not written on.

For some time Mr Costello was prepared to grin and bear it.

Several years later, word leaked confirming the existence of the dishonored side deal, and Mr Costello's utter disgust with the PM's action.

Thereafter, on a personal level at least, the once-successful Howard-Costello team fell into disarray while Labor's Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard increasingly looked like the nearest thing to a dream team.

That, more than anything, ensured the Howard government lost the 2007 election.

But there's another reason Mr Costello's dream wasn't realised.

Like it or not, during his deputy leadership and treasury days, he remained aloof from too many party colleagues, whereas Mr Howard was always chummy as well as electorally successful.

Mr Costello wasn't gregarious and had very few Canberra friends, especially in the party room where leaders are made, unmade and, in his case, not made.

He should learn to be friendly.

His aloofness, Mr Howard's decision to renege on their deal, plus ongoing electoral successes together explain why Mr Costello, despite still being a potential prime minister, hasn't stepped onto that top rung.

So if he's still seeking to be prime minister, he'll need to firstly visit a second-hand bookshop to buy Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Copies are bound to be available because they were big sellers in the 1950s, so it would be $2 well spent.

Since all that's now water under the bridge, what of the future?

Here, State Scene stresses, the case set out below is conjecture - another way of saying it's a guess, as next week, next month, or soon after, Mr Costello could head for greener pastures.

It's also worth recalling that, for a time, he considered entering the private sector and it's been said a position at the World Gold Council was offered.

Let's, however, assume he continues representing Higgins well into the foreseeable future, say, until around 2013, which now seems likely.

It's also important to recall that he was born in August 1957, 13 months after Liberal deputy, Julie Bishop, and nearly three years after Mr Turnbull.

What these three left-of-centre Liberals have in common is they're all from the late baby-boomer mid-1950s era, with Mr Costello easily the youngest.

Mr Howard was 56 when he became prime minister in 1996. Mr Costello will reach that age in 2013.

He's therefore still well placed to lead the Liberals into the election after the forthcoming one, so in 2013, and perhaps even the coming contest.

What of his prospects?

If the Rudd government stands by the scheduled election cycle by calling the next election for 2010, and it wins, Mr Costello would be right on track to lead at the 2013 contest.

If Mr Rudd called an early poll it wouldn't change matters for Mr Costello, since it would bring things forward by about a year, which is neither here nor there.

What else is there apart from the age factor, which works in Mr Costello's favour?

Well, a 2010 election, if lost by Turnbull and Bishop, would certainly place both under pressure to stand aside.

Mr Costello would then have several options.

He could just sit back and wait to see if Mr Turnbull had finally begun performing during say 2011, and even into 2012.

He could launch a delayed challenge with Ms Bishop's position left unchallenged, or he could team up with someone who challenges her.

There's so much water to still flow under the bridge between now and the next election and enough time even until nearly the election after, that everything is on Mr Costello's side.

And Mr Turnbull and Ms Bishop are more likely to come under fire on the age question, though, to be fair, neither is too old for the nation's top jobs.

What all this conjecturing suggests is that Mr Costello's fate hinges primarily on the performance - electorally and in parliament - of the Turnbull-Bishop duo, which so far hasn't troubled the Rudd-Gillard team.

If they together or individually continue to under-perform, they can expect to be removed, as Ms Bishop's poor showing in the role of shadow treasurer so clearly demonstrated.

But if they lose the coming election they're more likely to be challenged sooner rather than later.

And it's difficult to name a replacement for Mr Turnbull other than Mr Costello.

But let's not kid ourselves, there are several contenders for Ms Bishop's position.

That said, the fact that voters tend to give governments two terms is another factor working for Mr Costello.

Why lead the Liberals in 2010 and lose when, on past performance, the Rudd government will most likely be returned?

In light of all the considerations highlighted it's difficult not to conclude that the flow of events very much favours Mr Costello.

All he needs to do is win friends and influence many more people in the parliamentary wing of his party.

Here Dale Carnegie's book is important.

He must continue working his electorate, and ensure that a handful of ardent backers continue assiduously laying the basis for him with key Canberra press gallery journalists so they write positive stories about Mr Costello as leadership material.

Each of these preconditions is easily achieved.

His closest allies must also tell him that patience is a virtue, something Mr Turnbull and Ms Bishop, and their backers, each failed to fully appreciate.

Perhaps that's because both are greyer than Mr Costello.

Hastiness so easily destroys Canberra careers, something Mr Costello has shown he's fully appreciated.

If that's incorrect he only needs to ask Mr Downer, who recently disclosed that he never felt at ease as Liberal leader, which he became in 1994 at age 43.

"The moment when I wanted to [cease being leader] was just about the first day I started in the job," he told an ABC interviewer last July.

"There was many a time from the first day onwards when I thought to myself; 'How the hell can I get out of this?' "

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