The weekend photograph of new Treasurer and deputy Liberal leader Josh Frydenberg having a coffee with Peter Costello portrayed the first step in forging credentials that may just resonate with disillusioned voters who can still recall the economic stability and growth of the Howard government years.
It was a period in Australian history not bereft of challenges for government yet there was a level of financial prosperity and certainty that allowed Costello as treasurer to wipe out government debt and put money aside for the future while also delivering tax cuts for individuals and business.
Costello had entered parliament in 1990 after defeating the sitting member for pre-selection in Higgins – that Melbourne seat that had been held by prime ministers Harold Holt and Sir John Gorton – and within two years was on the Coalition frontbench.
The then-rising star of the Liberal Party would become Australia’s longest-serving treasurer in John Howard’s government from 1996 to 2007. He was deputy leader to Alexander Downer and then Howard, notching up more than 13 years in the position but never standing for the top job and quickly exiting Federal Parliament after the 2007 defeat of the Howard Government. Costello’s role in magnificently managing the national economy has rarely been disputed and is reviewed kindly by history.
His political presence was also a focus for the Victorian division of the Liberal Party throughout his 17 years in Parliament – the state that had for decades seen itself as the jewel in the Liberal crown was not without factions (remember the days of the Wets and the Dries when members clashed over economic policy in the final decades of the twentieth century).
He was part of the new generation leadership from Victoria after the retirement of The Colt from Kooyong, Andrew Peacock, he galvanised support among Liberal members who were committed to the next prime minister from Victoria being Costello.
When Costello walked away from parliament and the once rock-solid grouping dubbed the Kroger-Costello faction crumbled, the Victorian division lost cohesion and direction. Posturing and positioning by a wannabee “next generation” has ravaged the one-time jewel over the past decade during which time electoral success has been hard for the Liberals in mainland state with voters less conservative than elsewhere.
Josh Frydenberg has always been a popular and hard-working MP since winning Kooyong – the seat that was the electoral base of Sir Robert Menzies throughout his career 32-year career in Canberra and two stints in The Lodge and his successor Peacock. Frydenberg has been a prolific fundraiser in an increasingly difficult political market and supporter of candidates in seats with a smaller support base.
His rise through the ministry under Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull was recognition of that ethic and ability. Even when handed the poison-chalice portfolio of energy – and on more than one occasion hung out to dry on difficult policy direction – Frydenberg’s loyalty and commitment publicly, at least, never appeared to waver.
Frydenberg’s elevation to the latest incarnation of “a new generation leadership team” is further recognition of qualities too often relegated to the background in the vicious pit that has opened in Canberra since the departure of Howard and Costello.
And for Victorian Liberals wracked by internal squabbling, his arrival as the senior Liberal in the state may provide a new focus to return cohesion and hard work to the scene.
Josh Frydenberg has qualities that may see him the next Liberal prime minister out of Victoria. But first, he will need to get the nation back on track and guide a fractious Liberal party room and state branch back to a cohesive existence, writing and selling a narrative that will engage and interest voters.
Colonial parochialism still lives in Australia and there are many in Victoria who lament that they have not produced a Liberal prime minister since Malcolm Fraser and – that with the brief exception of the Alexander Downer interregnum – the party has been led by six New South Welshmen since 1990.
That coffee and chat with Peter Costello will have provided Josh Frydenberg with some sage advice for his journey ahead.
Chris Earl is a rural and regional communications consultant.
Illustration: John Frydenberg/Twitter.
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