Before the pope’s death and the on-going saga of Charles and Camilla’s wedding dominated recent headlines, there was a story leaking out of Canberra that caught the eye of much of the national media.
Liberal Party backbencher Alby Schutlz announced he was so angry with John Howard after being passed over for a new position that he would support Peter Costello in any future leadership challenge.
The question of Costello taking the reins of the Liberal Party was suddenly back on the national agenda.
With a former staunch Howard supporter switching camps and announcing he was now supporting the man chomping at the bit to get the top job, it seemed there might have been some movement at the station at last.
While a poll in this week’s Sydney Morning Herald claimed voters still consider Howard the preferred leader, Costello is still the heir apparent to the top job.
To some, Costello has been seen as the possible messiah.
Against Howard’s anti-gay stance on a wide range of issues, Costello has held certain appeal for being less conservative and more socially progressive than his ageing leader.
Costello has also been considered a small L liberal, more moderate in his opinions than many of his more hardline, right-wing colleagues.
Well, at least that’s been the Costello myth.
That aspect of his public persona shifted gear in the past 12 months as Costello was seen aligning himself with such right-wing fundamentalist Christian groups as the powerful Hillsong Church.
So what would it really mean to Australia to have Howard finally being toppled and Costello taking on the leadership of the Liberal Party?
More significantly, what would it mean to queer politics in Australia?
Senator Brian Greig, openly gay Democrat, says the differences between what Costello believes as an individual and what he has to say to get him into the top job are two very different things.
I think Costello’s personal views around sexuality issues, gay and lesbian issues and relationship reform would be significantly better than Howard’s, says Greig.
He is more progressive, partly because he is younger and partly because his electorate [Higgins] is in inner Melbourne, where there is a significantly visible gay community.
Having said that, I think we can expect him to pretty much stay on the message in terms of the coalition’s anti approach to these [gay and lesbian] issues. I don’t think we will be seeing any significant changes under a potential Costello leadership. We might see some tinkering around the edges.
Gay activist Rodney Croome, however, is not convinced Costello would be a step in the right direction for gay Australia.
Croome says believing a change in the leadership would result in a change in party politics is dangerously na?.
The reality is that the direction of party politics is obviously set by very hard-headed electoral strategists and it is correspondingly na? to believe that a change of leadership in the Liberal Party would mean any change in direction of social policy.
If there is a change of direction in terms of LGBT human rights, that will be as a result of other pragmatic assessment of changes in the electorate, not as a result of a change of leadership.
Croome believes Costello would have a struggle on his hands within the party even if he was committed to changing current discriminatory policies.
But he also believes that as Costello has now so strongly aligned himself with far right Christian groups, it has sent a message to the country about where his allegiances lie.
A small L liberal Peter Costello would have lots to fight against. I think a lot of GLBT people have constructed this image of Costello as a social progressive because of their desperation with Howard, but the evidence of Costello being a small L liberal is completely against that.
Croome says a recent conversation he had with someone who works within Costello’s office provided the most telling insight into where the politician stands.
This person said, -˜You guys [gays and lesbians], if you think Costello is going to support the issue of same-sex couples, then you’re dreaming.’
But the prime minister’s personal views cannot be discounted in terms of steering government policy, according to a senior source within the Liberal Party.
The source, who spoke to Sydney Star Observer on the condition of anonymity, believes Costello’s personal views could have a long-term effect in changing the government’s current position on gay and lesbian issues.
The prime minister’s authority in relation to any policy cannot be underestimated, the source said. They know they can’t push it too far because they will have a revolt in their ranks.
If there are changes, it will be gradual. But it is completely unlikely we will see a Costello challenge within the next six months. The support is behind John Howard in the party room.
Unless the government begins going down dramatically in the polls, I don’t think Howard is going anywhere.
Sydney Morning Herald political journalist and commentator Margot Kingston is not so sure.
She believes there will be significant changes taking place within the Liberal Party in the coming months.
What is going on is much bigger than just Costello and Howard, says Kingston.
It is the last-ditch struggle by the genuine Liberal, the soul of the party. If Costello does get up, it will mark big changes for that reason -“ he won’t get up unless he can convince enough people that he can manage that transformation.
She believes part of the shift within the party can be traced to a surprise appearance in this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Season Guide.
Ruddock endorsed this year’s Mardi Gras. I think he is guilt tripping and secondly he is defying Howard. You can trace the Howard-Costello struggle for gays to that story. Ruddock is the epitome in one person of the split going on within the one party.
Kingston further believes when a change in Liberal leadership is eventually made, it will mark a change for the better for queer Australia.
I think Costello would not move further to discriminate against gays and he would draw the line there. The thing with Howard is that he wants to go further, she says.
With the government taking control of the Senate in July, many are bracing themselves for dramatic changes within the social structure of the country as the coalition finally achieves free reign to pass almost any bill in the Senate with the support of right-wing religious party Family First.
With Costello now courting the religious right more than ever before to maintain this control of the Senate, it places doubts over where that puts the man next in line for the job of prime minister.
I still think the perception is that Australia will be better off [with Costello], says the Liberal Party source.
Whether that is true stands to be seen.