Will the real Peter Costello please stand up?

Has the Treasurer taken a quick peek at IA? Over the last three months, Peter Costello has begun to articulate a more expansive vision for the future of the country. He’s talked about the importance of social capital and tolerance, and about the republic and reconciliation. He’s suggested that Australia ought to further experiment in the area of education policy, with a greater emphasis on testing and teacher incentives. And yesterday, in an interview on ABC Radio’s Counterpoint program, Costello voiced his desire to see higher levels of immigration, no children in detention and the updating of Australia’s “fraying” national symbols. This is heady stuff from John Howard’s deputy. But just how real is Costello’s Damascene conversion?

Costello is an interesting character. What defines him, unusually for an Australian politician, is his strong Baptist faith. He’s an ideas guy with a firm sense of morality and a genuine belief in the importance of families and communities. As leader of the Libs, he would likely return the party to its Menzian roots in small “l” liberalism, rather than the social conservatism of John Howard. But the bottom line remains that until Costello can show precisely what he means by “social capital”, “tolerance” and “community”, we are right to be slightly skeptical of his embrace of progressive liberalism. What we need from him is concrete policy ideas to give some meaning to otherwise amorphous concepts. This is all the more important because it is far from clear how a progressive Liberal Party will retain Howard’s battlers, the cornerstone of its recent electoral success.

In Imagining Australia, we advocate many of the same themes that Costello has recently touched upon (together with a raft of specific policy proposals). We welcome the Treasurer’s efforts to place some of these issues onto the national agenda. But let’s hope that in this pre-election season, Peter Costello thumbs more thoroughly through his copy of IA, and thinks more concretely about ideas for our national future.

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