Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Peter Costello, new Liberal Member of Parliament, commenced his political career in student politics at university.

BRUCE WEBSTER: Well, we now have a new leader of the National Party, and a new Opposition front bench, with several significant promotions. Three Liberals have gone straight on to the front bench, before even being sworn in as members of the House of Representatives. One of these is Melbourne barrister, Peter Costello, who gained national prominence as counsel for the Dollar Sweets company. Peter Costello is talking with Pru Goward.

PRU GOWARD: Do you come from a political family?

PETER COSTELLO: Not particularly. Neither of my parents have ever been members of a political party, or to my knowledge, have ever gone to political meetings. But, as a family, we were always interested in public affairs; we used to read newspapers and watch the television current affairs programs and the like. My parents were both tertiary educated; my father was a schoolteacher, my mother was a professional. We used to discuss political and public issues over the dinner table - I think that's probably where I got my start in advocacy from, because we were forced to discuss and to argue positions from a very early age.

PRU GOWARD: And who took you on - your father?

PETER COSTELLO: And my brother, and people who came in. It was a very open house. We had a lot people who used to come through and lot of visitors - a lot of people who were interested in these sorts of things. We were constantly discussing public affairs.

PRU GOWARD: What are your earliest political memories?

PETER COSTELLO: I think one of my earliest political memories would be the drowning of Harold Holt in Victoria, and what followed from that. I think also, as I was becoming aware of politics, the Vietnam war was starting to go bad for the United States and of course for Australia, and I can remember very vividly the evening news, with the carnage that was going on in Vietnam, day in, day out, and I think that was quite a vivid political memory that I have, as a young person. I can also recall, this was the period of enormous turbulence in American society and, like many people, I can remember the various political assassinations that were going on. I also followed quite closely, the civil rights struggle in the south of the United States, and I've always had enormous respect for Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Convention that lead those struggles, which I thought were monumental struggles for civil rights for black people in the United States, and they affected me quite profoundly, actually.

BRUCE WEBSTER: His education at Monash University was particularly important in influencing Peter Costello towards the Liberal side of politics.

PETER COSTELLO: I originally went out to the University to study medicine, and I thought I'd probably have a career in the sciences, but that was again, a very political period in Australia's history. I started at university in 1975, which was the year in which the Whitlam Government fell, and Fraser came to power - everybody was talking about politics then. I was caught up in the ethos of it all, and because I was interested in political type issues, I gravitated to the law faculty, and I studied both arts and law, studying politics and philosophy in arts, and constitutional law and so on, in the law faculty. So I think by that stage I was getting caught up in the political process.

PRU GOWARD: Well, at Monash University, which is, I guess, one of Melbourne's most radical universities, you were chairman of the Association of Students and then a member of the University Council. What were your politics then?

PETER COSTELLO: I would just say, mainstream Australian politics. As I started at the university, it was the end of the Vietnam generation, and I was just starting as Albert Langer was ending, and Monash had been thoroughly radicalized during the late 1960s and early 1970s. You might remember, there was a public furore when money was being collected to aid the NLF in Vietnam, and that whole Vietnam generation, which by this stage was very heavily into Marxist politics, was still running student politics, and I was very much opposed to that because I saw it as quite oppressive really.

There were various Marxist factions, and unless you belonged to one or other of them, you were held up to ridicule and sort of hounded, and I was part of what you would probably call the first post-Vietnam generation, that spent most of our time in student politics pulling back from the excesses of those years. The other thing that really catapulted me into politics was that around this time, the student union, the AUS, decided to take up the cause of the PLO, and tried to engineer a policy switch in favour of the PLO, and I was very opposed to that. I was and always have been, a very strong supporter of the State of Israel, and I couldn't believe that student money and student resources were being thrown in to support the PLO and its position in the Middle East; and that really was quite catalytic in propelling me into student politics to try and pull the AUS back from that abyss. I didn't think that student unions, to which we were all compulsorily enrolled, and to which we all had to compulsorily give, should be supporting exotic causes.

PRU GOWARD: What did it teach you about politics - those years at the university on the council?

PETER COSTELLO: I think it taught me that ideas are very important in politics, and that unless you have ideas and unless you are prepared to expound them and defend them, you don't really go anywhere in politics. I'm not of the school of politics that says it's all about administration, whether we administer this way or administer that way. I'm more of the school of politics that says that there are real issues, real issues in political debate, and that they ought to be debated and they ought to be thrashed out, and we ought to decide different policy options, and I think that was probably the most formative influence on me from those days. I learnt the importance of being able to articulate a case, the importance of persuading people, the importance of getting out information on who you are and what you do. Some of those nuts and bolts, the importance of securing majorities on various votes - these are all important parts of the political process, I think.

PRU GOWARD: Then, after leaving university, you scored a job with a very senior Melbourne law firm, Mallesons, and then after three years, moved to the bar. Why did you move to the bar after only three years?

PETER COSTELLO: Well after about three years, they started talking to me about making me a partner, and I thought this was a dreadful idea because I would have been, no doubt, very well off financially, but I've always liked the idea of independence and being my own person to some degree, and so I thought after they were getting terribly serious about me, it was time to move on and preserve my independence.

PRU GOWARD: And why did you choose commercial law?

PETER COSTELLO: Well, that was the area of law that particularly interested me. I started off my career in the law doing tax really, tax is my big thing, and tax is basically advising companies and looking at securities and all of that kind of thing, and that's really the area where I specialized in, in my studies and in my early years in the law. So I found it very intellectually stimulating actually, and very challenging - it's a very interesting area.

BRUCE WEBSTER: To capitalize on that expertise, Dr Hewson chose to appoint Peter Costello as Shadow Minister for Corporate Law Reform and Consumer Affairs. For the future, he'd like to be Attorney-General. Is he aiming at the top job?

PETER COSTELLO: The reality is, we have what, 148 members in the House. You can't have 148 prime ministers - not everybody can become Prime Minister. I would like to make the best contribution I can. In the first place, I would like to be a good parliamentarian, and I think in itself, that is a goal worth aspiring to. We've lost sight of that. You think back over the years of some of the great people in the Parliament like Menzies or Killen, people like that who are great parliamentarians, aside from being Ministers or leaders, and I would aspire to that.

PRU GOWARD: All right. Now, if there was one thing you could change as a politician, one law, what would it be?

PETER COSTELLO: I would do something about our system of industrial relations. I would first of all, change the law so that it became genuinely voluntary to join a trade union, and secondly, I would change the law so it became possible for people, genuinely, to agree on terms and conditions so that they could work on mutually acceptable terms.

PRU GOWARD: And on this, you base on your concern over freedom of movement and civil liberties.

PETER COSTELLO: Very much it's civil liberties. I've seen so many people over the years, who've been thrust out of work, or they've been intimidated, or coerced in the workforce for one reason or another, all because they've got off side with the vested interests and the vested powers, and I don't believe that's right. I think that all Australians ought to have their basic freedoms protected, whether it be in the workforce or anywhere else.

PRU GOWARD: Well, you're now going to be doing the long haul from Melbourne to Canberra, and I would have thought, taking a big cut in pay. Are there, for you, family sacrifices?

PETER COSTELLO: Yes. I think the political life is much harder on the family than the member, and it's something that is of great concern to me. Fortunately for me, my wife's father was involved in politics, so she has some idea of what's involved. She's been very understanding and supportive throughout the whole process, but it does take a toll on the wife and the children, it's not something that any of us look forward to, I imagine.

PRU GOWARD: You won't be there to do for them, what your father and mother did for you?

PETER COSTELLO: Well, that's one of the things that concerns me, and I'm very conscious of that. I want to spend as much time as I possibly can with them, and some of the people who've been in Canberra have given me some good advice along these lines. I hope I'm able to follow it.

PRU GOWARD: Yes. Well, there has been criticism of people as young as you who enter politics so young. Paul Keating and Andrew Peacock - the argument that they have little experience of the real world. Do you see that as a problem for you?

PETER COSTELLO: Well, I've been working as an employee and self-employed, in the commercial and legal world for about the last decade. I think that's a good grounding. I think I'm probably older than both Keating and Peacock were when they went in to the Parliament. I think Andrew was in fact, a Minister at the age of 30, and he'd been in since his mid 20s, so I don't think it's quite right to put me in the same category, but by the same token I imagine that I'm one of the younger people in the Parliament. That's something that I bear in mind, something that I'll have to work on. I want to do whatever I can to keep up my contacts in the business and commercial world so that I don't fall victim to that criticism, which I think can be a valid criticism, that if people go to Canberra, they lose touch with the real world.

PRU GOWARD: Are you a good listener?

PETER COSTELLO: I think I am.

PRU GOWARD: Because that's, I guess, the only way you'll keep in touch now.

PETER COSTELLO: I think that's right - I think also, you've got to make an effort. You've got to make an effort to go out and speak to people in the electorate and to see constituents; you've got to make an effort to attend functions.

And I really try and make an effort also, to keep a group of friends who are outside politics, people who aren't really interested in the political process, people who are probably more representative of the average Australian, and I like to keep in touch with them so that I know what they're thinking about and what they're feeling. I think it's a great mistake if you choose all of your peer group and all of your friends from the political world - it's something that I avoid. It's one of the reasons why I make sure I go to the football every Saturday afternoon when I can, and stand with my friends in the outer at Windy Hill.

PRU GOWARD: A great Essendon supporter.

PETER COSTELLO: A very, very keen Essendon supporter, just to make sure that I stay in touch with the real world. I think most people in Victoria care more about football than they do about politics.

BRUCE WEBSTER: Peter Costello was talking with the ABC Canberra's, Pru Goward.