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Former Ministers speak of their failed attempt to install Peter Costello as Liberal Party Leader.

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Monday 18 February 2008

Former Ministers speak of their failed attempt to install Peter Costello as Liberal Party Leader


LISA MILLAR: It's less than three months since the Coalition Government lost office and John Howard lost his prime ministership and his seat. 


The Liberals and Nationals last week got the first real taste of what it's like sitting on the Opposition benches. Mr Howard is yet to give his account of what went wrong and why he hung on as leader despite many Cabinet ministers saying he should go.  


But on tonight's Four Corners program, Howard's End, key ministers talk frankly about the dying days of the Howard Government and the mistakes made.  


From Canberra, Alexandra Kirk reports. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Liberal insiders go public on Four Corners tonight, unveiling the backroom tussles and the role John Howard's leadership played in their crushing defeat.  


The seeds of the bitter succession contest were sown in 1994. Frontbencher Ian McLachlan set up a secret meeting. He made a note of what he says was agreed, that if Mr Howard became leader and then went on to become Prime Minister he'd hand over to Mr Costello after one and a half terms.  


IAN MCLACHLAN: I made a note because Costello said to me one day, "I think we better make a note of that arrangement," and I said, "Good idea." So, I just wrote it out on a piece of paper and tore it off and I stuck it in my wallet. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Four elections later, Peter Costello was still waiting to be prime minister, when the note came to light. Ian McLachlan says his confirmation of the deal was okayed by Mr Costello. 


IAN MCLACHLAN: And he said, "If you want to do that, that's fine." 


FOUR CORNERS REPORTER: So, he thought it was a good idea to bring it to a head in…  


IAN MCLACHLAN: Oh, he was relaxed. 


FOUR CORNERS REPORTER: …2006 as well? 


IAN MCLACHLAN: He was relaxed. Well, he wasn't all that relaxed because he knew he had created an enormous fracas. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Alexander Downer maintains if 2006 had gone smoothly Mr Howard would have retired, but Mr Costello disagrees.  


WorkChoices and climate change were big problems but few challenged the Prime Minister's stance.  


Senator Nick Minchin said he tried to get Mr Howard to quit after his 10th anniversary by speaking to Mr Downer and Mr Howard's chief of staff.  


NICK MINCHIN: And I thought that would be healthy, both for John Howard and probably for the Government, given that the greatest obstacle we would face at the 2007 election was obviously longevity. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: In 2007, after dozens of bad polls, Mr Howard sent Mr Downer to gauge Cabinet support for his leadership. They didn't think he was an election winner. 


Joe Hockey says ministers were then told to tell the Prime Minister directly.  


JOE HOCKEY: (laughs) How do you put it to a prime minister? You're honest. You know, I said, "John, this is a very difficult conversation for me to have with you. I think you've been a great prime minister, but I think the Australian people have stopped listening because they don't think you're going to be around the future and therefore when you talk about the future, they stop listening." 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Fellow minister, Andrew Robb, says Mr Howard should not have been given the option of choosing to go.  


ANDREW ROBB: Unfortunately, you know, he wasn't told that he should go. He was told that people thought in Cabinet that he should move on but it was ultimately his decision. 


FOUR CORNERS REPORTER: And so is it your view that Cabinet colleagues should have sad, "Okay then, go." 


ANDREW ROBB: Yes it is. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Another former minister has told AM it all boils down to John Howard refusing to go voluntarily, declaring if senior ministers told him to go, they'd have to wear that decision. 


They concluded if it looked like the Prime Minister had been pushed it could be disastrous. It ended disastrously anyway. 


LISA MILLAR: That's Alexandra Kirk reporting.