Possums Pollytics

Politics, elections and piffle plinking

Oh Please – spare us the Costello horsefluff.

Posted by Possum Comitatus on July 23, 2008

21 months ago, back in October 2006, one of the ALP focus groups had their attention turned to Peter Costello – the results pretty much stated the obvious. Costello was considered the usual things like smug and snide, with some going so far as describing him as a weasel and a creep.

But once that rather large problem was overlooked and the focus group members were forced to find good things about Costello (which is the way these focus groups tend to work) , they thought he carried a share of the responsibility for the “good economic management” of the Howard government and he wasn’t as out of touch as Howard. The former being a coat tail issue for the government as a whole that Costello rode, and the latter being nearly entirely a function of Costello having less years on the clock than Howard had.

From this single finding of October 2006, an outbreak of horseshit has swept the land of political columnists – particularly those of the Coalition cheerleading variety.

To give an example of the types of silliness exhibited by most of the miles of column inches written over this in the last week – today The Oz editorial says:

“The research warned Labor that if Mr Costello was given the freedom to establish his own profile as leader, he could quickly neutralise the generational-change strategy that swept Mr Rudd to power.”

The first problem with this is simply chronological. The research was undertaken months before Rudd took the helm of the ALP. The research couldn’t have “warned” Labor that Costello could neutralise a strategy that hadn’t yet been developed against a guy that hadn’t yet become leader.

So what we actually have is focus group research from one period of time framed in the reality of the events and status quo of that time, being projected onto a later period of time where the reality of that later period of time and the status quo of that later time were completely and fundamentally different.

Focus group research of this kind has what’s called “intertemporal sensitivity”. The results you get from this type of research are based on the political reality of the time the research was undertaken. As reality changes via political events occurring as well as time itself simply passing, the context that determined those focus group results changes.

The further away in time that you apply focus group results, the exponentially larger is the uncertainty that accompanies them because certainty, in this case, is dependent on there being no change in either the political reality that frames the public’s opinion, or time itself changing the public’s opinion.

So the chronological basis for the argument is weak to begin with. Secondly, it misinterprets what “generational change” meant in practice. Rudd being younger than Howard helped win the ALP victory, but only because it was consistent with the general “it’s time for a change of government” theme, which was one of, if not the most common single response that came out of focus group research on why people would elect the ALP – and it came out on both sides of politics, both before and after the election.

The leadership of the government might have changed, but it still would have been the same government, it still would have been the same problem.

The other problem here is what we touched on at the beginning – the focus group research found that Costello was considered the usual things like smug and snide, with some going so far as describing him as a weasel and a creep. It was only after the respondents were forced to look beyond their dominant thoughts and forced to think nice things about Costello that they could actually come up with any.

Leaders can reshape the publics view of them and bring those subterranean “good things” to the front of the publics attention if, and only if, that top layer of association isn’t actually true – the public tends to have a good long term rather than short term bullshit detector.

If we look at Mark Latham, what came out in focus group research was that he was erratic, aggressive and untrustworthy, but underneath those top level associations a large number of people genuinely thought that he had the best interests of the country at heart and that he gave a real stuff about the plight of people.

But the latter message could never be fully exploited simply because the top level negative issues were true.

And that is Costello’s problem – and ironically it’s a problem largely created by his cheerleaders in the media. His Question Time performances were lauded by his lickspittles and they received greater media prominence than they ordinarily would have if sections of the media weren’t so fond of them.

But when Joe Public sees 5 and 10 second grabs year after year of Costello’s politicking in QT, far from seeing Parliament as theater or the making of copy for newspaper columns – they see a smug, aggressive boofhead throwing the type of shit that would get his lights punched out in any self-respecting watering hole around the country.

The good things voters believed about Costello when they were forced to look could never rise to the top because the negative things they thought about Costello were simply true. But importantly, every time they watched the nightly news it reinforced just how true they were.

The whole basis of the last week of nonsense about Costello, that if he became leader he could have neutralised the ALP themes or he could have quickly made up ground in the polling, is based on a gross misunderstanding – or deliberate misrepresentation – of the reality of focus group research and a complete ignorance of the quantitative data we have.

Focus group research is interesting and gives important insights and ammunition for a political strategists – but if you got every major political strategist worth their salt and asked them if they had to run an election and could only have either focus group research or quantitative data to do it with, London to a brick every one of them would opt for the quantitative data.

And what does the quantitative data tell us? It tells us that Costello wasn’t popular against Howard (who wasn’t popular against Rudd), and it tells us that he wasn’t popular against Labor leaders generally.

First, the Newspoll results since 1998 that measures the question of who would be best to lead the Liberal Party:

That speaks for itself. What needs to be noted here though is that Turnbull scored 12 percent for the September 2007 poll in a three way between Howard and Costello whereas the other results were always Costello and Howard head-to-head.

Next up we’ll take a look at how Costello stacked up in the Newspoll hypothetical questions of preferred PM against the Labor leaders:

Two things to note here – apart from the regularity of being thumped by opposition leaders in hypothetical PPM numbers, there is one entry missing. The May 2005 survey put Costello against both Beazley and Crean, and Costello out rated Crean 47 to 28 with 25 uncommitted.

The other thing to note is that Costello did beat Beazley in April 2006 – when Beazley had satisfaction ratings of 26% and dissatisfaction ratings of 61%. Yet by July when Beazley’s dissatisfaction rating was down to 50% and his satisfaction rating up into the low 30’s, Costello again was beaten.

So we have the cheerleaders waxing on about grossly misunderstood or blatantly misrepresented focus group research from 21 months ago vs the quant data over the last 9 years.

Does anyone really need to buy a vowel here to figure out which one is the most likely?

The cheerleading commentators better be careful lest they get what they wish for and Costello comes back to lead the Libs.

41 Responses to “Oh Please – spare us the Costello horsefluff.”

  1. Don said

    Poss, you wrote:

    “That speaks for itself. What needs to be noted here though is that Turnbull scored 12 percent for the September 2007 poll in a three way between Howard and Costello whereas the other results were always Costello and Howard head-to-head.”

    I am confused. (Not unusual!) Bear with me, what is the three way when it is between Howard and Costello?


  2. Possum Comitatus said

    Don, the threeway was Turnbull/Howard/Costello in September 2007.

    The rest were two way Howard vs. Costello contests. Does that make more sense?

  3. bilko said

    With Rod Kemp recently describing Costello as a qualifier for Don Bradman type status at a Vic fund raiser, the Vic lib spin doctors are starting to work overtime to ensure another NSW extremist does not get to lead the party. It will be interesting to see if Costello turns up for the Lib beer fest in the great hall in Canberra just announced and if he does where he will sit as it is a selfchoice seating arrangement and not as directed by the organisers and I also hope the LIBs not us are picking up the tab

  4. grace pettigrew said

    Thanks Possum. Best demolition job yet on the tripe being peddled by The Australian newspaper for the past few years. Costello the Contender has always been the creation of the big-mouthed bovver boys at The Oz, who seem to have a kind of lerve for Smirky despite the complete absence of any supporting evidence in voterland.

    Tip Costello was handed the Treasurer’s job on a platter back in 1996 by the Melbourne Liberal Party powerbrokers, to balance Howard from Sydney (how antediluvian) and as reward for his successful union bashing as junior counsel at the bar. Not because he had studied economics, or had any particular vision for the country.

    The Treasury boffins were the wind beneath his wings in the following decade, as he studied his “economic management” media lines and polished up his barnyard rhetoric for Circus Time. And the Oz boys lapped it up, apparently not noticing how closely Costello modelled himself on Keating (minus the real moxy).

    And not only do Australian voters have no time for Costello the Comeback Kid, even his own party don’t like him much. But the Oz boys think they know best who should be the next Leader of the Opposition, end of story.

    So what is Tom Switzer, ex-op/editor at the Oz, actually doing in Nelly’s office – slow sabotage?

  5. Classified said

    As usual… great work


  6. David Rubie said

    Heh – the “plight people” – stick that in your working families.

    “Kids, you noticing all this plight? Roll em up!”

  7. Possum Comitatus said


    That’s pretty funny.

    I’ve fixed my missing ofs – Ta.

    Tempted to leave them out though!

  8. Eratosthanes said

    Agree with everything you’ve said possum, but I’m pretty sure the current spate of twiddle is less about reporting a narrative and more about building one. You’ve done an excellent job of demonstrating it’s inaccuracy, but accuracy isn’t it’s purpose.

    You said yourself that it could be “gross misunderstanding – OR deliberate misrepresentation”. It doesn’t matter whether Costello actually would have gained traction and neutralised the ALP strategy, it’s now a case of whether the right can convince the electorate that this WAS the case, and in doing so reshape the perception of Costello as the spineless ‘also ran’ (almost) to a view of the serious contender that was overlooked but could challenge Rudd in the next election. It’s all nonsense, but to me it reads as quite well thought out and purposeful nonsense.

  9. Kirribilli Removals said

    Bracket Creep, like the souffle, will not rise twice. In fact, he didn’t even rise the first time, and therein lies his problem. Not just a smug bastard, he’s generally perceived to lack the manly accoutrements required to stand up and ‘have a go’.

    And judging by the whispering campaign that’s being instigated by the usual suspects, he’s not making much of an effort on his own behalf now, either.

    Call it cojones, call it ticker, balls, or whatever, Costello is missing the vitals, and the electorate knows it.

  10. Possum Comitatus said

    I’m with you KR, I’ve never understood the delusions of Costello supporters.

    I must be one of those typical voters that thinks he’s all dough and no yeast:mrgreen:

  11. Zaf said

    Eratosthanes – the right may be trying to rewrite history and build up Costello because…well, because there’s nobody else (except Brendan Nelson) and they’re making the best of a bad job – but at the cost of undermining the reputation of the guy who presided over the Golden Age. Now being recast as a man so in love with power that he not only repeatedly dudded Costello re handing over to him as promised, but he also wilfully ignored polling that said Costello had a chance of winning while he himself didn’t. I’m not sure how the numbers will fall once you factor both these things in.

  12. David Richards said

    If they did make the mistake of putting Sir Smirkalot at the helm of HMAS Liberal, they face losing more hands overboard, with only those in safe harbours surviving.

    Midshipman Talksbull is their only real choice, but without a crew of able bodied seamen on board instead of the current gang of scurvy-ridden rogues and cutpurses, HMAS Liberal is set to be stuck in the doldrums for quite a long voyage. A voyage of Odysean duration.

    As for the prattling purveyors of peurile pontifications, their ship has long since been scuttled by an armada of analytical assassins under the command of Admiral Poss.

  13. Zaf said

    I’m awestruck, admiring your amazing alliteration.

  14. Rx said

    Speaking of his florid-faced Question Time attacks on Labor members…

    Like all cowards he talks rudest and acts toughest when he knows his victims can’t hit back.

    I’d like to see him deliver his bellowing bovver boy performances without the protection of a disgraceful Speaker such as David Hawker.

    He’d never do it, of course. He’d jelly out of it, just like he’s jellied out of the leadership so many times.

    All mouth and no teeth is Clutsello.

  15. […] Possum (here) and Mark Bahnisch (here) very clearly set out, all this talk is six ways of stoopid. As they […]

  16. bryce said

    I’m sure if Costello’s publisher has anything to do with it, the new Don will not be captaining team Liberal till (at least) release date of the promised bucket-tip.

  17. Don said

    Poss at #2
    “Don, the threeway was Turnbull/Howard/Costello in September 2007.”

    Thanks Poss. Another senior moment.

  18. Kina said

    It has to be very obvious that Costello does not have the attributes of a leader. He does not have the ability to manipulate power, the courage to get out of his comfort zone and seems a little childish.

    If Costello rejected the leadership mantle on election night out of spite or tantrum against Howard then he is not a leader.

    I think the truth is that Costello realises he doesn’t have the media or political skills to be leader and is why is shying away from it. I do recall that outside of QT Costello’s performance before camera was pretty unimpressive.

  19. grace pettigrew said

    Nelly goes on “holiday” for a week after getting confused and fluffing his lines on climate change, leaving room for The Australian to wax lyrical about Costello’s imminent leadership claims once again.

    Perhaps the joke is on the OZ and Costello is just doing his usual chest inflation when the cameras turn his way, in anticipation of a nice cut from the eventual book sales. That final job of self-enrichment complete, he walzes off into the sunset, and the OZ is left to mourn the greatest leader that never was, with pages and pages of lovelorn slush from Milne Sheridan Shanahan et al.

    I am on the edge of my seat waiting to read it all.

  20. Ad astra said

    A well-reasoned expose Poss. We need more of this style of demolition of MSM drivel.

  21. stevet said

    I can’t believe that anyone could possibly think for one second that Smirk McBlunder (aka Frank Burns) will make a comeback. There have been so many telltale signs that he won’t. My favourite telltale sign was when he told Grattan to “go and get a new prescription” straight after he sprayed David Speers at that now infamous press conference.

    Look, I know lots of pollies don’t like journos, but that doesn’t mean you have to publicly abuse them, and Smirk knows this. You need to have the media on side if you are going to mount a campaign for Prime Minister, and I think the journos present at that tirade must have walked away shaking their heads and wondering about what they had just witnessed. I thought he was giving them a final send off.

  22. JP said

    Sorry to disturb the groupthink, but I think Costello was well thought of by the electorate as a reasonable and competent treasurer, who wisely kept his head down on issues the Libs were getting a caning on like the Pacific Solution and AWB and stuck to his portfolio, which was going well. Sure, he rode the resources boom, but at least he didn’t cock it up (at least not in noticeable ways – nobody gave a rats about his disasters on the structuring of the Telstra sale, or the CGT discount fuelling the housing boom, and, unfortunately, they still don’t).

    I think one of the great Labor disasters of recent memory was Latham’s campaign that “A vote for Howard is a vote for Costello”. If Costello were as reviled as you suggest, Latham would have had a surge from that campaign, but in fact Latham sunk like a stone. The punters were quite obviously not scared of the prospect of “Peter Costello, PM”, and in fact there were many who hated Howard who were positively reassured that this might come to pass, and felt safer voting for or preferencing the Liberals as a result.

    Having said that, that was then, and all that has come since, including Costello’s performances with the press since the election as Stevet observes, indicate that Costello doesn’t want it, and will be punished by the public if he backflips on all his post-election histrionics and asks the Libs to beg for his leadership. That’s not a good look.

  23. Kirribilli Removals said

    Annabel Crabb sums it up:

    The biggest mystery about Peter Costello these days is that we are still watching him at all.

    What is it about this political leader, this has-been, this never-was, that continues to attract the dreamers so?


  24. JP said

    “What is it about this political leader, this has-been, this never-was, that continues to attract the dreamers so?”

    Costello was the anointed replacement for Howard. Many (although never enough) Libs were hanging out for his ascension for a long, long time… and finally when Johnny got the sword, they ended up with Brendan instead. I don’t know about you but if that happened to me I’d be furious😉

  25. Kirribilli Removals said

    JP Says:
    July 27, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    Costello spat the dummy, that’s how they ended up with Horatio Hornet (oh, and they DID NOT want Turnbull).

    Costello NEVER the had the numbers, not in his own party, and certainly not from the voters.

    He’s a gormless git who seems to think entitlement is all you need. All this hagiography about what a great leader he’d be (and his supposed ‘greatness’ as Treasurer) is pure bunkum.

    He had his chance to take the leadership and chucked it in a petulant display of his own pomposity.

    God, I hope they drag him onto the front bench! LOL

  26. JP said

    KR, all you say of Costello is true, but he still looks better than Nelson on every count – numbers within the party, popularity with voters, competence, and it’s a 1-all tie on not-being-Malcolm-Turnbull.

    Sure he’d still be thumped in an election, but do you honestly think the Libs will do better under Nelson?

  27. Kirribilli Removals said


    Nelson is seriously out his depth, we can all see that.

    Costello simply would not unite the party and nor would he have the cojones to lead it against its will.

    But I’d love them to try and resurrect him…it would be a hoot watching him and Turnbull butting antlers together.

  28. David Richards said

    Anyone catch People Skills stirring the pot on Meet The Press – plumping for Captain Smirk to get a recall?

  29. Kirribilli Removals said


    People Skills and Captain Smirk! It sounds like the cartoon hour is on, eh?

  30. Bemused said

    KR, Costello can’t have “NEVER had the numbers” and “had his chance to take the leadership and chucked it in a petulant display of his own pomposity”!

    It’s impossible to know what might have happened if Costello had ousted Howard in the middle of last year. But I suspect Rudd would have had a much harder time of the election, especially if Costello’s first move as PM had been to ratify Kyoto, initiate an exit strategy from Iraq, and neutralise Rudd’s two big guns immediately. People also tend to forget that Costello was an exceptional parliamentary performer, who may well have turned Rudd’s over-serious cliche-speak into a complete joke. (My god, I wish someone would! The big problem I have with Rudd is this: he simply cannot, at the end of the day, do anything but speak in cliches, and short phrases, whilst throwing any common sense, out the back door. The question you have to ask yourself is this: what do Australian Working Families want? Well, I’ll tell you what they want. They want to listen to a politician who actually makes sense when he talks!)

    My greatest fear last year was that Costello would actually get the guts to succeed Howard. I suspect that even now he would give Rudd a serious scare.

  31. David Richards said

    Bemused, you get the feeling sometimes that even when Ruddles is speaking English… he might as well be speaking Mandarin for all the elucidation he manages to impart.

    His World Catholic Youth Day speech was a prime example… he forgot that 40% or so of the population are not Xtian, and that only 25% of the 60% that are Xtian, are Catholic.

    It does seem to be a failing of all current politicians, however, to speak in cliches and weasel words, and refuse to acknowledge that their policies are somewhat less than magnificent, or that they will do sod all to fix the problems they are claimed to be addressing.

  32. Kirribilli Removals said


    He never had the numbers, and that’s clear from all the comment at the time. That he also failed to stand up and have a shot just proved how gutless and lacking the killer instinct he was. (Showing some balls would have been to his advantage).He could have either challenged and failed and gone to the back bench, or just removed himself, but by doing nothing, (except chucking a petulant display after the election), he’s marked himself as a non-leader in my opinion.

  33. Kirribilli Removals said

    Not a bad summary of why Costello’s unlikely to get the gig:


    By the way Bemused, most people just assumed that Costello would take over when Howard bombed last November, which made his petulant pout all the more galling to those who’d assumed he’d rise uncontested. With Howard out he was assumed as the next runner, but his pique at being done out of the PM-ship was greater than his commitment to the party or his colleagues.

    I’m with Possum: all flour, no yeast.

  34. JP said

    From the piece posted by KR:
    “Some MPs were left wondering at the bruising week’s end whether they truly wanted as their leader a bloke who opted to lie under a Fijian palm tree rather than turn up to last week’s party room meeting, the most important this year.”

    Sounds smart to me. As does not wanting the job of chief shit sandwich eater immediately after the election defeat.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of Costello – he did a so-so job in easy circumstances. More than mediocre it was a lazy mix of competent and awful, with his arrogance making him blind to his errors.

    But I think his actions since the election – starting with rejecting the leadership on election night – have been politically spot on. Sure it’s a gamble that the Libs distrust Turnbull so much that they’ll beg him to return, but it looks on the money given Costello’s superior polling in the last Newspoll.

    I honestly don’t believe Costello would have the same Newspoll lead over Turnbull if he’d taken the leadership last year. So he’s got a better result by sipping cocktails in Fiji than by eight months of shit sandwich munching. And you guys reckon he doesn’t have what it takes to succeed in politics😉

  35. JP said

    And I should point out he’s got the best result regardless of his intentions:

    If he’s staying, he’s got the numbers in the polling running his way as the public’s preferred leader.

    If he’s going, and his plan is to inflict as much pain as possible on those who never backed him against Howard, then he’s also sitting pretty. Walking out on them again now, just when the party is turning to him for help, would really sink them further into the shit.

    Either way, Pete wins.

  36. JP,

    A pretty accurate summation.


  37. Kirribilli Removals said

    It’s probably never going to be clear whether he intended to stay and take over or not, but if so, then it was a high risk strategy that: 1. Turnbull wouldn’t get the gig 2. Nelson would turn out half decent. OK, scrap #2, there was never any risk of that! LOL

    It’s still a mess, and Costello is not the messiah, and even if he does get the leadership, he’ll still have to consume a lot of the brown stuff between then and any election.

    Does he really want to be tested like that? Going on his past work ethic I’d be tempted to think not.

    This could still be a great disappointment in the making.

    How exciting! LOL

  38. JP said

    KR – I agree: I think to take the course Costello has, he had to have made his peace with the chance that the Libs would choose Turnbull, generational change would be accomplished, and Costello’s political career was over. But if the party really wanted Turnbull, it was still probably better for Costello to stand back and watch, rather than be defeated in the party-room.

    I agree he’d be a disappointment as leader – his work ethic and general attitude to the leadership reminds me horribly of Beazley’s, and I’m sure he’d share Bomber’s lack of electoral success as a result.

  39. Kirribilli Removals said

    JP, what amuses me most is how he puts the party through hell with this prima donna bullsh!t act and seems to be enjoying it as if it’s his right to p!ss everyone about until ‘he’s’ ready to say yes or no.

    Talk about arrogance. I know what I’d be saying to him if I was one of them! LOL

  40. JP said

    KR, I think a lot of Liberals feel the same – otherwise he’d have the numbers.

    But some of them are the sort of spineless twats who supported Howard through thick and thin purely because Howard delivered the polling results. Now Pete’s doing that, and that impresses the power-for-power’s-sake brigade.

    And some of them – especially the Nats, I’d guess, just can’t stomach Turnbull (although after 11 years of Howard you’d think they’d be used to headstrong autocrats).

    Anyway, we agree on one thing: it’s fine theatre:)

  41. Kirribilli Removals said

    Has Shanahan joined Costello’s staff recently? He’s in print, on radio, and probably TV beating the drum for Bracket Creep.

    Everywhere you go, there’s the Sham singing hosannas for the greatest Treasurer that ever drew breath.

    It’s so nauseating it’s hysterical! LOL

    Pete’s going to need a visit to the proctologist to have this condition attended to.

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