The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Peter Costello

Peter Costello

Treasurer

11 March 1996 - 3 December 2007

Transcript of 02/07/2006

Interview with Julia Baird
Sunday Profile
ABC Radio

Sunday, 2 July 2006

BAIRD:

Tonight on Sunday Profile - an insight into the mind of the man most likely to be our next Prime Minister. Treasurer Peter Costello doesn't often talk about his past, he rarely talks about his faith, and almost never talks about how difficult he finds it to take principled positions.

TREASURER:

You don't always have clear-cut decision between a thoroughly principled position and a thoroughly unprincipled one. You're making snap decisions with paucity of information, but it has to be done.

BAIRD:

Tonight, Peter Costello as you may not previously have known him. The latch-key child addicted to the 1960's series Get Smart. The boy who says he lived in fear of his elder brother - later to become a Baptist Minister and head World Vision Australia - Tim Costello. The earnest Christian who sought advice on "which political party God would join" and the young husband and father being asked to make an impossible choice between the life of his wife and that of his unborn child. And Australia's putative Prime Minister also shares with us something of his vision for Australia - a vision that he has long said needs to be driven by a new generation. But first, to the man himself. Peter Costello, thank you for joining us on Sunday Profile.

TREASURER:

Thank you for the opportunity.

BAIRD:

Now, one of the sayings of the Jesuits is you give me the name of seven, I'll show you the man. Of course this was picked up by the Seven Up documentary series, which has just had the 49, which parallels your own life, turning 49 this year. What were you like when you were seven?

TREASURER:

Oh, I think I was naughty, cheeky, I don't think I got into any major trouble, but I did the kinds of things that seven year old boys did.

BAIRD:

Can you give us an example?

TREASURER:

Well, I can remember on one occasion knocking off school with a friend and going down and catching tadpoles in the local stream and taking the evidence home, and this was absolutely forbidden. A, going AWOL from school; B, catching tadpoles; C, playing around swollen creek beds; and I was severely disciplined for that. We would look at it these days, you would consider it a creative act of conservation, but there you go.

BAIRD:

What was the severe discipline then?

TREASURER:

Smacks. This was the days before it was considered inappropriate to discipline your children physically. I think we all went through it in those days.

BAIRD:

So it was cheeky in a tadpole kind of way, you weren't kind of nicking off with things of with things out of the liquor cabinet?

TREASURER:

Oh no, fortunately for me my parents were teetotallers so there wasn't much liquor to be had. But as a teenager of course, you would go to school parties where there was more than there should have been, and so there was plenty of underage drinking going on. I don't think I ever suffered from a lack of exposure to underage drinking.

BAIRD:

Partaking as well?

TREASURER:

Not really.

BAIRD:

Just a little bit, you didn't swallow?

TREASURER:

I didn't inhale any alcohol, you know, experimentation, but it wasn't what today we'd call binge drinking. These were the conservative sixties.

BAIRD:

So tell me what it was like growing up in the 1960s, in Blackburn on the outskirts of Melbourne. I understand that both of your parents were university educated, which was quiet rare in those days.

TREASURER:

Yes.

BAIRD:

Was it a very mentally stimulating environment?

TREASURER:

I think they were both very interested in what was going on in the world, there was never any shortage of books and I use to read a lot.

BAIRD:

I understand that your brother Tim's wife said the first time she came over she actually got the shakes afterwards because it was a very stimulating environment but also a little intimidating because everyone would have to have a view on everything, there were lots of arguments and discussions and she felt a bit out of her depth. Is that right?

TREASURER:

It was very robust, yes. And if there were disagreements we would all sit there and hold our own ground. Now you've got to remember that I was a younger brother, so for most of my life I was intimidated and bullied by my older brother.

BAIRD:

The fierce Tim Costello, now a Baptist Minister.

TREASURER:

He was very fierce. He was two and a half years older and six inches taller, he was very fierce.

BAIRD:

Can you remember any particular issues? Was there any slamming of doors saying that's it, if you don't agree with me on Whitlam...?

TREASURER:

He did try to electrocute me once. I had my hand on an electric radiator and he turned on switch and I nearly died. Of course I was rushed off to the hospital and I had skin grafts. I still wear the scars of that attempt on my life.

BAIRD:

Have you still got scars?

TREASURER:

Oh yes, I've got scars on my hand here.

BAIRD:

Oh yeah I can see,

TREASURER:

I had skin grafts as a child.

BAIRD:

How old were you? So its across three of your fingers?

TREASURER:

No, four really. I was about four or five.

BAIRD:

Now what about, you were born in 1957, Television must have played a big part in your childhood. Did you watch a lot of it?

TREASURER:

Yes, my mother worked as a teacher, so I would get home from school a lot before her and I would be on my own – I was a latch key kid – literally the key was left under the mat, and I would come home every night, pull it out open the door...

BAIRD:

That fail safe hiding place.

TREASURER:

Yes, that's right, I don't why they bothered locking it. And what would I do? I would watch television.

BAIRD:

Which shows did you watch?

TREASURER:

My favourite was Get Smart.

BAIRD:

Is it true that you know entire passages of Get Smart off by heart?

TREASURER:

Oh yes, I use to be able to recite them. This was Mel Brooks and the perennial struggle between Chaos and Control, between good and evil.

BAIRD:

So can you recite for us a couple of...

TREASURER:

As much as I would love to Julia, I...

BAIRD:

Look, I'll even do Ninety-Nine for you.

TREASURER:

Look, I’d breach a copyright law or something.

BAIRD:

I don't think so, I think you just, what about just one line? What's one of your favourite Maxwell Smart lines?

TREASURER:

Well what can I say: "missed it by that much."

BAIRD:

I don't know the Ninety-Nine response to that. She'd go: "Oh Max."

TREASURER:

"Oh Max."

BAIRD:

But you know this is a cultural change, because were you to become Prime Minister you would have been one of the first Prime Ministers to have his formative years shaped by television.

TREASURER:

Probably. Everybody talks about what a terrible thing it is to be a latch-key kid. I was a latch-key kid.

BAIRD:

Do you think that that gave you an appreciation of the role that married women could have working?

TREASURER:

I think so. I never thought it was all that remarkable that a mother could be in the workforce.

BAIRD:

You would have entered university in the mid 1970s after the heyday of second wave feminism. What did you make of the feminists around campus then?

TREASURER:

I thought it all got a bit extreme by the time I got there. You would know their names better than me, but who was the name of the lady who wrote a book calling men rapists or something? And it was kind of extreme feminism.

BAIRD:

Andrea Dworkin.

TREASURER:

Was it? Yes. Well it wasn't the Germaine Greer type stuff, it was much more left wing. You see, when I started studying it was the end of the Vietnam War. The student radicals were still there, they were still running things and I think they were quite disappointed. I think the campus radicals needed a good war to keep their movement going.

BAIRD:

Well by all accounts you had a great time at university. You were active in Student politics and Christian groups. Is it true that you asked Graeme McClain, who was the Evangelical Union's Vice President once, which political party would God join? And what answer did you get?

TREASURER:

I could well have. Well the answer would be 'none.'

BAIRD:

Why is that?

TREASURER:

Well, the Almighty is above politics I think.

BAIRD:

But what is it about politics that God would not join?

TREASURER:

You know in politics you are dealing in the realm of choices. You don't always have a clear-cut decision between a thoroughly principled position and a thoroughly unprincipled one. You are making snap decisions with the paucity of information, generally trying to do the best that you can, but you will make errors, and sometimes it's a decision between a bad and a worse alternative. It has to be done, because we need to order our society, and of politics it can literally be said, ‘Bad job, but someone's got to do it.’

BAIRD:

You're listening to the Treasurer, Peter Costello, with me Julia Baird on Sunday Profile. Well while you were at university you met your wife, Tanya Costello, who described you then as a football player who was "very fit, slinky, supple in your movements, with the longer hair that students liked then." What did you see in her?

TREASURER:

How time has changed. She's a wonderful person, bright, bubbly, vivacious, intelligent, you know, just a really interesting person.

BAIRD:

You got married in 1982, you then had one child and in October 1987 she was pregnant with your second child and she fell dangerously ill, leaving you with the awful decision of having to choose basically between her life and I think that of your unborn child. This is a story that you spoke about recently in the parliamentary debate about RU486. Can you tell us what happened then?

TREASURER:

Tanya was struck down with, it was never actually finally diagnosed, but with some kind of cerebral abscess which meant she could not talk. She lost movement and she had to have several bouts of neurosurgery and while she was having the neurosurgery she was unconscious for a long period of time, and pregnant. Now to treat the neurological problems, she was being given huge doses of medication with uncertain effects upon the pregnancy, and because she was unconscious and I was the next of kin, in fact it was thought that she may not survive, or if she did survive that there would be severe brain damage, it was one of those terrible situations. Should we continue the medication with the uncertain effects on the unborn child, or should we let the mother face the prospect of possible long term brain damage. And it was an awful situation to be in.

BAIRD:

And your decision?

TREASURER:

My decision was to treat the mother and hope for the best with the pregnancy. And you know, as it turned out she made a recovery and the pregnancy was saved. She's in the medical textbooks. It was so unusual this recovery, she is in the medical textbooks. The wonderful outcome was that both the mother and the child survived.

BAIRD:

But a lot of the grounds of your decision was that she was unconscious but she would not have been happy having an abortion.

TREASURER:

Well the point is this, and this is the only reason why I raise it, you do get situations where there is an awful issue between the life of the mother and the life of the unborn, you do get these issues, and these decisions have to get made. And you've got to think about what you would do in a situation like that, I had to think about it. And you know, I'm very pro-life, but I can see situations where awful choices have to be made, you would hope you would never be in one, but I have been in one and I think that people properly informed and considering all the consequences, do have a right to make a choice.

BAIRD:

Did your faith get you through that time?

TREASURER:

I don't take anything away from the neurosurgeons and the neurologist and every other doctor there was, but I also say that the grace of God is very important.

BAIRD:

So what does it actually mean to you to be a Christian on a day-to-day basis?

TREASURER:

It is an anchor that gives you a framework.

BAIRD:

But do you pray in the morning, do you pray before you have to give a speech?

TREASURER:

I wouldn't pray I had to give a speech because my bad speeches are all my own responsibility. I can't blame anyone else for them but it's important to me, very important to me.

BAIRD:

Your brother Tim has said before that you followed a conventional view that people in Australian politics who are demonstrably religious were weakened because Australians view devoutness or religiosity as a bit peculiar. Do you think he is right?

TREASURER:

I think Australians are rightly suspicious of people who will try and use religion for another end. I don't think that's right and I don't think it should be done, but I think it should inform values, and it does.

BAIRD:

Have you got a favourite verse from the Bible?

TREASURER:

Ah, I've got plenty; I don't think I'll single out anyone.

BAIRD:

No? Not a psalm, a proverb? What about 'the first shall be last and the last shall be first'?

TREASURER:

Well, a fair proposition.

BAIRD:

And what about 'the meek shall inherit the earth'?

TREASURER:

Another fair proposition.

BAIRD:

Do you think that's true?

TREASURER:

I think that in the grand scheme of things, yes.

BAIRD:

But you're often not particularly meek yourself.

TREASURER:

Oh, I've got a softer side Julia.

BAIRD:

Look you have long spoken of the need to get a third generation into Liberal leadership. In many ways, you at 48, represent a different generation to John Howard, and not just because you watched television as a kid. If your generation took over the helm of government entirely, how would political life be different?

TREASURER:

I think everyone brings to political questions their own background, their own perspectives.

BAIRD:

What would yours bring?

TREASURER:

I think federalism has to be completely recast in this country.

BAIRD:

In what way?

TREASURER:

Oh, I don't think it works. I don't think federalism is working for Australia.

BAIRD:

So we need to decentralise.

TREASURER:

We have got to go one of two ways. We have got to either get the states behaving like sovereign governments and taking responsibility for decisions and finances, or if we're going to go increasingly to a national perspective we have got to ensure that service delivery which is done by states is done on a much more effective basis. Federalism was good for the time in 1900, but is failing Australia now.

BAIRD:

Isn't that what Whitlam thought as well?

TREASURER:

He had some ideas about regional government, which didn't work too well. But you can either go back and try and make federalism work with sovereign state governments taking larger responsibility, or you can move, as I believe we will, to a national framework, with states increasingly becoming service delivers, working more as partners to federal or national objectives.

BAIRD:

Do you think the IR legislation, the Work Choices has gone far enough?

TREASURER:

I have always wanted to see Australia move more into line with international practice, so I think that the direction that Work Choices is going is the right one.

BAIRD:

So it's part of the way in the right direction but there's more to be done?

TREASURER:

Well look, people say 'have you reached the end product?' I'd be very happy if this system works because I think it will be a great improvement…

BAIRD:

But it still sounds like you don't think it's gone quite far enough?

TREASURER:

I'm very happy with the direction that this is moving and I wan to see the outcomes.

BAIRD:

Well look, it's well known that politics and the pursuit of power or the possession of power can change people. You've been in the game for almost two decades, do you think it's changed you at all?

TREASURER:

No, I don't think it's changed many of my values, but by the same token do events affect you? Yes of course they do, that's what ageing is all about. You would be surprised, wouldn't you if somebody at 50 had shown no progression from the person they were when they were 20, you would be surprised at that. In fact if the person at 50 had shown no progression from the person they were at 20, you would call that immature, that's what we call it. So you would expect as life goes on and as the events change things, and as experience cuts in, you would expect a person to change, but are the end goals that different for me? I don't think so.

BAIRD:

But there is something, I mean you can take a 20-year-old and you can then put them through 30 years of working in a factory, running a cement plant, being a journalist, teaching, there is something very distinctive about politics which can have an effect on people. I mean how would your 20-year-old self differ from your 50-year-old self, apart from the hair?

TREASURER:

Less of it you mean? Well, like anybody I've been worn by the events of life, I'm probably more relaxed now than I was at 20. I would allow a much larger margin for failure than I would when I was 20. Why? Because I've seen failure, I've experienced failure, I'm probably a lot less impetuous, I'm probably a lot more understanding. I've seen people be battered by the events of life and experienced failures, and I understand how it happens and why it happens and how we've got to make allowance for it, and that's probably because I bring the perspective of someone who's seen many, many more years. But, I don't think I've had any great u-turns.

BAIRD:

One of your long time friends Ian Farrow has said, "I don't think people have seen the real Peter Costello." Is he right?

TREASURER:

You see, most people get impressions through media. Media is the way of speaking to millions, which you can't do individually, but media is mostly combative, media is mostly abbreviated, that's the way of the world. I invariably find that when I get time to spend with people I genuinely like them and mostly, they genuinely like me. The only problem is that you don't get the chance to spend days with ten million of your fellow Australians, so if you have to communicate with them, you generally get ten seconds on the evening news.

BAIRD:

Which is the joy of a Sunday night on the ABC, of course.

TREASURER:

Or you get half an hour on hour on the ABC, with Julia Baird.

BAIRD:

Well how would you describe the real Peter Costello?

TREASURER:

I enjoy company, I love a joke, I am extremely protective of my friends and my family because they mean so much to me, and I'm very proud to be an Australian. Very proud and honoured to be in the Australian Government, and in many respects I reflect the values and the views of our fellow countrymen and women.

BAIRD:

Well you are speaking about the need to protect long-term friends. One of your oldest and closets friends, Michael Kroger said that when you were at university one of you favourite songs was Burt Bacharach's "What the world needs now." Is this true?

TREASURER:

Well, if he wanted to protect me, he wouldn't come out with stories like that would he?

BAIRD:

Well the mind does boggle. Well look, what does the world, or at least Australia need now?

TREASURER:

It was the 70s, you have got to give us an allowance. It was the 70s, it was the time of bad fashion and bad music.

BAIRD:

Well some people love Burt Bacharach. But I have got to ask you what does the world, or at least Australia need now, presumably apart from love sweet love.

TREASURER:

Look, I think this is a wonderful country. I think that the Australian experiment over the last 200 years has been one of the world's greatest success stories. And what we need is, we need to keep things going, a standard of life which our public expects and demands and is entitled to, but a country that also has the capacity to lift its neighbours from a position of strength. Strong, confident, proud.

BAIRD:

And that's Peter Costello, Australia's Treasurer and heir apparent, as you may never have heard him. If you'd like to listen again., or read the transcript, you'll find us at www.abc.net.au.com. You can let us know your thoughts as well. I'm Julia Baird, thanks for joining me.