I'd bet when John Howard decided to release his memoirs he was expecting to cop a lot of flack but a shoe? Really? Maybe if Peter Costello was sitting in that audience, it would have been a lot more than your average shoe projectile (now old hat). As we wait for the shoe-throwers book deal to be hammered out today, let's look back a moment to a more long lived drama.
John Howard has rewound that tape of Bold and the Beautiful to relive the old Peter Costello leadership saga. Ex-opposition leader John Hewson said out loud what we've all been thinking — Costello just "didn't have the balls" to challenge. But given recent history, does any one see anything a bit funny here? While we may say that Costello lacked some chutzpah in the trouser department, many were shocked and horrified at the successful leadership challenge we've just had. If Costello's case was a lack of balls then did Julia Gillard have too much?
When Gillard became leader and Australians woke up to orange juice, Weetbix and a bloody coup; knife-in-the-back jokes were spreading like wildfire. Many speculated that it would cost Labor the election (which it probably nearly did) and that people simply didn't like leaders jumping the gun like that. It was "a ruthless dispatching", "a savage dismissal", "a political assassination".
And so history was written thus. And yet Costello not savagely dismissing, ruthlessly dispatching or politically assassinating Howard meant we perceived him as weak? It's a hard thing to put your finger on but part of the answer to this riddle is that no two leadership "transitions", as they are now euphemistically called, are alike.
Howard and Costello had some kind of agreement or at least an understanding of a leadership swap. Costello, of course, always said it was a solid pact, where as Howard ever fudged it, right up until and including writing his book. Gillard and Kevin Rudd had the leadership issue lurking in the background, but who knows what was said between the two behind closed doors in the ALP cone of silence? Whether, as Laurie Oakes once inferred, there was a more concrete agreement.
Howard and Costello also had the speculation bubbling away for years and years, where as Gillard's leadership ditherings only lasted the first term, heating up when she kept giving us all that hyperbole about how "she was more likely to go to Mars" or "more likely to be a Dogs' full-forward" than become leader.
Maybe it's the fact that Rudd was a first-termer, not given sufficient chance to shine, or at least time to let the shine wear off and let us, the voters give him the boot. Maybe it's because he was so utterly terminated by it all, crying at podium, career annihilated. We always hope when leaders go that maybe they will rise again — Turnbull we're looking at you.
Is it as simple as a girl versus boy thing? Maybe boys are allowed coups and jumping over others to get to the top, but ladies are not meant to have that same ambition. Nah . . . too simple. Maybe it's more about our perception of how leadership change should be done. There's the traditional managed Kirribilli-style agreed leadership "transition" versus a completely new way of getting to the top; a quick meeting late at night, decision made, no trial.
No one expected what happened to happen, when it happened, how it happened. The simple shock was all we needed to make Gillard into a villainess who had snatched leadership from another, even if at the time we weren't too plum keen on him either and she actually looked all right.
Strange though how history writes itself, who gets the last word, and who gets a shoe thrown at them. The "shouldas" come out — Costello should have challenged then, Gillard should have waited and the Q&A production team probably should have more thoroughly checked the audience for dreads.
Bella Counihan works in the Canberra Press Gallery and writes for the National Times.