Life after politics is often hollow


'Coalition MPs back Costello comeback', screen grab from ABC News For former political leaders life after politics can be hollow and unrewarding. That is the subtext behind Peter Costello's dilemma. Last November he confidently looked forward to a life in the commercial world. Now he is allowing the public to believe he is considering reversing his decision to walk away from politics.

He will be criticised whatever he chooses to do. Many critics condemned his failure to accept the Liberal leadership as proving his lack of the necessary fortitude.

But whatever his decision his dilemma allows an insight into the attraction of life in politics and the lack of rewarding alternatives for those who choose to walk away from it. This applies especially to those, defeated or retired, who are still in the prime of life. And Costello is, after all, the same age as Kevin Rudd.

Costello has spent his whole life in politics: student politics, industrial politics, parliamentary politics. That is what drives him. Academic and professional life has never held the same attraction. So changing gear to another life was never going to be easy.

Political life holds great attractions. Whether a politician is motivated by serving the community or by personal advancement, once politics is in your blood it is hard to shake off. The psychic rewards are enormous. For those who are attracted to it, nothing compares.

Other careers are rewarding in other ways. The business world offers greater financial rewards. Some say that means parliamentarians should be paid more so that better people will be attracted to politics. But that misses the point. The rewards are quite different and attract different types of individuals.

The life after politics of recent Australian political leaders indicates the difficulty Costello has faced in coming to terms with his future. Some appear to have been more successful than others in settling down after politics.

On the Labor side previous leaders like Paul Keating, Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam have become jacks of all trades. Keating and Hawke have dabbled in commercial life as advisers and consultants, especially in Asia. Whitlam served as Ambassador to UNESCO and has taken up a variety of social and political causes, sometimes in harness with Malcolm Fraser. Each has had university connections at one time or another.

Fraser has taken a leading role in CARE International, and has served as an eminent person on the international stage. The charity NGO sector can be an important outlet for former politicians.

Other Liberals like John Hewson and Andrew Peacock have pursued a variety of occupations. Hewson has combined journalism, academia and business consulting. Peacock was appointed Australian Ambassador to Washington before representing Boeing in Australia.

Lesser lights on both sides, including Michael Wooldridge, have dabbled in lobbying of various sorts both within Australia and internationally. Alexander Downer will combine lobbying with university and other commitments.

Those who have succeeded in remaking themselves include Gareth Evans, who left Australia to become CEO of the International Crisis Group.

Examples of a fully successful move into the business community are rare in recent Australian political life. Perhaps the most successful has been former NSW Premier Nick Greiner, who became a professional board member after leaving office in the early 1990s.

The overall picture is that finding something as fulfilling as politics is rarely easy. There are few examples of individuals who can completely remake themselves. Offers of government jobs can be very important but these are usually just temporary. Costello, like many others, will find it very difficult to get politics right out of his veins.

John WarhurstEmeritus Professor John Warhurst is a columnist with the Canberra Times and an adjunct professor at ANU and Flinders University.


Topic tags: john warhurst, peter costello, liberal leadership, australian politics, malcolm fraser, keating, hawke



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Existing comments

This is an excellect piece: well informed, balanced and humane. One wonders, though, is it any different for anyone else who has been busy and successful in a stimulating trade or profession (or even a careeer in politics)?
Hugh Laracy | 20 August 2008

The situation of Peter Costello and others is worth a passing comment, but no more. They have the sort of financial security most people can only fantasize about and plenty of options. What about those retrenched and thrown on the scrap-heap with very few resources?
Carol | 20 August 2008


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