The temptation of St Tim
The Age, Friday 10 December 1999

        ``SUDDENLY,'' says Tim Costello, ``everybody wants to know you.'' The celebrity preacher once voted a national living treasure is sitting in an unglamorous office without air-conditioning high above his Baptist church in Collins Street.
        It's been a big month: elected president of the Baptist Union of Australia, on the publicity trail for his new book, Tips From a Travelling Soul-Searcher, a series of reflections on life, and involved in discussions to possibly replace Malcolm Turnbull as leader of the Australian Republican Movement.
        He's everywhere, mobile phone seemingly Araldited to his ear. Up here Costello is pondering the life he leads, mixing it with powerbrokers on the national stage, versus the one he used to lead, often on the phone all day trying to find homes in St Kilda for people dislocated by drugs, prostitution and unemployment.
        ``...Too many flights to interstate venues with five-star hotels are actually changing you,'' Costello admits. ``And it does change you. The blandishments, the allurements, actually soften your edge. You don't speak with the directness and truthfulness that you once might have. Who you mix with and how they see the world rubs off.
        ``People see me as a stepping stone to their causes - many of them good - (and) they will tell you very flattering things: `You really speak for us.' I had someone the other day trying to tell me I was the Archbishop Tutu of Australia. I cringed terribly. I felt awful. Tutu has lived with the most oppressive racism and evil and this context is so soft.''
        It is a fleeting shock to learn that even the humblest of men is unable to entirely resist the seduction of fame. It is also surprising to hear him talk about it. ``I hope I'm not as influenced as others I've noticed. From one extreme - cash for comment - to the other utterly ascetic stream where, some would say, in my position, even when they're paying, you should never stay in a five-star hotel, or whatever. There's a whole continuum of allurement between those two extremes and I hope I'm nearer the ascetic still.''
        It's hard to be ascetic when you're a hot ticket on the speaking circuit, you've got a strong message, good delivery and a name that dramatically raises the chance of getting media coverage. Out come the schmoozers. And with it the compromises.
        ``When you're in a context where they've paid for you to be there and read a CV with flattering words of how privileged they are to have you speaking to them... If you wanted to say some harder things, it's much harder to say them.''
        The PRs work him over. ``It's terrific, what you say, and we want you to speak at this and will you come and have dinner with us?'' Costello says of his many invitations. ``It's a natural defence mechanism that says you know that people probably are interested in you and want to become your friend a little bit because of your profile or name and you push them away. And it becomes a learned response. You actually push people away.''
        Pushing people away is a concept hitherto alien to Costello. As a churchman whose constituency was the people of St Kilda, with all that city's drug, alcohol and youth problems, he has spent his adult life bringing people closer to him and to those who can help.
        The making of Tim Costello as an influential and ubiquitous national social commentator began when he was deciding whether to stay at the St Kilda Baptist Church or move to a city church. His St Kilda friends encouraged him to move on, telling him he was now too big for that fractured city.
        Costello grew big slowly. He became a passionate and articulate opponent of the Kennett revolution, speaking out about the disturbing number of poker machines at Crown, taking Kennett on when it was unfashionable to do so. With God on his side and Jeff on the other, it was a neat set-piece, which the media lapped up.
        To some, Costello became Victoria's great party-pooper. To others, he became a courageous folk hero. He wrote a book, Streets of Hope, on his life in St Kilda. He became a star republican campaigner. More recently, at the weekend, he parachuted out of a plane for charity into a community fair, wired for comment as he came down, spreading his message even as he floated to Earth.
        Indeed, he is so big that even Sydney is interested in him. An interview was placed prominently in The Sydney Morning Herald last month talking about the ``other'' Melbourne with the ``other'' Costello, the brother the journalist described as the ``marginally more famous but arguably less powerful Peter (the federal Treasurer)''.
        The man of the cloth, the champion of the underclasses, spends more time today talking to politicians, business leaders and the media than in soup kitchens with his flock. It is the price of fame, the result of the media finding someone in the church prepared to challenge some of the Kennett orthodoxies and unafraid to be contemporary.
        Tim Costello's name went national largely because of Jeff Kennett. He first became known with his struggle against council amalgamation. ``He (Kennett) wanted to dissolve us and the St Kilda community, by and large, didn't want to be dissolved.''
        And then big things began to be built, notably Crown casino. In a state where once Sundays meant great difficulty buying a bottle of wine, you could now gamble 24hours a day, seven days a week, including half of Anzac Day.
Somebody had to say something, even though criticism was ``un-Victorian''. Tim Costello's time had come. He used the media as much as it used him. If one was said to have had a good war, Costello can be said to have had a good Kennett.
        Kennett had inadvertently conferred even greater martyr status on Costello by saying he wasn't really a minister but a politician in disguise ``hiding behind the cloth''.
        ``Kennett was a master at marginalising you,'' Costello says. ``To call me a politician was clever, ironical and ultimately dishonest, because the role of clergy being voices engaging in public issues is not a political role, it's as old as the prophets of the eighth century.
        ``There's no doubt Victorians were suffering a loss of confidence and in some ways that loss of confidence was a social and democratic masochism where they said: `We've been spendthrifts, we've been profligate, we do deserve to be punished,' and Kennett fitted the times perfectly. He said: `I'll punish you, I'll rein it in.'''
        But while Kennett slashed and burned in an attempt to rein in debt, the poor ``copped the most'', Costello says. ``At times during those seven years I felt a bit like a lone wolf saying that.''
        It is a measure of Costello's honesty that he recognises he has changed. Seven years ago, he was a slightly dishevelled figure with a casual shirt open at the neck and adrift at the trouser, pacing up and down outside St Kilda's Galleon Cafe, talking into a mobile phone.
        He was a very un-mayoral mayor, a hands-on helper of drug addicts, prostitutes, schizophrenics, psychiatric patients and street kids. Inside, over a hot chocolate, Costello told his story, or the stories of St Kilda of which he was a part: dining with a sex-worker, heroin-addict client at a soup kitchen; physically restraining a woman from pouring petrol over her rented housing with a view to burning it down; the schizophrenics and special-accommodation people heckling him during his sermons before slipping out for a smoke. After the interview, he asked for a lift home because he didn't own a car.
        The first feature article on him, in The Sunday Age in 1993, was headlined ``Saint Tim'', but his wife, Merridie, said: ``He's not a saint, and you can quote me on that.'' It announced to a wider audience the irony of Peter Costello, then an economic rationalist Liberal MP, having a brother who helped people on the streets.
        When his brother became Treasurer, the link between them - the siblings Phillip Adams has called ``the most interesting brothers since Cain and Abel'' - became even more irresistible. And still the ``brother'' stories are written. When Peter on the right and Tim on the left joined forces on the republic issue, the story then was ``brothers actually agree!''
        Seven years on, Merridie Costello has seen changes in her husband from the St Kilda community worker to the high-flyer in the glamorous hotels who finds it hard to say no. ``The context is so much broader in terms of who he rubs shoulders with,'' she says. ``The five-star hotels ... it's seeing another side of life, one he hadn't been exposed to. He's got a very good sense of humor and he's a self-mocker. He often ringsfrom these five-star hotels and describes it and says: `I wish you were here,' and I say: `Someone's got to do an honest day's work.'''
        Merridie Costello says he finds his work fascinating. ``I don't think it goes to his head, but he finds it stimulating... He's often very surprised by the powerful reaction his words have on people. He comes back from conferences saying: `They came up to me in tears.'''
        Watching her husband being feted is a curious experience, she says. ``His sense of honesty and integrity is critical to the role he plays. I know there would be many temptations for him to be pulled away from that. I fear a little bit the impact of celebrity status because I think it can undermine people very quickly and make them a victim, particularly when it comes to a person who's taken a stand in terms of values and in a spiritual context.''
        Costello's warm relationship with the media isn't shared by the household on weekends. ``It can be pretty intoxicating being recognised, always called upon (for a quote),'' Merridie Costello says. ``I get sick of the mobile phone and I always want it turned off. When a hot issue's running, Tim will say `Oh, no one's rung me today, what's wrong?' We have a family joke, `He's at it again.' We say `Go out of the room, we don't want to hear it.'''
        Costello's desire for an even larger stage, federal politics, still percolates. ``I have to be honest and say every time an election comes round there's just a little bit of itchiness and restlessness,'' he says.
        The seduction of Tim Costello began as early as 1994. In his new book he reveals that the then Democrats leader, Cheryl Kernot, came knocking in 1994. Later, bizarrely, Michael Kroger invited him to the Savage Club to persuade him to join the Liberals.
        He was concerned that, should he accept the Democrats' offer, he would be pitted against his brother in Parliament, which would have upset his parents. He asked a journalist confidante whether ``the sibling stuff would ever go away''. The journalist confirmed that it almost certainly would not. He decided that his brother's presence had blocked his career, and for a while ``the injustice of that burned very brightly''.
        Has the ``sibling stuff'' worked more favorably for Tim than Peter? ``It's worked very favorably for me insofar as I have all care and no responsibility,'' he says. ``It works favorably for him because there are some people who say: `Well, if his brother Tim thinks that, he (Peter) must be OK too.'''
        It doesn't matter how big he gets, Tim Costello will always have his family - and especially his 17-year-old daughter Claire - to keep him down to earth. ``I watch my daughter talking on the phone, tapping something into her e-mail, listening to music and the radio on, and I say: `You can't do all this,' and she says: `Go away, you're boring.''
``My greatest humiliations in life come from my kids. For a while there with my daughter, I wasn't allowed to be seen because I turned up once to pick her up from tenpin bowling in my slippers. She was so embarrassed. She said: `How could you humiliate me in front of my friends? You are such a nerd.' I said: `Well tell your friends I love you and I'm a good father,' and she said: `That won't do, you're a nerd.'
        ``It's very difficult (for them),'' he says. ``As my daughter said to me, `We've got the trifecta: you're a reverend, you're a reverend in the media and, what's worse, you often go and speak at schools where our friends are. Bad trifecta.''

PDF file of Costello on Australian Gambling