The term was first used to describe a 1988 agreement between then Prime Minister Bob Hawke and his Treasurer, and deputy leader, Paul Keating which was effected at Kirribilli House. Hawke agreed that he would resign in favour of Keating after the 1990 election. The undertaking was witnessed by Bill Kelty, the then Secretary of the peak trade union organisation in Australia, the ACTU, and Sir Peter Abeles, a businessman and friend of Hawke. In 1991, having secured a fourth term a year earlier, Hawke reneged on the agreement, prompting Keating to resign as Treasurer and challenge him for the Prime Ministership. Although his initial challenge in June 1991 failed, he again challenged Hawke in December 1991 and won.
It is alleged that the former Liberal Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, had a similar agreement with his Treasurer, Peter Costello. It was generally reported that Howard had agreed to stand aside on his 64th birthday. However, as his 64th birthday approached in 2003, Howard indicated his intention to stay on as leader. Costello made several public statements that did little to hide his bitterness at the decision. Howard went on to lead the Liberal-National coalition to victory in the 2004 federal election and in December of that year became Australia's second longest serving Prime Minister.
Leadership tensions between Howard and Costello continued after the 2004 election, although Costello did not challenge for the leadership. Throughout 2005 several Liberal ministers began to be mentioned as possible challengers to Peter Costello's inheritance. They were Health Minister Tony Abbott, Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer, and outspoken backbencher Malcolm Turnbull.
On 9 July 2006 it was revealed by former Defence Minister Ian McLachlan that Howard and Costello had discussed the issue of a leadership handover in December 1994. Costello claims that a deal was made that Howard would only serve one and a half terms in office. Howard, although not denying that the meeting took place, claims that no deal was struck .
There was a further period of intense speculation that Costello would challenge Howard for the leadership in the lead-up to the 2007 Federal election. But Howard remained Prime Minister and Costello Treasurer until the Coalition Government lost power in the election of November 2007. John Howard also lost his Parliamentary seat, and there was a short period of speculation that Peter Costello would assume the leadership of the now opposition Liberal Party. However Costello soon announced he would not be seeking the position and that he was unlikely to serve his full term as a Member of Parliament. Neither Howard nor Costello have since commented in public about the existence, or otherwise, of the so-called Kirribilli Agreement.
In an interview broadcast on 18 February 2008, Ian McLachlan confirmed that an agreement was indeed struck: "(An) undertaking (was) given by John Howard ... in Peter Costello’s room that if Alexander Downer resigned and Howard became PM then one and a half terms would be enough and he would hand over to Peter Costello.