Australian political parties rely too heavily on slogans and are losing their ability to argue their case for reform, says former prime minister John Howard.
In an address to the National Press Club with former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, Mr Howard said modern Australian politics had become less ideological, and was affected more by the “disease of factionalism”.
Mr Howard, in a speech that will resonate with his former colleagues in the Abbott government, which has been struggling to sell its tough budget, said Australians would absorb an argument for change and reform but they had to be satisfied these were fair.
Former prime minister Bob Hawke with former prime minister John Howard at the National Press Club's 50th anniversary address. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
“We think it's sufficient that we utter slogans,” he said. “In truth, in politics you need slogans and arguments.”
He pointed to his own efforts trying to sell the GST as an example of how an argument that touched on the personal circumstances of voters could have greater resonance than a line that was repeated like a script.
“When I said it [the GST] was an idea whose time had come and other countries had it, that was never very impressive because it never really touched,” he said.
"I think we have sometimes lost the capacity to respect the ability of the Australian people to absorb a detailed argument": Mr Howard Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
“I think we have sometimes lost the capacity to respect the ability of the Australian people to absorb a detailed argument.”
Australians had two requirements that had to be met to convince them of the need for political reforms. “They want to be satisfied that it's in Australia's interests, in the national interest, because they have a deep sense of nationalism and patriotism,” he said.
“They also want to be satisfied that it's fundamentally fair.
Mr Hawke and Mr Howard share a laugh. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
“The Australian people won't, over a long period of time, support something they don't regard as fundamentally fair.”
Mr Hawke said that despite the political debate about the state of Australia's economy, “most countries in the world will give their eye teeth to have the situation that we have: the debt to national income ratio, employment, and interest rates, and so on that we have got”.
Mr Hawke said federal-state relations were a blight on the optimum development of the country and he maintained the view that state governments should be abolished.
He said that environmental instability was the greatest threat to Australia's quality of life and the one thing Australia ought to do was have “the safest remote locations in the world for the disposal of nuclear waste”.
“If we are serious about the fact that global warming and environmental issues are global in their context, then we should take a global view,” he said.
“If we have got the safest spots, we should make them available.
“But the great thing is that in doing good for the rest of the world, and making the world a safer place, we'd be doing good for ourselves.”
The world had reached a unique point in human history where governments could choose to lift the standard of living “for all mankind or the other hand, destroy life on this planet as we know it”.