Hawke and Howard: best buddies?
The former leaders share memories, political observations and a few jokes at the National Press Club
Former prime minister John Howard has delivered a guarded rebuke to Tony Abbott, saying today's politicians rely too heavily on slogans and declaring Australians will support change and reform so long as they are satisfied it is ''fundamentally fair''.
Describing politics today as less ideological than in his time, the country's second longest-serving prime minister has observed: ''We sometimes lose the capacity to argue the case - we think that it's sufficient that we utter slogans.''
Although Mr Howard, 74, avoided any reference to Mr Abbott or the federal budget, his remarks were seized upon by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. ''John Howard must be beside himself watching Tony Abbott botch his first budget like this,'' he said.
Mr Howard also bemoaned the ''disease of factionalism'' on both sides of politics and the trend towards politicians ''whose only life experience has been politics''.
The critique came after his predecessor, Bob Hawke, expressed alarm at the quality of debate in the national Parliament and proposed a compact on issues on which there was a broad consensus.
Mr Howard supported the concept, telling both major parties: ''If you're worried about the influence of minor parties, one way of eliminating their influence is for the two major parties to get together on sensible change.''
Mr Hawke, 84, also had a warning for Labor, saying: ''You can't expect, nor should you expect of the Australian public, their support to throw out an existing government and put you in unless you have done them the courtesy, and the country the service, of working out a coherent policy.''
Mr Hawke also remarked that, while the Abbott government was ''not travelling well'' and could be beaten if an election were held now, he did not think this would last and predicted the ''the polls will change somewhat''.
The observations came during an extraordinary joint appearance by two of the nation's most successful prime ministers to mark half a century of political debate at the National Press Club in Canberra.
Both were eloquent and diplomatic. Mr Hawke put their critiques in perspective by observing that ''most countries in the world will give their eye teeth to have the situation we have''.
Mr Hawke said he was disturbed at the current attitude of the Australian people to the Parliament and the democratic process, adding he thought Mr Howard shared his view. He proposed that Mr Abbott and Mr Shorten discuss how agreement could be reached on some issues so that legislation could pass without the need for partisan debate in the Parliament.
Mr Hawke, who held office from 1983 until 1991, also described the state of federal-state relations as a ''blight upon the optimum development of the country'', declaring he still adhered to the proposition that ''we'd be much better off without the states''.
Mr Howard, who was prime minister from 1996 until 2007, said the obligation was to make the federation work better.
''One thing I've learnt about politics, and I'm sure Bob's experience would have been the same, Australians fundamentally don't like zealots, fanatics - they get very suspicious of fanatics,'' he said.
Both slogans and argument were important in politics, he added, observing ''we have sometimes lost the capacity to respect the ability of the Australian people to absorb a detailed argument''.
''They will respond to an argument for change and reform [but] they want two requirements. They want to be satisfied it's in the national interest, because they have a deep sense of nationalism and patriotism. They also want to be satisfied it's fundamentally fair.''
Mr Howard also reflected on ''the disease of factionalism'', saying while there was nothing wrong with people coalescing around common ideas, ''so many factions in political parties today are nothing more than preferment co-operatives''.
''The other trend that I think is regrettable, and I choose my words very carefully, and that is, that we have a growing number of people on both sides, all levels of politics, whose only life experience has been politics. ''Fundamentally, you end up with far too many people whose life's experience has only been about political combat.''