Our former prime ministers have had a big year in 2020.
Their role in public affairs has been greater than normal and has ranged across a large range of political and social issues. Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull and Paul Keating have been particularly noticeable in recent months; John Howard, Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard less so. But all have been heard.
The role of former PMs is problematic in Australian public life. There are two main reasons. The hyperpartisan nature of Australian parliamentary politics means that most former PMs are categorised as lifelong party figures, sometimes worshipped within their own parties but treated with disdain by many in the community.
Time can be a healer in this regard, but only to some extent. Barbs were being swapped in Parliament this week about Abbott and Rudd. Scott Morrison was forced to apologise for mistakenly alleging that, like Abbott, Rudd had been travelling into and out of Australia during the pandemic.
Distrust of government and politics and the tall poppy syndrome means that deeper cultural attitudes work against former PMs playing a constructive role. A common community attitude is that they have had their turn, have retired or have been voted out of office, and thus have no more to contribute.
Traditionally former US presidents are treated with greater respect and deference, including through the building of official presidential libraries. Some of this deference may continue in the future. Notably three former presidents - Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama - stepped forward to urge Americans to follow their example and take the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. But the Trump era may damage the general respect for former presidents in American life.
Despite these reservations, former Australian prime ministers can rise above party politics to play a positive role - perhaps not a unifying one, but not a narrowly partisan one either. Towards the end of their lives and despite the Dismissal crisis of 1975, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser joined together to advance causes, including the republic and media freedom. Bob Hawke became a much-loved larrikin figure, and respect for Howard crosses party lines up to a point. The latter two both had reputations built on long tenures and multiple election victories.
In reviewing 2020, the interventions by three of the six surviving former PMs are particularly striking. These contributions are not the sum of their current lives, nor necessarily the most important, but they are the part that we see most clearly. The interventions have overlapping motivations. They can defend their legacies, settle old scores, or embrace causes and policies with a freedom they may not have had when in office.
Howard, now 81, conducts a range of activities connected to the Howard Library at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, and is treated by the media as an elder statesman. Gillard holds leadership positions in fields such as mental health and education, as chair of Beyond Blue, the Global Partnership for Education and the Global Institute for Women's Leadership at King's College London, while continuing to advocate for and write about women in leadership. Abbott, after joining the board of the War Memorial, took himself out of Australian politics by accepting a position as an adviser to the UK Board of Trade.
Perhaps the most prominent has been Kevin Rudd. As president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, Rudd has a platform to speak on international affairs and has been especially vocal on Australia-China relations. He has urged the Australian government to do more and say less. He has continued to be active on climate change, and was appointed a member of the UN Secretary-General's High Level Panel on Global Sustainability.
Most notable this year has been his petition for a royal commission into media diversity in Australia, the target generally accepted to be Rupert Murdoch and News Corp's role in Australian politics. This has been a long-term enterprise since Rudd's time in politics, and has achieved the greatest number of signatures, more than 500,000, of any petition submitted to Parliament.
Turnbull was among the signatories. He has not just thrown his weight behind the petition, but has thrown his opinions into the mix on several other major issues. One has been China, urging the Australian government to hold the line and not to be bullied. Another has been renewables, supporting the NSW Coalition government's clean energy plan. Climate action and energy policy continue to define Turnbull's public life.
Most controversially, Turnbull featured in the Four Corners "Inside the Canberra Bubble" program, confirming that he had raised with Christian Porter allegations of impropriety made against him. This continued to keep alive Turnbull's decree as PM that there should be no sexual relations between ministers and their staff whatever their personal circumstances.
Paul Keating, now 76, chooses his forays carefully but always enters the fray energetically. His latest has been to defend the legislated increases in the superannuation guarantee, one of his own signature policies. He told the ABC's 7.30 program that the government wanted to kill superannuation under the guise of protecting wages, having already allowed the withdrawal of up to $20,000 from many superannuation accounts under cover of the pandemic.
When former PMs attempt to undermine their successors in their own party, they are a blot on democracy. When they campaign with mixed results against the opposing party in election campaigns, they are being true to form.
But when they contribute to public debates with energy and intelligence they should be encouraged. They are one big voice among many - not roosters anymore, but not feather dusters either.
- John Warhurst is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.