Ghosts of PMs past are welcome to the debate
It must be Christmas for politics right now because the ghosts of prime ministers past are out in force.
Yesterday, Bob Hawke and John Howard tussled over the future of the global economy, China and federalism at the Oxford Business Alumni Forum in their first ever head-to-head debate.
Away from the lectern, last week Hawke backed Anna Bligh over daylight saving in southeastern Queensland and called on Australia to rethink its position on nuclear waste.
Malcolm Fraser took to the opinion pages to express his distaste for both parties’ treatment of asylum seekers, after recently calling on the government to expel Israeli diplomats from Australia.
Paul Keating, never far from a Dictaphone, has recently predicated another global recession, criticized “gormless” Sydney apartment blocks and dismissed Tony Abbott as a “resident nutter” and “intellectual nobody”.
Not to be outdone, last month Howard took pot shots at Kevin Rudd and his predecessors. “Even comparing him [Rudd] with Hawke and Keating in their first couple of years, they’d done a lot more,” Howard said.
In a separate interview, Howard has also accused Rudd of reaching “new heights of political mendacity”, which according to the dictionary, is an ecclesiastical Latin term for “untruthfulness”.
At first glance, this gaggle of mouthy ex-PMs might seem like we have a problem. Unlike America, where former Presidents are treated like demigods, there is no official place for ex-PMs in Australian society.
We accept that once they’re evicted from The Lodge, old PMs get their super cheque and an office somewhere. Maybe they’ll sit on a board, do an honorary university gig or write their memoirs. But beyond that, the job description is vague.
There’s a certain feeling that once you’ve had you’re turn at the steering wheel of the nation, you should skulk-off quietly. No one likes a backseat driver in politics, right?
Commenting on a recent report about Keating’s remarks, Luke of Adelaide asked: “Why can’t old Prime Ministers just fade away gracefully [?] They had their time, yet they seem to feel that we still value their opinions.”
There’s also a sense that chatty ex-PMs might be bad for democracy. If they can’t let go, isn’t that like an ongoing attempted coup? Or as Big Al of Doncaster commented on a Herald Sun report, “Howard you got thrown out of your own seat, go back to reading stuff about Bradman and leave us in peace.”
Either way, it’s the sort of thing that gets people riled up at dinner parties. Annoyances that have lain dormant for years can erupt like Icelandic volcanoes before the entrée is over. That Hawke! I always hated what he tried to do to beer drinking, how dare he offer informed opinion about the economy!
Current leadership is similarly dismissive. If old nemeses rise from the grave, they are brushed aside as crazy or inappropriate. Keating might have called his successor a “desiccated coconut” but Howard turned the other cheek, vowing (unsuccessfully) to stay out of debates when he got the boot. Abbott and Rudd have also ignored recent commentary about them.
But while it’s understandable that current leaders fail to embrace former foes, the rest of us shouldn’t sell our ghosts so short.
Political discussion on the big issues is notoriously uninformed - just look at the meringue that is currently passing for the healthcare debate. We simply can’t afford to knock back opinion from former leaders who have vast experience (if not a perfect track record) across most policy issues going.
Indeed the value of an ex-PM comes just as much from their current status as their old job. People in positions of power and influence rarely say what they really think. But ex-PMs are no longer bound by the shackles of officialdom and constant pressure of appealing to the electorate.
When asked before Wednesday’s debate if he was out for vengeance over Hawke, Howard said “no, no, no, I’m over all of that”.
Ex-PMs have also had time to mellow out. Fraser, for example, has used life away from high office to come out as a social conscience for the country. As Michael McCallum posted in response to Fraser’s Sydney Morning Herald piece on asylum seekers, “I applaud Malcolm Fraser for saying what our political leaders lack the courage to address.”
Sure, ex-PMs might have an “agenda” - to push an issue, rewrite their own record or help their colleagues - but to see that as a red card naïvely assumes everybody else on the scene is agenda-free.
More than anything, like all exes, despite the baggage and history with old PMs, we’ve been through too much together to discount them full stop. We know each other too well.
Their forays into public debate are like little blasts from the past: sometimes confronting, sometimes infuriating, sometimes nostalgic - but always interesting.
So don’t hold back, ghosts of prime ministers past. Your country still needs you.
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