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
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.

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Former Prime Minister John Howard.
Former prime minister Bob Hawke and former prime minister John Howard. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

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.''

Bemoans the "disease of factionalism": Former Prime Minister John Howard.
Bemoans the "disease of factionalism": former prime minister John Howard. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

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

Illustration: Matt Golding.
Illustration: Matt Golding.

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

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.''