Bob Hawke and John Howard agree that old-school politicians were better at actually getting stuff done
The body language made clear there were two different men on the podium of the National Press Club although both were from a political style Australian voters probably are yearning to see make a comeback.
Bob Hawke (Labor Prime Minister for eight years, nine months from 1983) slouched across his chair, lips usually pursed when not open in laughter, legs crossed, a picture of cool entering its eighth decade.
John Howard (Prime Minister for 11 years, nine months from 1996) was straight-backed, feet parallel and firmly planted, his hands usually clenched on his lap as he maintained a lifetime of good posture.
The differences couldn’t hide the fact these men, the most successful politicians of the past 45 years, represented a period when voters had a confidence in political leaders absent today. Back then, they followed when Labor floated the Australian dollar and removed tariffs, and when the Coalition banned many firearms and introduced a GST.
As one questioner said: “Isn’t the fact of the matter that when it came to managing reform weren’t both of you simply better at it than the current crop of politicians on either side?”.
“Yes,” laughed Bob Hawke, easily urging Mr Howard to agree.
They were at the National Press Club in Canberra to mark its 50th anniversary. They had spoken at the club a total of 57 occasions but this was their first appearance together. There was agreement not to talk of current politics and an unpopular Budget, but their feelings came through.
John Howard said politicians have sometimes lost the capacity to respect the ability of the Australian people to absorb detailed argument rather than slogans.
“I think the Australian people normally get their politics right. I mean I would say that. I think both of us would,” he said laughing with Mr Hawke.
He said voters wanted to be satisfied reform was in the national interest “because they have a deep sense of nationalism, of patriotism”.
“They also want to be satisfied that it’s fundamentally fair. The Australian people won’t over a long period of time support something they don’t think is fundamentally fair.”
Bob Hawke said he was fortunate in being an Opposition Leader for just three weeks. But he said the job of Opposition was to do more than oppose.
“Take the present situation,” he said while fending off any suggestion he wanted to deal with “the merits or otherwise” of the Labor Party’s performance.
“You can’t expect and nor should you expect from 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 — not necessarily of reform, but of adaptation to changing circumstances,” he said.
“And that’s essential. You will not just get into government by sheer opposition unless the government is going really badly. Recent events of the last couple of years [the Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd governments] support that proposition.”
John congratulated Bob on floating the currency; Bob patted John as he said his gun laws were something the United States couldn’t do.
In private, they probably would agree the present generation of their parties would not be able to achieve either.