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Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Love thy Leader

Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard in Retirement

By George Megalogenis 

A curious feature of our political debate is the way it compels former prime ministers to lose their dignity in the endless feedback loop of the legacy war.

The Americans, despite their more openly hostile political culture, treat their ex-leaders with sufficient deference to absolve them of the need for after-the-fact combat. When a memoir is written by a Bush, a Clinton or a Carter, no other former president feels the need to gatecrash the book tour.

Australian prime ministers – even those who head minority governments – have more legislative power than American presidents. Remember, Barack Obama’s Democrats had control of both houses of congress for just over a year, yet they forced him to water down his mandate for health care reform. Julia Gillard, by contrast, secured a mining tax and a price on carbon – reforms that have a better chance of surviving the next Coalition government than Obamacare would the next Republican administration.

But in retirement our leaders suddenly become non-persons. They are discarded like Soviet-era body doubles who have outlived their usefulness once the despot they filled in for at public events drops dead.

They would be the last to admit it, but Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard are bound by the great Australian insecurity that we are too small to matter. They talk and talk in retirement for fear of being forgotten. In this they echo the national inability to seek meaning from our own past. What other people would allow themselves just one collective memory – the failure at Gallipoli – while wilfully overlooking almost everything else, from the sins of white settlement to the triumph of the global financial crisis?

The ex-PMs have become Australia’s resident historians by default, even if the commemoration they promote is their own.

Hawke and Keating fight like father and son. The essence of Hawke’s case against Keating was that he was slow off the mark as treasurer and, as prime minister, too removed from the ordinary Australian ever to be a great leader. Keating’s reply, stripped of its poetic abuse, was that Hawke was up himself and unwilling to share credit with anyone else. Their dispute is, in the end, about whose name appears first in the joint by-line for the miracle of the 1980s and ’90s. It is the small stuff of ego. The truth is the Labor pair would reconcile tomorrow if one would offer the other the olive branch of a compliment.

Fraser and Howard were never really close, so their sniping doesn’t contain the love–hate edge of Hawke and Keating. But there is more substance here. The two Liberals are in righteous disagreement about the very definition of their party, and through it, its claim on the national soul. Their argument can never be resolved because the only man who could adjudicate – Robert Menzies – passed away before Fraser and Howard realised they were competing to define modern conservatism.

Fraser first disowned his prime-ministerial self by befriending Gough Whitlam. Then he abandoned his party. Fraser accuses Howard of playing with the fire of race. Howard says Fraser was the last prime minister to champion protection after the economic model had broken. In other words, each condemns the other for wanting to turn back the clock, not to the imagined glory of the Menzies era, but to the delusion of a closed Australia.

When I asked Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard to reflect on the positive contributions of their predecessors and successors for my new book, The Australian Moment, an interesting thing happened; the exes divided according to personal, not party, philosophy. Fraser and Keating paid one another unexpected compliments, while Hawke stuck up for Howard. It was a new way of fighting the old battles. Fraser and Keating were the social progressives who wanted to improve the Australian character. Hawke and Howard were the populists who loved Australians unconditionally.

Keating gave the clearest expression to this game within the game when reflecting on Fraser’s contribution:

 

The great pity of Malcolm Fraser was [that] the dismissal de-legitimised his government but, that said, he did not fall into these phony distinctions between the civic and the human community. Malcolm Fraser had the clarity of mind to recognise the human community beyond Australia with his Vietnamese refugee program and within Australia with his general embrace of the notion of multiculturalism. Let me say it is, I believe, the bounded duty of a prime minister to search for the threads of gold in the community and to weave them and I think that I can say that of prime ministers Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and, if I might say, myself. This was not true of John Howard. John Howard’s phony distinctions between the civic and the human community with boat people, ‘we decide who comes to this country’ etc., and the dallying with racism through the mouthpiece of Hanson and others meant that he was alone in that group in not looking for the threads of gold and then celebrating them, and, as a manifestation of that, he was not there for the apology. 

 

Hawke, likewise, tried to have it both ways when addressing his Liberal predecessor: “All Fraser’s good things have been said and done since he finished as prime minister. But seriously, it’s very difficult, objectively speaking, to think of anything … the one thing I will say for Fraser, he has always been impeccable on the question of race.”

Fraser only acknowledged Howard’s time as treasurer. He had no comment on his prime ministership. Howard, on the other hand, had praise for each predecessor. The least popular among the exes was the most unfailingly polite. Like Hawke, and in contrast to Fraser and Keating, who were willing to dig out primary source material to bolster their respective cases, Howard didn’t rely on documents. He and Hawke seemed happy to let their records of four election wins apiece act as corroboration.

It was when asked to assess Gough Whitlam’s contribution that the pattern broke. Fraser and Keating were suddenly on the same page as Howard with generous comments. Now it was Hawke who betrayed himself with the shortest affirmative quote for Whitlam. Hawke also offered a one-word character assessment of Kevin Rudd – “narcissist”. I asked Keating if he agreed. “Well, Bob would know,” he joked.

No doubt Gillard and Rudd have the mutual loathing required to continue the tradition of the brawling ex-PMs. But Gillard doesn’t strike me as the type. Rudd does. What he says after his career is over will be fascinating, if only to see if he first takes aim at himself. If he doesn’t, he will be a paid-up member because the thing that unites Malcolm and Bob and Paul and John, other than insecurity, is a dogged refusal to concede fault.

About the author George Megalogenis
George Megalogenis is a journalist and political commentator. He is a senior writer with the Australian and the author of Faultlines, The Longest Decade and Quarterly Essay 40, ‘Trivial Pursuit: Leadership and the End of the Reform Era’.