12 March 2024

What's really going on when a former PM trashes his own party's policies?

| Chris Johnson
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Australian Parliament House

Paul Keating once ruled Parliament House, but now he just snipes from the sidelines. Photo: File.

Imagine the relevance deprivation one must feel once they’ve left the job as Prime Minister of Australia.

Going from a tough, high-powered, highest-profile position that commands much respect to … well … almost anything else, must undoubtedly bring a sense of suddenly being somewhat ”lesser”.

Sure, there would also be a surge of relief at getting one’s life back. That is, of course, until the relevance factor kicks in.

Some former PMs handle it well.

Others can’t contain the urge to publicly offer advice from the sidelines.

The status of ”former prime minister” brings with it a decent level of respect and so it should.

The few holders of that title led the country at one time and still have much to contribute.

If the political parties they each respectively captained have character and confidence in their current leaders, there will be no insecurities around honouring former bosses who are still alive. Giving them deference, even.

The Liberal Party certainly does that with John Howard, who, it must be said, has been dignified in his public comments about the characters and policy directions of his successors.

The Libs haven’t been able to be quite as respectful to Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, but if you take into account the divisions they each fuelled, they do all right along the party’s factional lines.

Scott Morrison, who has only just left parliament completely, is a category all on his own.

But it should not be lost on party members that he too rose to the top job, won an ”unwinnable” election in his own right and steered – for better or worse – the nation through some extremely tumultuous times.

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Former PMs who go to the backbench for a while pose somewhat of a dilemma for the party.

They have status and experience and there is value in at least listening to their advice.

But the leadership mantle has been passed on.

It’s more of a problem for the party when it’s still in office and it has a former PM on the backbench.

They’re usually there to cause a bit of trouble for their successor, as did Abbott and Labor’s Kevin Rudd.

Or to bide their time while building the numbers for another tilt at the top job (also Rudd).

The ALP’s relationship with its former PMs is a little more nuanced.

Rudd is a super intellect who, in and out of office, has continued to contribute.

His abilities were recognised by most in the party – even by those who despised the way he worked with them.

Julia Gillard is without doubt the one former PM – Labor or Liberal – who has shown the most dignity post-office.

Gillard, who has never been given enough credit for all the legislation she successfully negotiated while PM, is the definition of a party elder statesperson.

If only they were all like her.

Which brings us to Paul Keating.

Keating is another super intellect who displayed great vision for this country while in office as prime minister.

That vision, and the man himself, became too divisive and Australia decided he had to go.

Keating, however, has always retained the status of party legend.

So many of today’s Labor MPs – ministers even – decided to embrace a career in politics because of the inspiration they found in Paul Keating.

Like the late Bob Hawke and the late Gough Whitlam, Keating has commanded superstar status long after tenure in office.

It’s a bit like that for Howard in the Libs and definitely remains so for the long-gone Bob Menzies (never for the late Malcolm Fraser, though).

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Which is all the more pity that Keating finds himself needing to criticise his party, its current leadership team, and the ALP’s policy directions so publicly and viciously.

His attacks on Penny Wong last week over foreign policy (not for the first time) were unnecessary, particularly while she and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese were in the middle of hosting South-East Asian leaders at the ASEAN conference.

Some of his points made sense. What didn’t make sense was his decision to publicly embarrass the party that gave him so much.

The timing and the over-the-top Keating language were obviously designed to have mass impact.

That he achieved, but to what end?

The man the Labor Party (and much of Australia) has revered for so long is increasingly losing the respect they once poured on him.

It can’t be relevance deprivation still lingering around after all these years surely.

That he is frustrated over policy direction is obvious.

But Keating might do well to take a leaf out of his nemesis Howard’s book – certainly take issue with the policies of your same-party successors, but do it in a way that doesn’t dump on the very vehicle that supported your ascension.

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HiddenDragon8:16 pm 12 Mar 24

It would be better for all concerned if Keating kept his pungent views on defence and foreign affairs to himself, or at least shared them in a much less public way. As PM he was naive about the then Indonesian regime and he continues to be naive about the Chinese regime, in spite of plentiful evidence that the trust extended to the latter has too often been abused and exploited.

By comparison, an occasional high profile kick in the pants from him about the need for serious economic reform (i.e. something substantially more than the cop-outs and pissantery we’ve thus far had from the Albanese government) to lift Australia’s truly lamentable productivity could be very useful.

Stanhope has good reason to dump on the Barr/Rattenbury government. China loving Keating doesn’t . I wish Keating would go away.

Here here teddy bear

Geoff Spackman6:22 pm 12 Mar 24

I wish Keating had gone away before they made him treasurer!!!.

I really enjoyed ABC TVs Nemesis program watching the Liberal Prime Minister’s tearing each other to shreds and inadvertently exposing their own egos and agendas.

I was never a John Howard fan, but I was impressed when Josh Frydenburgh said that he rang Howard about Jobkeeper and Howard said you have to do what is right for the country, ahead of self interest and partisan politics. I guess that’s what Howard did when introducing Gun laws against the views of many in his Coalition and political voting base.

I’d put Hawke, then Keating, then Howard as our best three prime ministers of the last 50 years.

Margaret Freemantle4:08 pm 12 Mar 24

Howard the worst!!

The problem is that Keating loves the sound of his own voice. For those of us old enough to remember the recession we had to have, he rolled Hawke and the only reason he was elected post that was because John Hewson wanted to.introduce the GST back then but couldn’t articulate whether it would apply to birthday cakes. The voting public panicked and put Keating in for the next term. He was annihilated by Howard in 96 which speaks for itself.

The last two decent leaders our country have had were Hawke and Howard. The rest were a big disappointment and that’s the main reason why our country which was very prosperous is steadily but surely being flushed down the drain.

Howard deserves credit for some of the hard calls he made – like gun laws.

However, equally he left absolute timebombs for the country through proliferate policies designed to get him re-elected, which were key contributors to the ongoing structural problems with the Commonwealth budget we have now. If he and Costello weren’t so desperate to keep office, but instead made decisions in the long term interest of the country (i.e. less middle class welfare, more investment for long term gain of windfalls from mining etc), we would be in a far better spot than we currently are.

Compared to more recent PMs from his side of politics however, he is a long way in front of the lot of them.

And on Howard, he should forever be strongly criticised for the utter mess he threw us into in Iraq in particular. The decision making around that, as we all know, was dreadful at best. A war we should never have had any part in – yet we couldn’t start licking the UK/US boots quick enough.

And Albanese has got to be the worst of them all.

Margaret Freemantle4:12 pm 12 Mar 24

Agree. He also gave out millions for thos short of cash to have babies- and we wonder why those kids have been drug addicts since birth. Children overboard??

No way, Howard was a disaster as treasurer and prime minister. I’ll give him gun laws but the flat out lies about ‘children overboard’, the illegal invasion of Iraq, pissing the GST billions up against the wall in a way we still haven’t recovered from etc make him the most destructive politician I can think of. Morrison was a criminal fraud but he didn’t do as much to take the country backwards. Howard thoroughly deserved the unique honour of being the only PM to lose his seat.

Both sides of politics have these ex-PM’s that still think that Australians actually care what they think. How about Turnbull, you missed him. Keating and Turnbull should just disappear into the background with their big fat pensions and superannuation.

GrumpyGrandpa1:14 pm 12 Mar 24

My view is that past PM’s, who lost their seats or were rolled by their party whilst in the top job, should take their big fat taxpayer pension and fade away.

We have the same situation in the ACT, where John Stanhope is continually criticising the ACT Government, in particular about their level of debt.

While I believe that Ex’s are Ex’s and should keep quiet. Stanhope stands in a slightly different camp. He didn’t lose his seat and wasn’t rolled by his party whilst in the top job. That said, it’s probably time to for all Ex’s to move on.

What is frustrating with Stanhope is his absolute lack of recognition that he was part of the problem. He tries to pretend everything was rosy posy when he left office – but it was in fact him (plus his often contributing buddy) that cooked the ACT books and set up for the continual decline we see at the moment from a fiscal position. No doubt the current government hasn’t helped the circumstances – but if you read Stanhope’s pieces alone, you’d think he was the world’s greatest, when in fact he sowed the seeds for the mess that is there now.

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