Friday, November 21, 2008

Former PM with manners of steel

With John Howard back in the public spotlight this week, the question arises:  what kind of former prime minister will he be?  Will he follow in the footsteps of his hero Winston Churchill, write a book or two, receive several international awards, then fade quietly into the sunset?  Or will he miss the limelight, emulate Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating and pontificate on nearly everything under the sun?

In the years since they departed from the political scene, our former leaders have lined up like a wailing Greek chorus to not only condemn their successors but to tell all and sundry their criticisms of their parties and nation.

In the process, they have sometimes embarrassed themselves and tarnished their legacies.  What Conrad Black once said of Margaret Thatcher's behaviour after her retirement from the British parliament -- that her almost deranged intemperance exceeded the bounds of political decorum -- could easily be said of Keating, Fraser, Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam.

Howard, however, will be different.  True, he's given 20 hours of interviews to ABC1's The Howard Years, in which the 33-year parliamentary veteran breaks his year-long silence on his time in power from 1996 to 2007.  He will also write his memoirs, deliver a few addresses to the Liberal party faithful and give the rare interview to the news media, such as the Fox News Channel, which he did last weekend.

But far from ranting and raving a la Keating and Fraser, he is more likely to follow the example set by Churchill and John Major after they left British politics.  Less vitriol and fewer vendettas.  More class dignity.  Those other political has-beens, after all, have left a lot to be desired.  Consider:

Whitlam:  He frequently criticised his party's most successful leader (Hawke) towards the late 1980s and early '90s for being more interested in winning elections than securing a substantial policy legacy.  (To which Hawke replied a year after losing office:  "To use a direct Australian expression, that's bullshit.")

Fraser:  He spent much of the past decade attacking his former treasurer (Howard), promoting a bewildering variety of progressive causes and elevating the worship of African dictators to a high artform.  (John Gorton, in retirement, frequently derided this fellow Liberal PM as "ultra-conservative".)

Hawke:  His bitterness toward his successor (Keating) surfaced in his memoirs and his opinion of him was so low that he even reportedly predicted then Liberal leader Alexander Downer would win the next federal election.

Keating:  He described his successor (Howard) as, among other things, "a desiccated coconut" and "a pre-Copernican obscurantist".  That's not to mention his recent attacks on the incumbent Labor PM.  Or his claiming all the credit for the prosperity of the first decade of the 21st century.

One suspects we won't hear such nasty language and self-indulgent hubris from Howard's lips.  Whenever he will recall the good old days over which he and Peter Costello presided, it will be a case of how his government (and, to be fair, the Hawke-Keating Labor governments) implemented free-market reforms that led to a miracle economy.  If an old nemesis such as Phillip Adams dies anytime soon -- God forbid -- we won't hear Howard echo Keating's diatribe following the death of Paddy McGuinness and call the columnist a "liar and a fraud" who had the "morals of an alley cat".

If Howard privately observes the future political scene with disgust, frustration and the latent yearning of a former campaigner, it's a fair bet he won't air his views publicly.  Nor will he venture to interfere in the affairs of his party.  He knows he is no longer a player, but a privileged spectator of the divine comedy of politics.  In other words, Relevance Deprivation Syndrome, the term coined by Gareth Evans shortly after his retirement in 1999, is not likely to afflict our second longest-serving prime minister.

Now, some people believe Howard's post-political life will more likely resemble that of Menzies than other ex-PMs.  After all, they were both roughly the same age at retirement:  Howard was 68;  Menzies 71.  And within the first year out of office, both did their fair share of globe-trotting, book writing and cricket watching.

But that's where the similarities end.  For Menzies, in a little noted interview with veteran journalist David McNicoll in 1974, slammed his party ("They break my heart") and its senior spokesmen, describing then-Liberal leader (Billy Snedden) as "hopeless" and calling his other successors "a mischief maker" (John Gorton) and "a contemptible squirt" (Billy McMahon).  In contrast to Ming and the other ex-PMs, Howard won't be reaching from the political grave to blight the affairs of his former colleagues and beloved party.


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