With today’s political protagonists so scripted and shouty, the appearance of former prime ministers Bob Hawke and John Howard to mark the National Press Club’s 50th anniversary provided a refreshing “conversation”.
Perhaps such reasonableness is a luxury confined to “formers” (although some of that large band of ex-politicians-cum-commentators continue to live by the harangue).
It’s a pity, for the sake of improving debate and even policy, that serving leaders can’t more often put aside their desperate desire to best their opponents on every occasion, in favour of more constructive dialogues.
It’s a matter of degree. Those in the boxing ring will of necessity be strongly partisan. A robust democracy can’t avoid abrasiveness in the contest of ideas. But excessive stridency and aggression have disillusioned a jaded public. (This week’s Lowy poll shows the misgivings about the working of the democratic system.)
“I think we have sometimes lost the capacity to respect the ability of the Australian people to absorb a detailed argument,” Howard told a packed audience.
Politics had become less ideological, he said, which had its good side (we don’t like zealots), but the bad part was “we sometimes lose the capacity to argue the case. We think it’s sufficient that we utter slogans. In truth, in politics you need slogans and arguments”.
Hawke said: “I’ve always had the view, and retain it, that ignorance and prejudice is the enemy of good policy. So right from the word go, I wanted to educate the Australian people about the issues and the facts.
"That’s why I had the [economic] summit within one month of becoming prime minister. The Treasury was instructed that every delegate there was to have the full briefing that we were given when we came in …
"I think it is the case, as a result of my work and Paul Keating’s work, [that] we created a situation where the Australian electorate was probably the most economically literate in the world.”
Hawke expressed his concern that people hold parliament “in disdain” and said the quality of its performance needed lifting. He suggests government and opposition should agree to have free votes on issues where there’s a degree of consensus.
Howard lamented the over-representation among those entering parliament of political professionals (ex staffers, former union officials “whose life experience has only been about political combat”); he said the major parties’ narrow bases meant both suffered from “the disease of factionalism”, with factions often “nothing more than preferment co-operatives”.
The Abbott government wants to boost the states’ responsibilities, but Hawke and Howard wouldn’t have states in their dream constitutions.
“We’d be much better off without the states,” Hawke said. “The best proof is this: in time of war when the country is at its greatest peril, we abandon the states under the interpretation of the defence provision of the constitution. … All power to the Commonwealth. So, if at the time of its greatest peril the most efficient way is to get rid of them, why don’t we do it?”
Howard shared the view that “if you were starting again, you wouldn’t have [the states].
"But you won’t get rid of them. I think our obligation remains to try and make the federation work better. Our federation doesn’t work well, but it works better than the American federation, the Indian federation, the German federation, or the Canadian federation.”
Howard said that when reform was proposed, Australians wanted two requirements met: that the change was in the national interest and was “fundamentally fair”. Reform was much easier with bipartisan support. He’d backed the Hawke government’s major reforms (such as floating the dollar) but the Labor opposition in the 1990s (post Hawke, he stressed) did not return the favour, most notably on the GST.
“Could I say very gently to the current opposition … that 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.
"Not to the voting system [a reference to recent suggestions of electoral reform to disadvantage micro parties in Senate contests]. I am not sure about that. I think a lot of Australian people … will be suspicious of the major parties trying to do things on the voting system.” But the country could benefit from bipartisanship on “sensible reform”.
Howard reiterated his argument that all benefits shouldn’t be lumped together as “welfare” (as this government does when it talks about ending the “age of entitlement”). Supporting a safety net for those in need, he said there was a problem with terminology. “One man’s safety net is another person’s ‘middle class welfare’. There are a lot of things now that are called ‘welfare’ that aren’t really welfare” (think family tax benefits).
For all the criticism, “according to the OECD, Australia has quite a well-targeted welfare system,” he said.
Hawke reminded Labor not to depend on staying in poll heaven. Asked whether an opposition could win simply by opposing, he said: “If you were to have an election now [the government] could be beaten. That is on the evidence of the polls.
"But that I think will not last, the polls will change somewhat. You can’t expect, nor should you expect [the public] 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 adaption to changing circumstances. You will not just get into government by sheer opposition unless the government is going really badly.”
Listen to the newest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with guest Julie Bishop, here.