The year was 1989. The caucus meeting in Canberra was dragging on. An interruption to the proceedings was welcome.
Steve Dubois, the mild-mannered but dedicated member for St George, entered and called out: “There is some good news. Malcolm Fraser has just gone down in the ballot in Kuala Lumpur.”
A round of applause broke out.
As Labor veteran and gifted raconteur Fred Daly quipped later: “Stephen, it was the only time that I have ever been pleased by the defeat of an endorsed Labor candidate.”
Fraser, of course, was running for the position of secretary-general of the Commonwealth. The former Liberal prime minister of more than passing notoriety for the Dismissal in November 1975 was a candidate with the blessing and backing of then Labor prime minister Bob Hawke.
Hawke was right to push Fraser’s candidacy, as Fraser would have been an effective secretary-general and on the major issues of the day, such as apartheid in South Africa, he was on the side of the angels. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher saw the Fraser candidacy very differently and very negatively, perhaps for the same reasons outlined above.
This raises the question: How should Australia productively harness the talents of its former prime ministers, especially those who have the serious qualities of a Hawke or Paul Keating or John Howard?
Some lessons can be learned from abroad, especially from the US and Britain. However, Australia would do well to draw on our own democratic experience in history in building a framework by which former prime ministers may forgo exile in New York, sniping in memoirs or loitering with intent in the corridors of Parliament House.
The Brits historically have embraced the House of Lords as a suitable retirement platform for former prime ministers. Some, such as Harold Macmillan, have been very distinguished contributors to Britain’s parliament from the upper house. But Australians lack the luxury of a Lords, so we must create an infrastructure that affords our former prime ministers a platform for continuing contribution. No one could doubt the capacity of a Hawke or Keating or Howard to continue to have a persuasive impact on our public discourse and to bring the experiences and insights of their service to ongoing debates.
So why not draw on the great American example of their presidential libraries to create Australian equivalents? Presidential libraries not only offer former presidents the chance to shape public debate for the future, they also afford invaluable opportunities for scholars, politicians, media and the public to witness the manner in which various administrations performed, from the time of Rutherford B. Hayes to Barack Obama. The best of the libraries, such as that of Harry S. Truman in Independence, Missouri, re-creates the politics of the US of the time. The John F. Kennedy library in Boston makes real the spirit of Camelot. The Ronald Reagan library in Simi Valley, California, showcases Reagan’s unflagging optimism by virtue of his wonderful sense of humour.
An Australian system of prime ministerial libraries, supported by public subscription and private donation and attached to sympathetic universities, would offer our former leaders a platform for continuing engagement in the democratic process. As it stands, our former prime ministers have staff and entitlement but no real structure for making a contribution after they hand over the keys to the Lodge. This should change.
In earlier times it was customary to send former Australian prime ministers as high commissioners to London. This was true on both sides of the aisle, from Andrew Fisher to Stanley Melbourne Bruce. While London is no longer our most important diplomatic bridgehead, former Australian prime ministers could serve well in Washington, Tokyo, Jakarta or Beijing. New Delhi, Berlin and Paris also are deserving of former prime ministerial rank. Tony Abbott should be serving in Tokyo; Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would welcome his appointment and Abbott has a great affection for the Japanese. This would be a sensible use of Abbott’s talents rather than permitting him to continue his role as the ghost of putsches past.
One simple step we might follow is to continue to address our retired leaders as “prime minister”. They have earned the title and it is reasonable for them to continue to be characterised this way. Americans have no problem with former presidents being so addressed. The Americans lack royalty outside Hollywood so they have always elevated the titles of those democratically elected. So should we.
One healthy by-product of the serving president engaging his predecessors in important work is the emergence of a very real bipartisanship. The best example of this is the relationship that grew between George HW Bush and Bill Clinton, especially in efforts to support and co-ordinate disaster relief. Indeed, so close did the two become that the late Barbara Bush said in an interview that she thought Clinton saw her husband as a father figure.
Now this does not always work, as we have seen in Bali recently. On one famous occasion president Reagan sent three former presidents, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and Richard M. Nixon, to Cairo for the 1981 funeral of assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. This prompted the acerbic but wickedly funny Republican senator Bob Dole to look at the Oval Office photo and observe: “There we have it. Hear no Evil (Reagan), see no Evil (Carter), speak no Evil (Ford) and Evil (Nixon).”
The point is, overall, the US derives much better value from its former presidents than we do from our former prime ministers. Currently, once the keys to Kirribilli House are in a new pocket, then a renowned public role for the former leaders largely comes to an end.
This is not to say that some former leaders are not purposefully engaged. Howard is still immersed in the political process and offers a respected voice. Keating sometimes has as many visitors from the NSW Berejiklian cabinet seeking his advice as he does Labor colleagues.
There is not so great a surplus of talent in public life that the capacities for former prime ministers should be ignored and wasted. It is beyond time that Australia looked at a sensible system that encourages continuing engagement of former leaders.