The ousted PM’s Quadrant essays brought immediate howls from many pundits, especially on the left, who accuse him of white-anting his successor. It seems, if taken at their word, the Coalition’s detractors are more mindful of party loyalty than party members themselves
For the second issue in a row Tony Abbott is one of our principal contributors. I hope that we will persuade him to write for us on a frequent basis. As a former journalist he writes well, and as a former prime minister he writes knowledgeably and with authority. Almost all our readers seem to have been pleased to find him in Quadrant’s pages. And there must have been something newsworthy in his first article because it was republished elsewhere and widely discussed in commentaries.
But not everyone was pleased to read what he wrote or even to see other people reading it. His political opponents on both sides of the aisle were critical, of course. It is the job of political opponents to oppose even when they privately agree with what a public figure writes or especially when they are delighted with the damage it inflicts on their opponents. Columnists too have to make a show of including a few criticisms in even the most oleaginous puff piece for credibility’s sake. So far, so conventional.
What was interesting was the tone and implications of, in particular, Abbott’s media critics. They seemed at times to deplore that a former prime minister should sink so low as to write for the media (though they generally gave Quadrant a free pass). They also regretted that he was aggressively violating the unwritten rules of party loyalty by defending his own record against the presumed interests of his successor. These responses throw a glaring new light on media attitudes: who knew we were even more enthusiastic for party loyalty than members of Abbott’s own party?
One explanation is that many of the journalists were not so much defending party loyalty as displaying it because they belong informally to the large amorphous sprawling soft-Left progressive party that permeates almost all official parties. They were therefore anxious to protect its conquest of the Liberal Party by their paladin, Malcolm Turnbull.
But there are other and less convoluted explanations, principally that we haven’t learned yet how to handle former prime ministers and presidents in today’s politics (and perhaps they haven’t learned how to handle their positions either). If so, that is likely to prove a growing problem, because people become prime ministers earlier, retire or are retired earlier, live much longer active lives than before, and have a lot of political experience and energy left with no apparent outlet for it.
Some move smoothly into top international jobs at the IMF, the UN, the EU, and other high places in the post-nation of Acronymia. Kevin Rudd is currently attempting a great leap into the office of UN Secretary-General. But there are few such appointments and a marked ideological bias in awarding them disproportionately to people on the Left. That’s a wider problem and needs addressing, but more for the sake of the organisations and unbiased policy-making than for the prime ministers.
From Quadrant‘s April issue. Click here to subscribe
Other former national leaders join organisations of former national leaders such as the Madrid Club, originally founded by the former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell, to lend their expertise to solving other countries’ problems. The Madrid Club began with considerable prestige. But Parkinson’s Law soon crept in and it has expanded to include all manner of riff-raff, such as former foreign ministers, ex-assistant secretaries from global bodies, diplomats and Harvard professors. In growing it lost its exclusivity. Besides, political experience is not something that can be readily transferred to solve problems in other people’s politics.
Such bodies are now part of the international political consultancy business, doubtless doing useful work at times, but not an answer to the question of what former prime ministers can do next. For better or worse, they and we have to solve that conundrum in the context of domestic politics. One way of starting is to consider how earlier leaders here and abroad have behaved in retirement.
The classic model from the past was that a former head of government should quietly retire into dignified solitude, emerging only to assist charitable bodies like the Red Cross or to speak on behalf of his party at election time. Some former leaders hewed pretty faithfully to this model. Labour’s Clement Attlee in Britain was little heard from after he resigned the leadership of his party in the 1950s. Ronald Reagan was equally silent even before he succumbed to Alzheimers. But Reagan didn’t need to speak; after 1989 his achievements spoke for themselves.
This model of gentlemanly aloofness could only be fitfully observed in parliamentary systems like those of Britain and the Commonwealth because some former PMs remained in active politics as Leader of the Opposition, such as Robert Menzies, and others did so holding cabinet positions in later governments, such as A.J. Balfour. The less it was observed, however, the more this discreet model was admired. It is this polite hypocrisy that underpins the recent media criticisms of Tony Abbott.
A more current model assumes that if the former leader has retired from active politics, he is encouraged to engage in international diplomacy or charity work but to abstain from domestic politics on the grounds that he has had his chance and should let the other fellow have his. This model is always supported by the successor, by the party machine backing him, and by his media claque.
It is often endorsed by the former PM as well. Tony Blair, Julia Gillard, both George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, Bob Hawke and John Major all started their retirement thinking along these lines. Sometimes they were simply glad to be out of the constant limelight; sometimes they knew the voters were glad to see the back of them and that it would be unwise to test their resolve too soon; in the worst cases of power addiction, they kept hoping desperately for a crisis or change of sentiment that would allow them back into the game.
Richard Nixon and Tony Blair come into that last distinguished category. Nixon spent three decades in the wilderness meeting world leaders, offering later presidents discreet advice on global strategy, and writing memoirs, books on international politics, and letters to likely reviewers of those books, complete with minor criticisms to remove any taint of flattery, in a long campaign to cancel out Watergate. He succeeded too. At a dinner to celebrate the opening of the Nixon Center in Washington, George W. Bush, then in office, turned to him and said the words Nixon had campaigned for: “Mr. President …” The long exile was over.
Blair is as yet less fortunate. He so detested by his own party, by the Tories (except for their leaders, who adore him), and by a large section of bipartisan anti-war opinion that he has become the Flying Dutchman of British politics, doomed to wander the world on diplomatic and consultancy missions, never spending a night on the dry land of Whitehall. Yet one can see that he is straining at the bit to return as the leader of the Remain camp in the Brexit referendum campaign—a prospect that its leaders long for and fear in about equal measure. Until he can return, he will always be the man who won elections and lost policies. But his exile continues.
Few former leaders have mastered the problem of how to combine gracefully a general abstention from partisan and internal party politics with particular interventions on specific important issues. The test of success on this is whether his occasional interventions are generally welcomed. By this test John Howard is the beau ideal of the former leader. He intervenes rarely but always with reason and always with effect. Indeed, his interventions often settle the argument, as when he recently told Paul Kelly that economic reform was still an unfinished agenda. Though himself a monarchist, Howard has become a kind of unofficial president to whom everyone pays respectful attention.
That special authority is one reward that Margaret Thatcher was denied in her long, active retirement from 1990 to 2002. Especially under the Major government she came under attack by an alliance of her own party’s loyalists and a hostile commentariat for the offence of not letting her successor have his own chance. As one of her then “ghosts”, I know that she took endless pains to avoid criticising Major in formal speeches. But her caution would sometimes lapse when answering a provocative question and the issues in dispute—Bosnia, the ERM, the euro—were matters on which she felt strongly. (Not incidentally, they were matters on which she has since been shown to be correct.) Was she to subordinate the interests of the country to the disciplines of party management? Not on matters of such magnitude, she thought and said.
On the evidence of his Quadrant articles, Abbott plainly feels strongly on a range of serious issues. He is still in active politics, moreover, in the sense not of aiming to be PM again (no doubt he would accept it if asked by a constitutional authority) but of shaping Liberal, Australian, and wider world opinion on such issues. He cannot keep silent on them because they differ from current government policy. The game is too important for that. And nowhere is it written that an ex-leader must be a follower.