27/10/2015 5:38 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

There Have Been Only Two First-Class Prime Ministers. The Rest Have Been Average Or Worse

Don Arnold via Getty Images
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 25: Bob Hawke talks with John Howard as they attend a state memorial service for the late Hazel Hawke, ex-wife of former Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke at the Sydney Opera House on June 25, 2013 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Don Arnold/WireImage)

I started the habit of writing my observations of politics soon after I was first preselected for the seat of Flinders on the Victorian Morning Peninsula in 1982.

By the time I had left politics in 2001 I had over 120 books full of my thoughts, cartoons, policy discussions and anything that took my fancy.

Looking back now, whilst there has been a lot of change, there is plenty of evidence that a lot of things have not changed. There have been only two first-class Prime Ministers: Hawke and Howard. The rest have been average or worse.

The majority of politicians are good people and genuinely want to do good things for our country. But like everyone else they are not perfect. The truth is that there are lots of mistakes in politics. But the mistakes or poor decisions are not all they seem.

In a democracy, decisions have to provide for different opinions. Sometimes that is not practical but in other cases there has to be a little bit of give and take. Needless to say there are also the occasional first-class decisions and these are the ones that often determine the fate of governments.

The pace of modern politics has gone up a notch or two, especially since the advent of the internet, mobile phones, faxes and 24/7 television news channels. The result is that the public are better informed and quicker than ever to express their own opinion on the issue of the day.

A good example was Tony Abbott's announcement that he would introduce knights and dames. That story went round like a raging bush fire. Whilst the fire was eventually controlled, six months later some cinders were probably still burning and gave some MPs some small part of their reasoning to vote Abbott out of office.

One of the big debates in Australia today is why our political system has failed to deliver the better economic performance it expects. The doubters are convinced that the political system is broken. However, they don't propose any significant reform. In that sense, they could just as easily accept the view of Winston Churchill that democracy is the worst system ever but no one has thought of a better one.

There are some good reasons for wondering if recent changes to the process of decision making has become too difficult to be able to confront the economic necessity of economic reform.

The backdrop to the debate is the success of the Labor government under Bob Hawke and then the John Howard government from 1996 to 2007. What many forget is that the Hawke years were a response to the dramatic failures of the previous Labor government under Gough Whitlam.

Whitlam went on a spending spree and only started to rein in the excesses in the Whitlam government's last budget. The consequence of fiscal failures of the three years of Whitlam gave Hawke the determination to avoid losing government by following Whitlam's disastrous example.

Howard was even better. He had been Treasurer, the economy had been through the recession induced by Hawke and Keating and unemployment had reached the worse level since the Great Recession. And Howard was committed to reform, especially the labour market and tax reform.

Howard and Hawke were just as good at politics as they were at mainstream economics. The constant scrutiny of new technology may have played some part but finding the right person as Prime Minister and sufficient numbers of quality senior ministers still remains an essential element on the pathway to good government.


Peter Reith was a minister in the Howard government. He currently writes a column for the Sydney Morning Herald and appears regularly on Sky News. His book, The Reith Papers (MUP) is published this week.

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