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Abbott laments lack of substantive figures in public life compared to Howard era
Abbott laments lack of substantive figures in public life compared to Howard era avatar

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Tony Abbott says the current generation of politicians must accept that the Howard government was far superior to them because its senior members were “in it for the country more than themselves”.

The former prime minister, who served in John Howard’s cabinet for nine years of his 11 years in power, marked the 25th anniversary of the former Coalition government’s election win with a lament about the lack of stability and substantive figures in modern-day politics.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott says the Howard government was better than the current government.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Mr Abbott, now an adviser to the British government’s Board of Trade, lasted just one year, 11 months, 28 days in office before he was ousted in 2015 by his long-term political rival Malcolm Turnbull.

“Now Scott Morrison has finally ended the political cannibalism of a dismal decade that did our polity so much damage, there is every chance that we can once again focus on what our country does well as in Howard’s time,” Mr Abbott told a University of NSW event on Tuesday to mark the occasion.

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Mr Abbott, who served as health and industrial relations minister during the Howard years, said that government was the last “truly great” government because it was effective and “made a difference”.

“The whole point of winning is to be the best possible government when you’re there,” he said.

“The next generation has to accept that the Howard government did better than us. And to work out why it succeeded better than we did so that our public life can be better from now on.”

He said the leading figures of the Howard era, including former treasurer Peter Costello and then-foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer, all had “character, convictions and courage” and a policy agenda where its senior ministers “just got on with it”.

“There were all in it for the country than more themselves. Their argument was about issues rather than identities,” Mr Abbott told the video conference.

“In my judgement, comparative success of the Howard government… and the Hawke government too… boils down to the human factor in history: there just happened to be more substantial characters in our public life in that era.”

Mr Abbott, who lost his NSW seat of Warringah in Sydney’s northern beaches to independent Zali Stegall two years ago, said among the Howard government’s greatest achievements were 10 out of 12 surplus budgets, banning automatic weapons, greater work freedoms and mutual obligation linked to welfare benefits.

“Nearly all was achieved in the teeth of fierce opposition,” he said.

But he said it also had its flaws, singling out the renewable energy target, environmental laws which ”licensed green activists”, a ban on domestic nuclear energy and a failure to tackle “anti-free speech” elements of the racial discrimination act and compulsory super that had “help to magnify political correctness in public company board rooms”.

He conceded that government was “perhaps a little” easier from 1996 to 2007 with an absence of social media and a 24-hour news cycle, but he said Mr Howard succeeded through his continued support for “the family”, “small business” and the institutions.

Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra

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