What do former Prime Ministers do with themselves?

Julia Gillard’s long essay in The Guardian has raised the question in my mind of what she will do now. And that then made me wonder what Kevin Rudd would do. Yes, I know that he is likely to be a backbench Labor MP, but my guess is that he will leave Parliament as soon as he can find a suitable post, perhaps overseas in some UN satrapy, which I keep hearing to be his principal interest.

At least neither will be destitute. Both are long-serving MPs who have acted as Prime Minister, and for such people the rules are straightforward. Their maximum pension is calculated at 75 per cent of the salary payable to the highest office the person has held. The current salary for the Prime Minister is a bit less than $500,000, but there was a catch in the legislation that went through Parliament after our representatives all got big pay increases last year, a provision that prevents anyone getting a superannuation windfall gain. I understand that the pension will actually be an indexed $200,000 or so, which will keep both former PMs off the streets.

That’s not all. We don’t honour former Prime Ministers in the fashion the Americans honour their former Presidents, but each will get a fully maintained and staffed office, a Commonwealth car and driver on call, and free air travel in the forward cabin. Mr Abbott has promised to look at these entitlements, but what usually happens if there is a change is that the benefits to those already receiving them are unaltered — only future recipients are affected.

So, Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd are well set up to pause and reflect and then… do what? The obvious task is a book setting out each leader’s version of the events, which reminds me instantly of an equivalent pair of apologias by Gough Whitlam and John Kerr. If this is the case, then the one who publishes second has a certain advantage, unless the first plans a second edition to correct all the errors in the opponent’s book.

Julia Gillard says in her Guardian piece that she has no intention of taking part in Labor’s revival. As I read it, what is in that essay is all she intends to say about Labor’s future, and it’s not especially rivetting stuff. Kevin Rudd has said nothing since his concession speech, and he too said in it that the task of rebuilding was not for him. He will be 56 in a few  days’ time, while she will be 52 at the end of the month. Plainly, there is the possibility of another life before each.

Kevin Rudd likes the world stage, has diplomatic experience, has Mandarin as another language and has a wide network. It is plain that if a suitable offer came up in the UN or another international agency he would at least be tempted. Australia will be an awkward place for him, with both the new Government and the Opposition uninterested in how he could help, even though he does come from Queensland.

Julia Gillard might also have an interest in an international post, especially in the area of education, where she does have both experience and some runs on the board (though not as many, in my view, as she claims in her Guardian piece). A former lawyer, she could be translated onto the bench, but obviously not in the Commonwealth jurisdiction. A former Prime Minister serving as a judge does look a bit of a comedown. Barton did it in 1903, but that was when the High Court was established, so he was a founding Justice, if not the first Chief Justice.

Both could seek a career in the not-for-profit sector, which has the advantage that you occupy some moral high ground, and have almost automatic access to everyone. What did their predecessors do? John Howard was old enough simply to retire, and seems to me to have done so with dignity. Paul Keating, like Julia Gillard, was 52 when he ceased to be Prime Minister, stayed in Parliament another three years, and then retired, and emerges every now and then to make oracular and usually caustic remarks.

Bob Hawke left Parliament shortly after he was displaced as PM, dabbled in business, acted as a sort of consultant, and arrives to cast his magic spell over Labor meetings. Malcolm Fraser had a grazing property to go to, but left that to do some overseas former-national-leader stuff, and emerges every now and again to denounce the Liberal Party.

Gough Whitlam was an Ambassador to UNESCO, and did that well; he enjoyed moving in the world of arts and culture. Billy McMahon just retired, as did John Gorton. Harold Holt died while in office, and Sir Robert Menzies went to the UK to be the Warden of the Cinque Ports. Chifley and Curtin both died while MPs. Further back than that I can’t usefully go, though I did see both Curtin and Chifley when I lived in Canberra as a boy.

It’s not much to go on. Retirement at 65 has really gone today, so there is an expectation that Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd will need to find something to do. They may yet surprise us.

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  • Fay Thomson says:

    Adding here that both Curtin and Chifley had heart conditions, their deaths hastened by addiction to nicotine.
    The child I admired Chifley so, the pipe contributing to the father- figure and the soundness of his decisions so I thought then.. How the tobacco and the pipe-making industry must have loved this free advertising!
    Idea for a submission to Art Toppling Tobacco would be to on photograph of Chifley and/or other political figures, delete the pipe and replace it with other object.
    Scholars note that there is a spelling mistake in the title of one of the submissions for 2013. For fun, the artist and I decided to leave it. We hope many spot the mistake.
    Note too that there are often mistakes in grammar and spelling in the About the Art section- I leave it as it is part of the artist’s charm and because Art Toppling Tobacco is not about being good spellers- it’s about doing damage to the tobacco industry. Fay

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