John Howard says he didn’t have anything to “excite” him on the scale of current allegations when choosing his first ministry.
It’s 25 years since Mr Howard won the 1996 election, and the next three, to become Australia’s second-longest serving prime minister after Liberal Robert Menzies.
Asked about potential ministers with “skeletons in their closet”, Mr Howard said a leader’s knowledge of his colleagues’ backgrounds was varied.
“Some you know well on a personal basis, some you don’t,” he said during an online event on Tuesday to mark the quarter century since he first became prime minister.
“There was nothing in that general area.”
Mr Howard said there were times when he and deputy prime minister John Anderson “tore their hair out” about the performance of a minister, on both sides, but didn’t sit down on a regular basis and go through the list.
“There was a natural churn,” the former Liberal leader said.
“When someone was let go I told them to their face why,” he said.
“It never works when they read about it for the first time in the newspaper.”
Mr Howard, who doesn’t believe in quotas, said his cabinet was selected not just on merit but also with an eye on the Senate, state distribution and gender balance.
He included Amanda Vanstone and Jocelyn Newman in the first ministry and upped the number of women to four or five by the time of his defeat.
He said it was “clear” that Peter Costello would be treasurer and Alexander Downer would be foreign minister, and the Nationals were “clearly entitled to a proportion” particularly the bush portfolios of agriculture, transport and trade.
Former Nationals leader Mr Anderson said the main game was still a “bigger, stronger, better Australia for all Australians”.
But he admitted “the demographics are moving against us”.
Both former leaders noted the rise of rival political voices.
“I have no doubt that what we did on guns was part of what gave rise to One Nation,” Mr Howard said.
Like Sir Robert who spoke to the “forgotten people”, Mr Howard pitched “Australian nationalism” and says that’s also part of Mr Morrison’s success.
Labor needs to adopt the playbook of the Howard government if it is to return to power, according to maverick Labor backbencher Joel Fitzgibbon at the same event.
Ditch the “institutional elitism” grounded in “intellectual and moral superiority” or keep losing, he says.
Mr Howard said his battlers wanted a prime minister who asserted “traditional Australian values” – not just the values of a “fair go” but also Australia as a “distinctive, independent country”.
Wedge politics in a two-party system was part of his success, as was a broad and diverse base of community support. The electorate’s dislike of class warfare was also to his advantage.
“Critical to achieving that broad support base is accommodating the diverse range of thoughts and attitudes held by the representatives of many very diverse electorates,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.
Labor’s “overreach on climate” and “forestry policy debacle” are also on the backbencher’s agenda of handy hints to reclaim the centre, and retain his own seat.