It has not been widely noted that with the demise of Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister, the short period of baby boomer prime ministers which began in 2007 has come to an end. The 2019 election will be fought out between two Generations Xers in the shape of Scott Morrison (born 1968) and Bill Shorten (born 1967).
The baby boomers have been touted as the most important post World War II generation and yet their representatives held the most important political office in the land for such a short period of time. Moreover, none of the baby boomer prime ministers, Kevin Rudd (born 1957), Julia Gillard (born 1961), Tony Abbott (born 1957) and Malcolm Turnbull (born 1954) managed to serve a full term in office. Was this just a coincidence?
The contrast is striking when the comparison is made with the four prime ministers who preceded them. They were in office from 1975 to 2007, some thirty two years. They were all born either during the Depression, Bob Hawke in 1929 and Malcolm Fraser in 1930, or during World War II, John Howard in 1939 and Paul Keating in 1944. Is there a reason why Australia enjoyed thirty two years of relative political stability under one generation followed by eleven years of political instability under the next?
The reason cannot be economic because there were many hard economic times from 1975 to 2007 and yet political stability was largely unaffected. The relatively good economic times since 2007 have been marked by seemingly endless political coups.
The answer may be related to character and to the experience of growing up as a baby boomer. The Stoic philosophers of the ancient world, such as Seneca, understood that prosperity was a much greater test of character than adversity. Seneca stated that ‘it is less difficult to bear misfortune than to remain uncorrupted by pleasure.’ It is interesting that Stoicism currently appears to be making something of a comeback, especially amongst Millennials.
Malcolm Fraser is renowned for having said that ‘life isn’t meant to be easy’ and so it was that Fraser’s generation were schooled in a philosophy where one did not seek the easy way out. They were educated to have a strong sense of public duty. This is equally true of Hawke and Keating who demonstrated their capacity to respond to the various crises of the 1980s.
Baby boomers grew up and were educated in that most pleasant of times, the 1960s and early 1970s. Moreover, they were the first generation to experience the new liberal, and less demanding, practices that have come to mark Australian education. In New South Wales the old leaving certificate, a gift from Scotland and embodying genuine academic rigour, was replaced by the less demanding higher school certificate.
The baby boomers, and that includes Rudd, were the children of prosperous times and of a relatively easy passage from university to career to politics. Both Abbott and Turnbull were Rhodes scholars; Rudd moved with ease from diplomat to political apparatchik. Gillard segued from being a partner in Slater and Gordon into politics. None of them entered the political arena until the worst of the economic bad times of the 1980s and 1990s were over.
It is tempting to blame the failures of these four prime ministers on their character flaws, and it is the case that all of them are flawed people. But then, we are all flawed; the way in which we respond to our flaws and, hopefully, overcome them, is by the way we respond to the circumstances we face.
Seneca is correct; adversity is helpful as it forces us to confront our flaws and deal with them. Certainly, this appears to have been the case with John Howard whose success owed a great debt to his earlier political adversity.
This may be the problem with the baby boomer generation of prime ministers. They were the children of prosperity and their careers did not provide them with sufficient adversity to allow them to confront and overcome their flaws. Their ride to the top was too easy.
These four prime ministers all had a high opinion of their capacities. They all entered into high office without ever having really been tested by harsh circumstances. Maybe this is the reason why, when the demands of office tested them, they were unable to rise to the challenge.
It may also explain why Australia as a nation rallied so magnificently to the economic challenges of the 1980s while failing the test of prosperity of the early twenty first century.
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