Former prime minister John Howard has taken time from trying to heal the Liberal Party’s growing rift between Tony Abbott’s conservatives and Malcolm Turnbull’s “sensible centrists” to give Donald Trump an interim report card.
The US President is “provocative” and unlike any other recent US leader, Mr Howard said, but still deserved to be given a chance on the strength of some – but not all – recent policy decisions.
“The style of President Trump is unusual … I accept that some of his style is provocative, but in the end it’s what he does that matters,” Mr Howard said.
On Mr Trump’s actions since assuming the presidency in January, Mr Howard rated it a mixed bag.
It was “very unwise” for Mr Trump to have openly attacked senior members of the US intelligence community and something neither Ronald Reagan nor Margaret Thatcher would even have considered, Mr Howard told his audience at a United States Studies Centre event in Sydney.
Likewise Mr Trump’s off-the-cuff talk of trade sanctions against China, which Mr Howard described as “unsettling”.
“Freer world trade should be an article of faith,” he said.
On Mr Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement, however, Mr Howard was no critic.
“He did what he was always going to do,” Mr Howard said. “I have become increasingly more of a sceptic on climate change I have to confess that. I was never a paid-up enthusiast.”
While that decision clearly rankled with Germany’s Angela Merkel and other world leaders at last weekend’s G20 summit last weekend, Mr Howard noted that Mr Trump had demonstrated a diplomatic restraint in calling on America’s NATO partners to pay more for their own defence.
‘Conservatives are welcome in Liberal Party’
Closer to home, Mr Howard insisted the party he led to three election victories is the natural home for both the classical liberal and conservative traditions.
“Let me say to people in this country who regard themselves as conservative, you are always welcome in the Liberal Party,” Mr Howard said.
“The Liberal party and the National party are the natural and most productive homes for conservatives in this country.”
His remarks come amid a war of words between Mr Turnbull and predecessor Mr Abbott about the definition of the Liberal Party and what it represents.
Mr Turnbull declared the Liberal Party was not a conservative one and was instead “the sensible centre”.
He noted Liberal founder Sir Robert Menzies “went to great pains not to call his new political party consolidating the centre right of Australian politics ‘conservative’ but rather the Liberal Party, which he firmly anchored in the centre of Australian politics”.
“The sensible centre was the place to be. It remains the place to be,” the Prime Minister told a London think-tank this week.
After a public backlash, Mr Turnbull said he had deliberately used the phrase “sensible centre” coined by Mr Abbott, and believed most Liberal Party members – including himself – embraced both the terms liberal and conservative.
“They are brought together and indeed they are shared by most of us, we share both traditions, they are not exclusive,” Mr Turnbull said.
Mr Abbott recently vowed to be a strong conservative voice, and former Liberal senator Cory Bernadi split earlier this year to set up his own Australian Conservatives party.
However, supporters were warned to stay away from “alternative conservative configurations” by Mr Howard, who said joining such groups would “end in tears”.