Leading article Australia

Seventy ain’t old

26 April 2014

9:00 AM

26 April 2014

9:00 AM

Age, clearly, has not withered the Rolling Stones. With the average age of the remaining four members of the ‘greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world’ being just over 70, this week’s rescheduling of their Australian tour couldn’t be more timely. Much like the Stones, Australians are on the brink of recognising that we too can still ‘cut it’ at 70. Or rather, thanks to Joe Hockey, we are going to have to start contemplating a retirement age of three score and ten.

With knee-jerk predictability, many on the political Left such as Senator Doug Cameron howled with indignation at this perceived Tory attack upon Labor’s beloved working men and women. Speaking on Sky TV’s Nation programme, Cameron was incensed at the suggestion, claiming that most fitters and turners (his previous profession) wouldn’t be physically capable of working at that age. Leaving aside the fact that Labor under Kevin Rudd had already shifted the retirement age from 65 to 67 (apparently your average fitter and turner goes into a massive physical decline somewhere between their 68th and 70th birthday), the 63-year-old senator made it quite plain that he himself won’t be retiring any time soon.

And nor should he. Throughout history, politicians have often reached their prime well into their twilight years. Many of Europe’s most influential leaders, from Konrad Adenauer, who successfully led postwar Germany until the age of 87, to Charles de Gaulle, François Mitterrand and Winston Churchill, many were well over 70 when they were governing. (Much like a good Grange, some leaders keep getting better with age, although perhaps with recent events that’s an unfortunate analogy.)

Silvio Berlusconi was likewise in his seventies when he most recently took office, although his fondness for bunga bunga parties and the like probably puts him more in the league of the Rolling Stones than other European leaders. Or take Georges Clemenceau, 76 when he became prime minister of France at the height of the first world war: he inspired and guided the French to victory. And like Churchill, Clemenceau remained young in spirit. On his 80th birthday, he was walking with a friend through the streets of Paris when a pretty girl walked past. He eyed her with great appreciation and sighed: ‘Oh, to be 70 again.’

Towering over most of his generation, age gave Ronald Reagan the wisdom and the insights to help dismantle the Soviet Union. Yet at the time he was roundly criticised and derided by his opponents for being 73 when he ran for a second term. In classic Gipper fashion he cleverly turned the perceived negative into a positive, joking during the 1984 presidential debate about his 56-year-old Democrat rival Walter Mondale’s ‘youth and inexperience’. Hillary Clinton, should she run for and win the presidency in 2016, will turn 70 during her first year in the Oval Office, as did Reagan, while India’s most successful prime minister for many years, Manmohan Singh, is a sprightly 81.

Generally speaking, the elderly make better political leaders than the youngish. Think of John Howard, Robert Menzies and the aforementioned examples — and then think of Mark Latham, John Brogden and Natasha Stott Despoja. (Hitler, incidentally, was only 44 when he came to power in Germany, but he is better left out of this.) Where youth may offer innovation, risk-taking and cutting-edge thinking, age offers wisdom, experience and the benefit of knowing how well (or how badly) a chosen path is likely to turn out. Sensibly, as opposition leader Tony Abbott took on the road during the 2013 election former Howard minister Philip Ruddock (71 at the time) as his closest confidante. With Mr Abbott now ensconced in government and Mr Ruddock his chief whip, clearly the decision was a wise one. Bronwyn Bishop, also 71, is more on fire as Speaker than many of those half her age would be.

It was particularly pleasing to note that the newly installed NSW Premier, the youthful Mike Baird, 46, recognised the need for ‘a mixture of experience and youth’ in his new cabinet, with the veteran state MP Jillian Skinner, who turns 70 this year, retaining her Health portfolio. And as the population ages, older political leaders have the added advantage of being more representative.

Bob Carr, whose recent reflections on life on the road as a jet-setting foreign minister are often hard to distinguish from ‘Keef’ Richards’s own memoirs of being a self-indulgent prima donna rock star, disgracefully threw in the towel at only 66 despite pledging to serve a full term. Those, on the other hand, who do the hard yards and put in the extra years of service with energy, passion and vigour are deserving of our special praise. As the Stones would say, time is on their side.

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  • Greg_Holyman

    “Hitler, incidentally, was only 44 when he came to power in Germany, but he is better left out of this.” Whoops, someone left this in the article.