John Howard and Tony Abbott under a portrait of Sir Robert Menzies at Old Parliament House.
John Howard and Tony Abbott under a portrait of Sir Robert Menzies at Old Parliament House. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
It was a very Liberal Party kind of ancestor worship. Three
prime ministers, current, former and dead, all gathered in one
high-ceilinged room, cosied together like a set of Babushka dolls, the
first two expressing filial piety to the latter.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott stood next to John Howard, spry as
the Canberra spring, in front of a portrait of Robert Menzies, whose
prodigious eyebrows dwarfed the famous Howard tufts. Instead of burning
incense, they drank English breakfast tea, and instead of making
offerings, they gave weighty speeches, in Howard's case without notes.

The room, the lobby of the Old Parliament House, had perfect
feng shui but for the famous Archibald Prize-winning portrait of Paul
Keating by artist Bryan Westwood, which hung on a rear wall.

No matter. Even if Keating was looking on in elegant
contempt, this was still their day. The occasion was the opening of an
exhibition on Menzies's first prime ministership, from 1939 to 1941,
during which he had the melancholy duty to inform Australians they were
at war. Howard was guest-curator of the exhibition, and Abbott was there
to launch it.

"All of us, in our own way, are Menzies children," Abbott told the crowd, his back turned to Keating.

The metaphorical Menzies offspring nodded back at him, some
more enthusiastically than others. Arts Minister George Brandis, who
also gave a speech, once called for a book which named Menzies as one of
the world's "100 greatest tyrants" to be banned from the library of a
Mount Isa school. For a man who loves books and freedom of speech as
much as Brandis, this was not a call lightly made.

Abbott said his predecessors, Howard and Menzies, were
"giants, both, in whose extraordinary footprints I am proud to follow",
and noted both were touched by political adversity, which was a nice way
of saying they had been chucked by their colleagues before they made

The crowd dispersed and the last macarons were nibbled. The
Prime Minister wheeled back up the hill to New Parliament House. There
were national accounts to release and an imminent trip to India (Abbott
flew out on Wednesday night). In question time he revealed that the
government was considering "non-lethal" military action and humanitarian
assistance in Ukraine.

Earlier, the Prime Minister had given a speech for National
Flag Day, during which he made the startling statement that "many of us"
wish to be buried under the flag. With international affairs as they
are, who could blame him for thinking of legacy and posterity?

First, though, he needs to grow out those eyebrows.