Former prime minister Tony Abbott was widely criticised for suggesting the late Bob Hawke had a “Liberal head” but his mentor, John Howard, has jumped to his defence saying the remark was “unexceptionable”.
Mr Abbott paid tribute to Mr Hawke as Labor’s greatest prime minister but claimed his key economic reforms “went against the Labor grain”.
“You might almost say he had a Labor heart, but a Liberal head,” Mr Abbott said in a statement, attracting thousands of furious responses on social media.
The ex-PM was variously accused of having a pea for a heart and using Mr Hawke’s death for his own political gain on the eve of the federal election.
Mr Abbott was also attacked for “reinventing” history by claiming the coalition supported nearly all of the Hawke government’s major reforms, helping to make his tenure “a time of economic revitalisation”.
But Mr Howard said he found Mr Abbott’s comments “completely unexceptionable”.
“It seems as if there is a cohort of people in the Australian community at the moment – probably not friends of the Liberal Party – who just want to seize on anything that Tony Abbott says and criticise it irrespective of the merit and the substance involved,” Mr Howard told reporters on Friday.
“I don’t know why – that sounds like outrage for the sake of outrage to me.”
Labor leader Bill Shorten said it was apparent Mr Abbott – who’s fighting to hold his seat of Warringah in Saturday’s election – was “a man under pressure”.
“Bob Hawke had a Labor head and a Labor heart,” he said on Friday.
Mr Abbott briefly discussed the furore on Sydney radio with shock jock Alan Jones.
“Bob Hawke had a remarkable ability to reach across party lines,” Mr Abbott said.
“A lot of the things that he did in the early ’80s were things which many people felt might have been done by the Fraser government.”
He later gave a brief doorstop to media where he was asked repeatedly about his statement on Mr Hawke.
Mr Abbott replied six times with a version of: “He was the best Labor prime minister ever.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, when asked about Mr Abbott’s statement, said he hoped no one was trying to be partisan in the wake of Mr Hawke’s death.
“I think it was more about the broad spectrum of views he (Hawke) was able to embrace and how all Australians, from either the Liberal or Labor side, were able to appreciate what he was about,” he said.
Kristina Keneally, a former NSW Labor premier and now senator for NSW, said Mr Abbott was “wrong on the facts and so wrong in his sentiment”.
“The Liberals opposed Bob Hawke on Medicare, compulsory superannuation, the Accord (and) tax reforms. In short, the Liberals opposed the Hawke-Keating reforms,” she posted on Twitter.