There’s no evidence in this morning’s papers of a big celebration, but John Howard, Australia’s second-longest-serving prime minister, turned 70 yesterday. Whatever one wishes for the man, Howard’s departure from public life and public consciousness has been remarkably complete.

Howard was already perceived as “old” when he regained the Liberal leadership back in 1995, at the age of 55. Later he promised to consider retirement “when I’m 64”, but in fact he stayed on until his career was terminated by the electorate in 2007, aged 68.

Yet the idea that a person is too old for political leadership at 70 is relatively recent, and is still unknown in many parts of the world. Winston Churchill was still wartime prime minister at 70, and Gladstone and Palmerston were still prime minister at 80. More recently, Ronald Reagan was seen as a very successful president well into his 70s.

Nor has our reduced tolerance for older politicians been matched by any great enthusiasm for youth. Coincidentally, the Rudd government today has raised the issue of extending the franchise to 16-year-olds, but its support for the idea seems lukewarm at best, and predictable opposition from the Coalition means that such an obvious and overdue reform is unlikely to happen for some years.

Just last week a Conservative by-election win gave Britain its youngest MP, Chloe Smith, who is already 27. Yet Charles Fox, the eighteenth century liberal leader, entered parliament at 19, while his great rival, William Pitt, was chancellor of the exchequer at 23.

Diversity in one dimension often comes at the price of homogeneity in another. The parliament in which Fox and Pitt sat covered a wide age range, but a very narrow social range. Yet we seem to be going backwards in that respect as well; our politicians are increasingly drawn from the same apparatchik class, with the genuine representatives of the working class that Labor once provided now in short supply.

Our parliaments do have greater ethnic and gender diversity than ever before (although still well short of being representative of the population at large). But they otherwise present an almost uniform appearance of middle age, middle class and middling abilities. The handful of older members, such as the 74-year-old Wilson Tuckey, are clearly there only because they have doggedly resisted all efforts to remove them, rather than through any widespread recognition of their talents.

We do not have to regret the departure of John Howard, but we should regret the fact that Australian politics is not drawing from as wide a talent pool as it might.