“No side of Australian politics has a monopoly on either virtue or merit. Each according to its own value system has attempted to improve the lot of Australians.”

That was John Howard. John Howard has a decidedly mixed record in Australian public life, but can you imagine Kevin Rudd saying something as faintly objective or generous?

There are three men truly entitled to reflect on responsibility for Australia’s economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s: Hawke, Keating and Howard. Only those men can say what went on in Cabinet and shadow Cabinet, who argued for what, and how successfully, throughout the years of major reforms that started in 1983. More to the point, only those men have earned the right, as drivers of reform, to offer their views on who can claim credit.

Kevin Rudd may possibly have been mischief-making with his comments at the launch of Paul Kelly’s book (The March of the Obvious) this week, knowing full well current and former opponents would bite. But Rudd has been Prime Minister less than two years. And while his Government’s performance in responding to the global economic crisis has been of the highest quality — mostly because of the work of Treasury and the Reserve Bank — Rudd hardly promises to be the most reformist of Prime Ministers.

Rudd’s emphasis on productivity, education and training is important. But in other crucial areas, such as protectionism and emissions trading, he has greatly disappointed. The profound caution that is a hallmark of the Rudd Government was rarely found in any of the Hawke, Keating or Howard Governments. Often to their reformist credit.

When Mr Rudd has shown a willingness to pursue major, and unpopular, reforms, then he can join in this debate. Until then, he should be carrying the drinks.