“All autobiographies are by their nature self-serving,” John Howard told the National Press Club today.

He’s correct, particularly when it comes to the autobiographies of political leaders.

Fairly or not, the impression left by Mr Howard’s book is of a man still anxious, after all this time, to snipe at his long-serving deputy Peter Costello. Costello has repeatedly been criticised for lacking the guts to challenge Howard, but Costello’s defence — entirely correct — is that he put his party’s interests first ahead of his own ambition, knowing a leadership challenge would have served only to undermine a successful government.

And John Howard can be accused of many things, but putting his party’s interests first has never been one of them. Not in the 1980s when he wrecked the party fighting Andrew Peacock for the leadership, through to 2007, when he refused to stand down despite common agreement in his party that he should.

There’s one thing we can gain from Lazarus Rising, however. Howard and Costello stand, at this point, as the last of a reforming generation of politicians who were responsible, along with Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, for our extended period of prosperity. If nothing else, our current generation of politicians, on both sides, should closely study even Howard’s necessarily biased account of his time in government for answers to the fundamental problem of how to successfully prosecute major economic reform.

We were spoilt, in the 1980s and 1990s and much of the 2000s, in having political leaders who knew how to deal with that problem, to solve it, indeed to turn it into a key component of their entire political personality. If Howard wants to render a final public service while he’s flogging his book, he should give his successors on both sides some tips about how to go about the basic business of reform.

Peter Fray

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