One of the persistent themes from the government in question time lately as it tries — futilely — to explain its budget is what wonderful governments Bob Hawke and Paul Keating led in comparison to the modern Labor Party. This has been going on for several weeks and continued this week, with the Prime Minister saying in Monday’s question time: “Once upon at a time, we had serious people in the Labor Party. When the Labor Party was led by people like Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, they had some serious answers for our country. They were prepared to take some tough decisions to reform our nation and to help set up the prosperity of the future.”

How times change. Unsurprisingly, the Hawke and Keating governments were attacked constantly by the then-opposition — that’s what oppositions do, after all. Moreover, far from that era being some sort of nirvana of bipartisan reformism it’s often portrayed as, in which a responsible opposition supported reforms that were in the national interest, the Hawke and Keating governments were often attacked for pursuing reforms the Coalition now claims to support. For example, John Howard famously wanted to “gut Medicare”, and the Coalition tried to block the introduction of compulsory superannuation in 1992.

But Hawke and Keating were subject to more than the normal rough and tumble of policy debate. As it did with Kevin Rudd over the confected Godwin Grech allegations and Julia Gillard over the decades-old AWU matter, the Coalition claimed both men were corrupt.

In September 1984, Andrew Peacock accused Hawke of corruption.“I see that the little crook is running,” Peacock said as Hawke walked out of the chamber. “He is a crook, and he knows it. He is a crook, and he is running from the Parliament. He is running away from the enforcement of the law … This little crook is slowly being judged for what he is, a perverter of the law of this country and one who associates with criminals and takes his orders from those who direct those criminals.”

After Hawke complained, Peacock said “he is a big crook in a little frame”.

As for Keating, the Coalition’s pursuit of what is insisted was some corrupt dealing in relation to his piggery business is well known. But Keating was a constant target for allegations of corruption. Liberal senator Michael Baume claimed Keating had his “snout in the trough”; Keating was only able to pay for his house in Woollahra in Sydney because of his corrupt connections, the Coalition insinuated, including one senator who is now a senior member of the Coalition leadership team. In particular, former Liberal MP and party president Tony Staley threw himself into a campaign of vilification against Keating, which Alan Ramsey dissected. And while Hawke’s serial infidelities were so widely known as to be barely worth mentioning, Keating was the subject of a constant whispering campaign from the Right about alleged affairs with both men and a variety of women, including a claim that he’d been seen in Paris with a good-looking young man — who turned out to be his son.

Now the Liberals stand up these days and talk about what fantastic politicians Hawke and Keating were. Give us a break.