Nancy Pelosi is back. Back throwing her weight around. Back in charge.
As the newly-elected Speaker of the US House of Representatives – arguably the most powerful position after the president – the top-ranking Democrat is suddenly the closest thing America has to an incumbent “opposition leader”.
Not before time. Last week, after Pelosi forced President Donald Trump into a humiliating retreat from his partial government shutdown, a former administration official texted Axios reporter Jonathan Swan with the words: “Trump looks pathetic… he just ceded his presidency to Nancy Pelosi”.
For astonished Australians, the mercurial Trump’s adolescent theatrics merely underscore the value of our Westminster parliamentary tradition.
This is the “oppositional” system in which an alternative prime minister, with a fully-formed shadow ministry, is not only appointed in plain view, but also goes about releasing detailed alternative policy. All while holding the government to account.
However, comparisons to the US are not always so kind. Pelosi’s late-career revival at the age of 78 highlights a cultural point of difference somewhat less flattering to Australia.
It’s a difference that hints at a corrosive ageism in Australian public life that is so normal it goes unremarked — a tendency to over-value the new and reward hyper-ambitious individuals while squandering the wisdom amassed through years in service.
It is a mentality that:
short-changes the electorate by failing to extract full value from its investment in seasoned representatives
elevates MPs before they are ready and discards them when they are
works disproportionately against women, by making the early to mid-career years — during which women typically require time away for childbirth — the crucial ones.
Is it merely coincidence that the two most successful women in recent Australian leadership on each side, Julia Gillard and Julie Bishop, did not weather such career absences? Or that some of the bigger names on the rung immediately below them did not either — think Penny Wong, Michaelia Cash, and going back further, Amanda Vanstone?
Remember the Howard and Costello years?
This unspoken antipathy to experience is not new. Nearly 20 years ago, John Howard purchased an internal truce by flagging his voluntary retirement as early as 63. Sure, it was designed to hold off the rising Peter Costello, but the deal flew because it rang true. Of course the PM would hand over in his mid-60s. Who would credibly seek high office beyond that?
Howard told the ABC in July 2000:
I have said before that if the party wants me to lead it to another election, which will be at the end of next year, I am happy to do so. After that obviously one has to recognise, I’ll then be in my 63rd or 64th year, and you start to ask yourself and that’s fair enough. And nothing is forever.
How odd this seems in light of Pelosi’s game-changing return. Still active in the Liberal Party, Howard is only fractionally older than the American.
How about Paul Keating?
Labor’s Paul Keating, the man Howard succeeded in 1996, is younger than both of them. At 75, this former PM is still a force in business and public policy discussions, despite being officially retired from politics for nearly 23 years.
Yet when Trump lines up for his second term late next year, he’ll be just a year shy of what Keating is now.
His Democratic opponent could conceivably be older.
Among the bigger names frequently mentioned are Hillary Rodham Clinton, who would be 73 at election time – an entry age all but unimaginable in Australian politics.
Another is the former vice president, Joe Biden, who will be 78 in November 2020.
Or the Democrats could turn to the man Clinton bested in the last primaries, Bernie Sanders, knocking on the door of 80 come his inauguration.
Even the new kid on the Democratic left, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, will be 71 by polling day.
Then there’s the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn
It’s not just in the US that age presents no automatic barrier to high office.
British Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is mysteriously popular with the party’s younger membership despite his flaccid opposition to Brexit. Odds on to be the next British PM, Corbyn is already 69 and will be seeking to commence his prime ministership (if the beleaguered May government runs to full term), the same month he turns 73.
Again, these numbers simply don’t scan in the Australian context – a country where premiers, prime ministers, and their mandarins are routinely hurried into a post-public twilight between 50 and 60. And where High Court Justices have to retire at 70, regardless of their legal mastery.
Of course, the causes and circumstances of individual retirements are unique. But taken together, we see the outlines of a particularly Australian perspective on age and authority.
How about pollies who ‘retire’ early?
These outlines get even sharper if we consider the early departure of some of the leading lights in Australia in recent times - names that had been pencilled in as future leaders.
It is a long list, but among them is the former attorney-general Nicola Roxon, who upped stumps on a stellar career at just 46.
Craig Emerson is another leading Labor light who still looks young having pulled the pin on a senior ministerial career at 59.
And of course, there’s Gillard who rose to the very top but was gone at 52.
Read more: The political tragedy of Julia Gillard
Only last week there were calls for the return of Peter Costello with some dubbing the country’s longest serving treasurer, “the best prime minister we never had”.
Costello left Canberra shortly after the 2007 loss to Kevin Rudd’s Labor, and is still just 61.
Yet in Australia at least, that’s old. Indeed, the Liberal former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett used the recent resignation of Kelly O’Dwyer (at just 41) to call on MPs of Costello’s vintage to make way for new talent.
Among those he identified were Kevin Andrews and Julie Bishop. The two Liberals have little in common besides being fitter than most younger MPs due to daily cycling and running.
But at 63 and 62 respectively, they would be young leaders in some countries.
Read more: Volatility, thy name is Trump
Pelosi is not infallible but she is vastly experienced, and it has already paid big dividends. As a counterpoint to a vainglorious and dangerously naive president, her election serves an obvious national interest.
At 78, she is just getting started (again). Make that 79 in March.
Authors: Mark Kenny, Senior Fellow, Australian Studies Institute, Australian National University