In this election year, it’s clear that history is not bunk. Last week, a Galaxy Research poll found that the former Liberal Party leader, John Howard, is regarded as the best Australian prime minister in the past 25 years.

Howard, on 35 per cent, finished ahead of Kevin Rudd (16 per cent), Bob Hawke (15 per cent), Paul Keating (9 per cent) and Julia Gillard (5 per cent) with one-fifth of those polled uncommitted.

Hawke was more popular than Rudd among Labor voters and Gillard and Keating the least unpopular among Coalition supporters.

It’s too early to judge Gillard’s time as prime minister. That can only properly occur after she is no longer in the Lodge. It’s probably appropriate to assess Rudd’s time in the top political job – since it is unlikely, albeit not impossible, that he will become prime minister again.

However, it is clear that Howard’s stocks have risen since the Coalition lost the November 2007 election and he was defeated by Maxine McKew in his seat of Bennelong

The Galaxy polling reflects the assessment of political strategies. Howard will be an asset to Tony Abbott in this year’s campaign just as Hawke assisted Labor in 2010.

For obvious reasons, Kevin Rudd cannot be used as a prop for Julia Gillard and Keating’s appeal is to committed Labor and Greens voters who, by definition, are not likely to change their allegiances.

There has been a lively debate in the pages of The Australian Jewish News about Robert Menzies – who was United Australia Party prime minister between mid-1939 and mid-1941 and Liberal Party prime minister between December 1949 and January 1966. The Labor frontbencher, Mike Kelly, has chosen this paper to launch an attack on Menzies’ attitude to appeasement, Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s.

Kelly’s tactic is clear. He is attempting to appeal to Jewish Australians who have expressed concern that, against Gillard’s initial wishes, Australia decided to abstain on the United Nations vote that the Palestinian Authority should be given observer status – rather than join the Obama administration in a ”no” vote.

The Kelly line has been disputed, in a joint article, by the Liberal MP, Josh Frydenberg, and a former Howard government minister, David Kemp. Moreover, the Liberal Party deputy leader, Julie Bishop, has contributed a separate piece defending the Coalition’s approach to Israel over the past six decades.

Kelly correctly points out that the UAP government in the late 1930s, led by Joseph Lyons, was into appeasement. It’s just that Labor should not cast the first stone in this debate. At the time Labor, under John Curtin’s leadership, was also heavily into appeasement. This was a bipartisan policy at the time of the Munich agreement and immediately after.

The only Australian politician who was a vehement opponent of appeasement at the time was Billy Hughes, who had split with Labor during the First World War and who had a difficult relationship with the UAP.

World War II commenced after the signing of what is best termed the Hitler-Stalin Pact under which Germany and the Soviet Union divided Eastern Europe. The Communist Party of Australia, at the instruction of Moscow, supported the Nazi-Soviet Pact and there were communists active in both the ALP and the trade union movement with which it was aligned.

Needless to say, this inconvenient truth is not mentioned in Kelly’s article. Nor does he refer to the fact that when Britain declared war on Germany in August 1939, Australia also declared war. In time, the Menzies government committed troops to war against Germany – a move which was opposed by Curtin, due to pressure from isolationists within Labor’s ranks.

The current focus on Howard, Hawke and Menzies serves as a reminder that they are Australia’s most successful politicians.

Menzies won seven elections while Hawke and Howard won four each. Australian voters tend to be good judges. There is a strong case for listing Menzies, Hawke and Howard as Australia’s best prime ministers, while recognising that Paul Keating and Peter Costello played key roles in the Hawke and Howard governments respectively.

Australia’s relative prosperity today is largely due to the economic reform process commenced under the political leadership of Hawke/Keating and continued by Howard/Costello. During this time, Australia retained good relations with its traditional allies (United States and Britain) and friends (Japan) while building contacts with China.

Menzies was not an economic reformer.

In any event, the Australian economy was strong throughout most of the 1950s and 1960s. The Liberal founder’s economic strength turned on his rejection of nationalisation of private enterprise and cradle-to-grave welfare. Also, Menzies was on the correct side of the Cold War between communism and democracy – and he ended up taking the courageous and correct stance in 1939.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute