The former leader was delivering the annual lecture of the Page Research Centre, a National party think tank, in Sydney on Thursday night, using the event to underscore the importance of preserving the Coalition.
Talking about a narrowing of the political class, Mr Howard recalled joining the Eastwood branch of the Liberal Party in the 1950’s, when it and the party were “infinitely more representative” of the local community than today.
“We must guard against either or both of our political parties becoming composed predominantly of people who are not sufficiently representative of the people in the community that we want to vote for us,” he warned.
He also queried the strength of the National Party’s base in New South Wales.
“I’m not quite so sure at the state level, I think there are challenges, particularly here in New South Wales, about the solidity of the National Party base in state elections.”
However, he paid tribute to the New South Wales Nationals for holding out against the “Joh for PM” campaign launched by then Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the lead up to the 1987 federal election.
That period, he said, “was a great strain and I never forgot it … Having got so close to permanent rupture it was something that was never going to be allowed to happen again”.
He also praised the Nationals for holding firm when he tightened gun laws in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre. Nationals leaders like John Anderson and the late Tim Fischer bore the “full brunt of the sense of frustration and disillusionment that many decent rural peole felt about the imposition of [those] laws,” he said. “It was very easy to talk gun control in the cities.”
He said the Nationals would always have a “distinctive identity and would always succeed” if the “two parties recognise the ground rules”.
The interests of coalition unity meant that as Liberal leader and Prime Minister he didn’t “apply the the laws of … arithmetic to every policy decision. There are some things that are are so important to the special constituency that the National Party represents, that the National Party must have its way on those issues”.