THE atmosphere wasn't quite one of affection - more like a comfortable truce - when two old sparring partners, John Howard and Bob Hawke, made a rare appearance on stage together at a Sydney fund-raiser.
The Hawke-Howard show drew more than 900 patrons from the top end of town, as Ray Martin grilled the former prime ministers, who between them led the country for nearly 20 years, on everything from the Middle East to gay marriage and the state of political leadership in Australia.
At times Tuesday's event teetered on the edge of vaudeville. Mr Hawke began one answer with: ''I don't know whether John would agree with me …'' when Mr Howard cut in with ''Just try me''. There was loud laughter when Mr Hawke responded: ''I've been trying you for a long time.''
On more serious notes, the two former leaders saw eye to eye on China, both arguing Australia could successfully balance the US alliance with the rise of Beijing, and Mr Howard strongly defending Chinese investment here.
Mr Hawke took a shot at his own side's defence policy, implicitly questioning the basis of the 2009 defence white paper by saying it was ''an absurdity'' to see China as '' hegemonistic''.
He also declared personal qualms about Labor's decision to allow the US to rotate marines through Darwin. The Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, has denied that the rotation amounts to a US base on Australia's shores, but Mr Hawke said this was just ''playing with the words''.
Asked why the two major parties' leaders were doing so badly in the polls, Mr Hawke said an absence of ''outstanding'' political leadership was a worldwide problem because of the growing intrusiveness of the media into politicians' private lives.
Mr Howard said Julia Gillard's problem lay in a lack of authority precipitated by the way she won the prime ministership, and the fact she had not won government in her own right. He said Australians would emphatically reject a hung Parliament at the next poll.
He said had Mr Abbott ''not become the leader of the party before the last election, Rudd would never have been thrown out by the Labor Party and Rudd would have won the last election with a majority in his own right''.
Mr Howard reiterated his opposition to gay marriage, drawing a jocular barb from Mr Hawke who described him as ''not a bad bloke but … a real bloody conservative''.
The former Labor leader declared strong support for gay marriage, saying homosexuality was not something people chose but it was the ''way you are''. ''If a person is that way and they want to have the rights of the institutions of our society, they should have them,'' Mr Hawke said.
Both he and Mr Howard defended Israel's right to defend itself in the present conflict in the Middle East but Mr Hawke said Israel had been ''less than responsible to its own self-interest'' with its settlements policy.
The event was a fund-raiser for Lifeline, which hoped to raise at least $200,000. Mr Howard and Mr Hawke were approached by the former state opposition leader and now chairman of Lifeline John Brogden, who was rushed to hospital in 2005 after attempting suicide. Introducing the guests, Mr Brogden said suicide was the leading cause of death among Australian men aged under 44.
At the end the ageing but still sprightly pair were presented with bottles of Grange. Mr Hawke got a 1983 vintage (the year he became prime minister) while Mr Howard received the 1996.
The story Vintage duo lock horns to put on a show for the ages first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.