John Howard can't help himself. He's been a political schemer all his life, and his faint-praise damnation of Brendan Nelson is symptomatic of his disloyalty to any Liberal leader other than himself. If Costello or Turnbull had become leader, Howard wouldn't have been any more gracious or encouraging.
Howard knows that quiet counsel is more likely to be acted on within the Liberal Party. Malcolm Fraser influenced nobody with his criticisms of Howard. No Liberals sought Fraser's advice as they'd get it publicly anyway. Besides, Howard, his office and lackeys like Minchin would - and do - crack a hissy fit if any Liberals even mention Fraser, let alone went near him.
None of those Liberal leaders who lost elections have been sought out. No Liberals sought McMahon's advice after 1972; only the far right of the NSW Liberals paid him any mind. Gorton listened to those exasperated with McMahon, but by Fraser's time the only Liberal seeking his advice would have been Don Chipp. Rarely was Menzies' advice sought during his twilight.
Howard couldn't have done more to discourage people from seeking his advice. He offered nothing that had not demonstrably failed in the 2007 election campaign, and did not talk about the past in a way that offered insights for the future. It was all bathwater, no baby. He only offered the Liberal Party the opportunity to shackle itself to proven failure, to look backward rather than forward, to hope that the Liberals might preserve an image of economic competence in aspic as the country changes to render their experience irrelevant.
It flatters Howard that Liberal MPs would call on him and wait upon the pearls that fall from his lips. And they will, unlike with previous leaders. You'll see it when a Liberal abruptly changes direction; an authentic proponent of higher immigration will abruptly become a snide dog-whistler - and after getting belted politically will admit that yes, he had sought advice from Mr Howard actually, how could you tell?
It's when Liberals stop calling on Howard that things will get interesting, clear proof that they've started thinking for themselves and addressing the issues of Australia in the twentyfirst century. They're a long way from where they need to be: Heffernan and Minchin are pillows over the face of an already prone party. Downer is an embarrassment, the first Howard government minister whose legacy has been utterly eclipsed if not erased. Abbott needs to go or be politically spayed. Howard has had his day and has no fresh ideas for the future, he told everyone so clearly and strongly last year and he's telling them again. The only ones who can't hear this don't want to listen.