Bob Hawke has delivered a stinging attack on the world's political leaders, including Julia Gillard, lamenting that there is not one prime minister or president who is "outstanding".
The 83-year-old Mr Hawke, who is known to be deeply unhappy with Ms Gillard's lack of success, made the astonishing assessment yesterday during an exclusive Boao Forum for Asia luncheon featuring one of the world's most successful investors, billionaire George Soros.
The Federal Opposition is likely to seize on Mr Hawke's comments, which were made just five months out from the September election.
Mr Hawke, who sat at the head table because of his role as Boao co-founder, made his comment in response to Mr Soros' keynote address about the economic issues facing the world.
The former prime minister, who enjoys legend status at Boao and has been a constant presence at plenary sessions and social functions, said the myriad economic challenges in the world required "sensible political decisions . . . to make new economic approaches work".
"I think we are at a unique point in history since the Second World War, and I don't say that as an ex-leader (as in) nothing is as good as it was then," he said.
"I say this objectively speaking. We can say that we are at a point, for the first time since World War II, and I exclude China, that there is no outstanding political leader in the world. Not one.
"Now, if we don't have the art and skill in politics to improve and match the new thinking in economics, we won't have the people with skills, determination and guts to apply the new thinking."
Mr Soros said he disagreed with Mr Hawke about the qualities of today's political leaders, but not before a gasp of surprise from the luncheon audience, which included former Philippines president Fidel Ramos and ex-Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda, as well as Howard Government minister Alexander Downer and a raft of global business leaders.
Mr Hawke did not expand on how his scathing critique reflected on Ms Gillard, who he has strongly supported in the past.
Just two days earlier, at Boao, Mr Hawke welcomed Ms Gillard to the conference and told reporters he was "delighted she is here".