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National Affairs

The prime ministerial eleven

22 March 2016

Fewer than a dozen prime ministers have been ejected from office by voters since Federation, writes Norman Abjorensen. Malcolm Turnbull will be anxious to avoid their fate


Labor PM Ben Chifley risked much of his political capital on a plan to nationalise the banks. John Oxley Library/State Library of Queensland

Labor PM Ben Chifley risked much of his political capital on a plan to nationalise the banks. John Oxley Library/State Library of Queensland

A cricket team’s worth of Australian prime ministers has gone to an election and lost office since Federation. With the opinion polls teetering on a knife edge, the big question is whether Malcolm Turnbull will give the team its twelfth man.

Among the prime ministers ejected at the ballot box – a group that accounts for eleven out of thirty-four departures by twenty-eight prime ministers – there is no clear pattern: each lost office in his own way, with varying degrees of culpability. The odds have been better among the six double dissolutions called to date, the last of them in 1987: the government was returned in four instances, the exceptions being 1914 and 1983.

The timing of a federal election is an advantage that rests solely with the prime minister of the day (subject, of course, to the governor-general’s granting of the requested dissolution). For Alfred Deakin, the first prime minister to lose office as a result of the people’s vote, there was no option in 1910: the third parliament was the first and only parliament so far to expire as a result of section 28 of the constitution, which stipulates that a House of Representatives may last for no more than three years from the date of its first meeting after an election.

Deakin was in his third and final term as prime minister. He would have preferred more time to consolidate his position after presiding over a merger of the old conservative Free Traders and his own liberal Protectionists (the so-called “fusion”) to form the first Liberal Party. The merger was poorly explained to the voters and little understood; the rationale behind it, though, was quite clear in uniting the former bitter foes to counter the rising Labor Party. (A rough equivalent today would be the Liberals and Labor combining to oppose the Greens.)

Labor, led by Andrew Fisher, picked up sixteen new seats in the House, giving it forty-two in a chamber of seventy-five. Not only was it the first majority national government led by a labour-based party anywhere in the world, it was the first government in the Commonwealth to command a majority not just in the lower house but in the Senate as well.

Going to the polls three years later, Fisher had reason to be confident. But although his government had enacted much popular legislation, political disquiet was stirring outside the cities, and that disquiet – which would soon coalesce into the Country Party – saw Labor lose eight non-metropolitan seats and two pro-Labor independents. The result gave the new Liberal Party, under Joseph Cook, a slender majority of one but a Senate weighted against him, twenty-nine to seven.

Cook, one of the least impressive prime ministers, expended much effort in seeking to provoke the Labor Party into giving him a pretext to go back to the people. After fourteen petulant months of domestic political squabbling at a time when the nation was at war, he got his wish. Cook’s double dissolution in 1914, the first for Australia, backfired and Fisher returned for his third term as prime minister.

The next prime minister to fall at the polls was Stanley Melbourne Bruce in 1929 – and largely through circumstances of his own making. Having supplanted Billy Hughes in 1923, Bruce won elections in 1925 and 1928, but a combination of his autocratic decision-making, poor policy decisions and an uncanny ability to alienate erstwhile supporters saw a backbench revolt in parliament force him to the polls just eleven months after his second victory. He lost to Labor’s James Scullin, suffering the further indignity of losing his own seat.

Just days after Scullin assumed office in October 1929, the Wall Street stock market collapsed, sending shock waves through the global economy; no elected government anywhere survived its impact, and Scullin in 1932 was a casualty of both economic circumstances and a destructive power struggle within the Labor Party.

Fast-forward to 1949, with Labor enjoying its longest term in office. A Labor government had been re-elected for the first time in 1946, and under Ben Chifley might have gone into the election with a degree of confidence based on a substantial record of achievement. But with the mood of the nation uncertain and the peculiar circumstance of a greatly enlarged parliament – the House of Representatives up to 123 from seventy-five and the Senate up to sixty from thirty-six – a great many unknowns clouded the horizon.

Chifley had led a government deeply committed to far-reaching social reforms, famously invoking the metaphor of the “light on the hill,” the idea that Labor should be about providing better standards of living for the “mass of the people.” These reforms included a major expansion of welfare services, education and housing; at the same time, though, economic circumstances meant that a number of wartime economic controls, including the highly unpopular petrol rationing, were still in force. In 1947, Chifley’s longstanding interest in banking and finance had seen his government proposing legislation to nationalise the private trading banks. The move was to have the most profound impact on political life in Australia, and unquestionably framed the set of issues around which the 1949 elections were fought.

In any analysis of the reasons for the defeat of the Chifley government in 1949, it is difficult to avoid the bank nationalisation issue. It was poorly handled right from the outset – a terse forty-two-word statement was issued after a Saturday morning cabinet meeting, and the plan was underexplained and feebly defended despite the unprecedented political mobilisation it sparked. And it delivered to the opposition, led by Robert Menzies, a ready-made platform from which to attack the government and its “socialist” policies, an attack made even more potent within the context of the emerging cold war, industrial unrest and the deliberately-fanned fears of communist subversion.

The nation was still war weary, tired of austerity and impatient with rationing and controls; people also wanted to spend their accumulated savings on the new household goods starting to appear in stores and the taxation burden was resented. Further, rising inflation was a problem, with the consumer price index up by more than 10 per cent in 1949. It was little wonder that Menzies’s pledge to end rationing and “put value back in the pound” fell on such eagerly receptive ears. Labor was banished to the political wilderness for twenty-three years.

At the end of that record reign it was William McMahon’s turn to lose an election. McMahon cut a risible figure as prime minister; in stark contrast to his Labor opponent, the imperious Gough Whitlam, he was painfully devoid of gravitas. But to be fair to McMahon, he was chosen (after the dumping of John Gorton) to preside over the last rites of a grey, ageing and increasingly disconnected Liberal Party that was a lifetime away from what its founding father, Robert Menzies, liked to recall as its “first fine, careless rapture.”

The party had barely survived Menzies’s retirement in 1966. His successor, Harold Holt, had died in office, John Gorton had been deposed, and McMahon was, in effect, the last man standing. He had inherited a party racked by disunity and in an advanced state of decay, a decay that McMahon himself symbolised. He came to the leadership not so much for any commanding personal qualities as much as for the lack of an acceptable alternative.

Observing the 1972 election campaign, the visiting British psephologist David Butler commented on the extent of criticism levelled at the prime minister, whom he described as “the stumbling, cartoonable William McMahon.” Rupert Murdoch’s Australian, which had backed Whitlam, was adamant that McMahon himself was a factor in the defeat, commenting that “there is really no doubt that the quality of Mr McMahon’s leadership over the twenty months since he became prime minister has been the cause of deep concern to the majority of people.”

A decade later, in 1983, Malcolm Fraser became the second prime minister to call a double dissolution and lose office. His opponent, Bob Hawke, was certainly a key factor in Fraser’s defeat. Hawke, who took over the leadership from Bill Hayden the day the election was called, was already well-known because of his role as head of the ACTU, and was widely admired. But Fraser’s biographer Philip Ayres saw more complex forces at work, noting that the Fraser government “was the product of the weight of time – in seven years less had been achieved than promised.” Economic decline from recession and drought (inflation at 11 per cent and unemployment at 10 per cent) played a part, as did the government’s own inconsistency on key issues, such as tax indexation.

In 1996, Paul Keating, who had ousted Hawke in 1991, and won an unexpected victory in 1993, might have faced the looming election with optimism. There was much for which a government could take credit and much to boost its confidence about the prospects for its survival. The country was enjoying its lowest inflation rate in thirty years, interest rates were half what they had been five years before, company profits were running strongly, 700,000 new jobs had been created since 1992, and the recession was well and truly over. It was a government of talent, neither incompetent nor in crisis. The problem, however, was Keating himself.

Despite the overall improvement in the economy, the picture was patchy, with some sectors struggling. Keating appeared increasingly insensitive to problems that were causing real hardship. The warning signals were all there in the Labor Party’s own research, which found that blue-collar workers, the party’s traditional base, found Keating remote and unheeding, not doing enough to help “ordinary people” who saw themselves as struggling. Keating, characteristically, waved all the research aside; he knew better. Despite the sustained bravado and braggadocio that had characterised his final term, it was clear to many that a savage retribution lay in wait; the Liberals under John Howard rode home in triumph.

Howard’s unexpected control of the Senate from mid 2005, and his radical agenda on industrial relations, a lifelong obsession, contained the seeds of his own defeat in 2007. It was a fall of some considerable magnitude after looking all but invincible following the election wins of 2001 and 2004. For all Howard’s trumpeting of his economic policy successes, there was a growing sense of hollowness about it all; the much-vaunted prosperity was more illusory than real. Many people, especially those “aspirationals” who rallied behind Howard and his march towards a deregulated, free-market economy, now found themselves working longer hours, with higher health, education and childcare costs, less job security, and reduced access to services.

The prosperity Howard trumpeted came with a hefty price tag: the greatest losses, although symbolic, were important ones, with only lip service still paid to egalitarianism and the “fair go.” His younger opponent, Kevin Rudd, seemed more authentically (and traditionally) Australian.

Rudd in office, though, was very different from the avuncular “Kevin from Queensland” who joked his way through appearances on Sunrise. After an initial flurry in the polls, the gloss started to fade – but his colleagues had already seen a side of him the public was just starting to suspect: petulant, mercurial and with growing megalomaniac tendencies. His removal in 2010 was as bloody as it was inevitable, but his delusion that he was the rightful king undermined his successor Julia Gillard from day one. Rudd’s vindictiveness brought down not one but two prime ministers.

Rudd and Gillard share culpability, though not equally. Rudd was an unconscionable wrecker; Gillard found the job, sabotaged as it was under already difficult circumstances, at the outer limits of her capability. The decision to reinstate Rudd, in the full knowledge of what he had done, was a collective act that might have made some political sense in a mood of self-serving desperation, but it was also utterly reprehensible. When he ousted Gillard in mid 2013, the scene of carnage was largely of Rudd’s own making.

It was an ignominious end not just to a government, nor just to a prime ministership, but also to a brief era that had begun with so much promise. Patrick Weller’s succinct obituary in his otherwise sympathetic biography of Rudd captures the essence: “The second Rudd government just subsided into defeat, too divided, too tarnished, too disliked to seriously claim that it could be trusted for another term.”

Now, in 2016, Malcolm Turnbull faces the electorate, essentially leading an Abbott government with Abbott policies and an Abbott mandate. He needs victory to legitimate his leadership in its own right and, retrospectively, his strike against Abbott; they are big stakes indeed.

To lose the election, and become the twelfth man of the losers’ team, will consign him to an invidious position in history – and make him the shortest-serving of the prime ministers so despatched. History, in that case, will prove a harsh judge. •

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