09/01/2008 - 22:00

Plenty of life in old pollies

09/01/2008 - 22:00


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State Scene hopes opportunities arise during 2008 that will enable a historical assessment of recent contemporary events, making them more meaningful in the wider context.

Plenty of life in old pollies

State Scene hopes opportunities arise during 2008 that will enable a historical assessment of recent contemporary events, making them more meaningful in the wider context.

With this in mind, consider the fact that ousted prime minister, John Howard, has joined another non-Labor PM, Sir Stanley Bruce, in losing his seat plus government at a federal election.

On a party score card, that’s conservatives two, Labor nil.

But closer inspection shows the picture isn’t quite so clear cut.

Rarely highlighted is the fact that two national Labor leaders fled their seats because they feared they’d follow Bruce’s 1929 precedent of losing their seat.

In other words, they took preventative steps rather than face the music, as Bruce and Mr Howard were to do.

The first was opposition leader, Herbert Evatt, who held the Sydney seat of Barton from 1940 to 1958.

The last time a politician highlighted this in parliament was the present Barton MHR, Robert McClelland, now attorney-general.

In May 1996, he said: “I want to comment on my background and involvement in my electorate of Barton.

“It is not widely known that, in 1958, upon the vacation of the seat of Barton by the late Dr Evatt, who was moved into a safer seat, my father contested [Labor] pre-selection against the late Len Reynolds.”

Put differently, Evatt, while Labor leader, fled Barton for the safe Labor seat of Hunter to ensure he didn’t lose his seat while opposition leader.

He consequently fled Barton, leaving another Labor candidate to face the music.

As things transpired, Mr McClelland’s father sought Labor pre-selection for Barton but lost to Len Reynolds who, to Evatt’s surprise, won the seat he’d fled.

Closer to home, there’s former Labor leader, Kim Beazley.

He entered parliament in 1980 as Swan’s MHR.

Like Evatt, the party found Mr Beazley a safe Labor seat – Brand – in 1996, while he was prime minister Paul Keating’s deputy and on the eve of becoming party leader.

Unlike Mr Howard, who remained in Bennelong, Evatt and Mr Beazley fled their seats, thereby not risking a fate similar to that of Bruce.

What’s also not realised is the fact that Bruce regained his seat of Flinders at the 1931 election, which Labor’s Ted Holloway had held since toppling Bruce in 1929.

Interestingly, Holloway fled Flinders for the safe Labor seat of Melbourne Ports, pioneering the practice that Evatt and Mr Beazley later adopted.

Bruce became minister without portfolio but resigned from parliament in 1933 and became Australian High Commission to London until 1945.

During the war he was in the imperial war cabinet and Pacific war cabinet, two posts that meant he was probably more important that any Australian politician in relation to the allied war effort against Germany and Japan.

Furthermore, in 1947 he, as Viscount Bruce of Melbourne, became the first Australian to sit in the House of Lords.

Bruce went on to chair the World Food Council and be chancellor of the Australian National University, showing yet again that a challenging life can follow politics.

Evatt left politics in 1962 for the NSW Supreme Court, while Mr Beazley is now at the University of WA writing on international affairs.

That said, few Western Australians realise their state parliament can match the dual Bruce-Howard defeats of 1929 and 2007 respectively.

It involves long-serving James Mitchell (1866-1951) who was WA premier from 1919 to 1924 and again 1930 to 1933.

His fateful double loss came one day before Anzac Day 1933.

Although the Great Depression had already bottomed, WA was hit particularly hard by the global economic collapse because its economy was so reliant upon a handful of primary industries, which Mitchell had so strongly promoted to encourage settlement across the Wheatbelt and South West.

“As premier and treasurer, Mitchell confronted the Depression with promises of ‘work for all’, an impossible goal,” the Australian Dictionary of Biography entry states.

“Unemployment was nearly 30 per cent by 1932; wheat prices fell disastrously; the government concentrated on coping with the havoc. ”

Not only did Mitchell lead his government to defeat, he also lost his Northam seat to unionist and future Labor premier, Bert Hawke, uncle of prime minister to be and long-time Beazley patron, Robert Hawke.

However, like Bruce, he showed there most certainly was life after politics.

One source says: “As a result of financial difficulties during the Great Depression, Tasmania had appointed a lieutenant-governor in the 1930s.

“With the approval of all major political parties, in July 1933, Mitchell was appointed lieutenant governor, and although he resided in government house, he drew no salary.

“In this role, he was effectively the governor of the state.

“He held the lieutenant governor position until he was finally appointed governor of Western Australia in 1948.

“He retired as governor in June 1951, and died only a month later.

“Mitchell was the first Australian-born governor of Western Australia, and remains the only person to serve as both premier and governor of the state.”

Do these five cases – three concurrently losing government and their seats, and two fleeing their seats – teach us anything?

The first and most obvious lesson is that jumping before being pushed is certainly the best way of ensuring one’s name doesn’t enter the history books in such a light.

That’s something two national non-Labor leaders and a non-Labor WA premier – Bruce, Howard, and Mitchell, respectively – failed to avoid.

But there’s most definitely life after politics.

Just what happens to Mr Howard and his one-time rival, Mr Beazley, only time will tell.

State Scene’s guess is that Mr Howard will remain a private citizen. Mr Beazley may finish his public career as Governor-General or be appointed by the Rudd Government as Australia’s ambassador to Washington.

Secondly, those who jumped so as not to lose their seat – Evatt and Beazley – both from Labor’s side, obviously did so because they saw the possibility of becoming prime minister and made the necessary arrangements within their party; something that’s far more difficult to do in non-Labor parties.

This is best exemplified in WA by the case of Hal (later Sir) Colebatch, who reached the WA Goldfields in 1894 to be a reporter on Coolgardie’s Golden Age.

By the late 1890s, he was a Perth parliamentary reporter.

In 1904 he bought the Northam Advertiser and urged local bank manager, James Mitchell, to enter politics, which he did the following year.

Colebatch was Northam’s mayor during 1910-12 and won the upper house seat of East Province in 1912.

He became premier in April 1919 and remains the only premier to have governed from the Legislative Council.

Since no-one on his conservative side would vacate a lower house seat for him, he relinquished the premiership after a month, handing it to James Mitchell.

In 1923, Colebatch became WA’s agent-general in London, and a WA senator in Canberra on his return for four years.


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