29/08/2006 - 22:00

Pollies play for themselves

29/08/2006 - 22:00


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With calm having descended over leadership tensions in the federal Liberal party, in the media at least, State Scene has decided to look back a century or more to see how some ambitious politicians of an earlier era gained the prime ministership.

With calm having descended over leadership tensions in the federal Liberal party, in the media at least, State Scene has decided to look back a century or more to see how some ambitious politicians of an earlier era gained the prime ministership.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t always done with dignity and aplomb.

That cool, calm, and collected appearance that our invariably conspiring politicians like to convey wasn’t always the way things panned out in Australia’s recurring and back-stabbing prime ministerial stakes.

For instance, Australia’s first PM, Edmund Barton, a key federation backer, had, during 1900, been in regular contact with the Colonial Office in London on constitutional affairs and from the tone of that communication came to assume he’d become Australia’s first PM.

That wasn’t to be the case.

Much to his and others’ amazement, Australia’s first governor-general, the Earl of Hopetoun, opted for Sir William Lyne, who was premier of NSW until March 1901.

This was like pouring brine onto Barton’s wounded pride since Lyne had opposed federation.

Barton reacted by simply refusing to join the proposed Lyne cabinet, while Alfred Deakin – someone who was to become PM three times – went about urging other MPs to follow Barton’s lead by blackballing Lyne.

The Barton spat and the Deakin-inspired boycott of the hapless Lyne prompted him to withdraw, so that Barton became Australia’s first PM.

Clearly, Australia got off to what can only described as an inauspicious start when it came to who would or wouldn’t become PM.

Commentators and MPs in the camp of current prime minister, John Howard, assert that he will pass the baton in a dignified manner.

What’s being suggested is that he’ll be succeeded when he decides it’s time to hang up his Canberra riding boots if, of course, Opposition leader Kim Beazley isn’t an unwelcomed catalyst.

The model Mr Howard appears to be working on is that adopted by the man he claims to admire, Sir Robert Menzies, who did precisely that in 1966 when he handed over to his long-time treasurer, Harold Holt.

This form of transition is also found in the early years of newly federated Australia.

For instance, Deakin, who had ensured Barton became inaugural PM, succeeded him in 1903 because Barton wanted to retire from politics to become a High Court judge.

This first smooth transfer occurred because of Deakin’s earlier backing of Barton and also because Deakin had been acting PM during 1902 and was a nationally recognised political figure.

Deakin had ardently backed federation and, like so many of Australia’s other early national MPs, was a noted colonial politician.

He’d entered Victoria’s parliament in 1879 while in his early 20s and attended imperial conferences in London, where he impressed British and other imperial leaders.

Deakin appears to have been quite a charming chap, someone who got along well with the man who became Australia’s first Labor PM, John Watson, who succeeded Deakin in April 1904, as well as Andrew Fisher, Labor’s next occupant of the PM post.

Times were markedly different then, with the type of public insults sometimes used by later Labor leaders Paul Keating and Mark Latham not yet in vogue.

That said, it would be wrong to see these early years as not being rife with competition and ambition.

In 1913, Deakin, as opposition leader, realised his political days were numbered because of ill-health.

His deputy, Joseph Cook, increasingly carried the workload.

It was at this point that WA’s first premier, Sir John Forrest, a man who had held nearly every national ministerial post since 1901 but not the leadership of the non-Labor side and thus Australia, made a bid for that top job.

But when the 39 votes were counted, Forrest had gained 19 to Cook’s 20.

To rub brine into that wound, the single vote that denied Forrest the job had been cast by none other than Deakin, meaning Deakin decided twice – once for Barton, the other for Cook – who would and who wouldn’t be PM.

According to one historian of these times: “Although Deakin privately noted that Cook had ‘some unhappy deficiencies of temper...’ he recognised Cook as deputy leader had been ‘unfaltering, honourable, untiring and capable’.”

Australian national politics has had other close shaves, with by far the strangest taking place on March 10 1971, when two backers of the then increasingly controversial John Gorton moved a confidence motion in him in the Liberal Party caucus.

This rather silly manoeuvre backfired with the result a tied vote of 33 each, and one MP voting informal.

Gorton, who presumably voted for himself, responded by telling the party room: “Well, that is not a vote of confidence, so the party will have to elect a new leader”.

This is precisely what happened. Bill McMahon, who had aspired for Australia’s top post for years, finally got his wish, since his old coalition rival, John McEwen no longer refused to serve under him.

McEwen had earlier refused to work alongside McMahon.

Another unusual leadership selection came in July 1945, the month before the Pacific War ended.

Victorian-born John Curtin, the first and only Western Australian to become PM, died on July 5, so his deputy, Frank Forde, took over.

But he only held the position until July 13 because Labor’s caucus backed one-time engine driver Ben Chifley to be leader and thus PM.

Interestingly, Forde resumed his role of deputy and remained a loyal one until losing his seat in 1946.

Peter Costello could do a lot worse than looking closely at Forde’s example.

Also not to be ignored is what happened to Labor PM James Scullin when his government broke up over conflicting plans to combat the Great Depression’s harsh impact.

After a particularly nasty combative phase came the departure from caucus of two ministers, Joseph Lyons from Tasmania and James Fenton from Victoria.

In May 1931 they joined the non-Labor opposition to help form the United Australia Party – predecessor of the Liberals – with Lyons soon after becoming leader and thus PM.

Last century, therefore, several little-known politicians used a diverse range of ways and means to become PM, and sometimes by very narrow numbers of votes.

Although Australia has only had 25 PMs there are more such instances than that figure suggests.

And one reason is that two – Deakin and Menzies – held this much sought-after position more than once. There have also been many leadership changes and challenges within oppositions.

Even PMs have been challenged, as happened to Malcolm Fraser, unsuccessfully, by Andrew Peacock, and Bob Hawke, successfully by Paul Keating.

The so-called Westminster system of government in Australia, adopted in 1900 following a series of constitutional conventions, means the head of government must emerge from within the ranks of those sitting in the lower house.

It can be no other way.

However, there will always be one or more of those sitting behind any PM who will aspire, even conspire, to gain their party’s and thus the nation’s top post.

And the same applies within opposition ranks, as the December 1994 Howard-Costello deal-or-no-deal conspiracy so clearly demonstrates.

Even minority parties such as the Democrats have had more than their fair share of murky leadership tussles.

When seen in this light, the Howard-Costello deal-or-no-deal fiasco, which resulted in such a media rumpus, can safely be regarded as little more than much of the same. It’s just another example of something that’s an inherent feature of the undemocratic Westminster system, under which politicians, not the people, decide who will lead the nation.

Little wonder most voters take leadership challenges and rumours of challenges so calmly and in their stride – they have absolutely no say in the matter.

Even so, several editors have assured State Scene that when such contests emerge, newspaper circulation tends to rise slightly, meaning voters aren’t entirely disinterested.


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