Promises can come back to haunt politicians, especially when they’re broken.
IT’S a pity more retired Australian prime ministers and opposition leaders don’t follow general Douglas MacArthur’s example and just fade away after delivering their valedictory addresses to parliament.
Instead they persist in attempts to recapture their place in the spotlight.
On April 19 1951, MacArthur delivered his farewell address to the US Congress and attracted a record 50 standing ovations.
He’d just been ignominiously relieved of his military command by president Harry S ‘The buck stops here’ Truman for openly disagreeing with the presidential decision to prosecute only a limited war on the Korean peninsula.
To MacArthur this was far more than losing an election.
Whatever one’s view of his clash with Truman, the last lines of MacArthur’s Congressional farewell were certainly among the most moving ever spoken on such an occasion.
MacArthur hadn’t only been a great warrior before, during and after the Pacific War, but also an orator of note.
“The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the plain at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have long since vanished, but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that ‘old soldiers never die; they just fade away’,” he said with hints of tears in his eyes.
“And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty.
I’ve heard that address replayed several times and must say it surpasses any Australian prime minister’s or opposition leader’s valedictory address.
More significant is the fact that MacArthur did, in fact, fade away from public life, which our former party leaders seem to have trouble doing.
Notwithstanding this, MacArthur never held back from advising later presidents, when asked.
Two presidents on three occasions obtained advice on grave matters of state.
MacArthur, seen as Republican-oriented, twice met the Democrat president John F Kennedy, to discuss the Cuban debacle known as the Bay of Pigs operation and later to caution Kennedy against becoming involved in a land war in the former French Indo-China.
He similarly advised Kennedy’s Democratic successor as president, Lyndon B Johnson, on that land war.
As for the remainder of his retirement, MacArthur accepted several honours and awards and wrote his memoirs, which I’ve not read to see what he’d said (or didn’t say) about his pivotal role in saving Australia from Japanese occupation.
I highlight MacArthur not only for this crucially important contribution to Australian history, indeed, survival, but rather for his decisions to first and foremost, ‘fade away’, and secondly for offering expert military advice to presidents.
Both acts are vastly different to the paths embraced by so many Australian prime ministers and opposition leaders.
First and foremost, unlike MacArthur, many of them opt against fading away.
They’re invariably bouncing back, to either publicise themselves or, worse still, to square old scores with former party colleagues.
MacArthur undoubtedly had good reason to feel aggrieved about the way he’d been treated by president Truman, even though the latter’s dismissal decision was undoubtedly constitutionally appropriate.
That, however, didn’t stop MacArthur advising on high matters of state the next two Democratic presidents.
Quite the contrary.
Political partisanship and maintaining old grudges seem to run deeper and for far longer in Australia than the US.
I’m still amazed at the way Malcolm Fraser made it an irritating habit to constantly snipe at his former deputy and cabinet colleague, John Howard.
Howard predecessor John Hewson hasn’t been much better.
Today he’s even actively promoting the Gillard-Greens CO2 tax that’s set to retard Australian economic growth forever.
What is it about those two that they’re so incapable of controlling themselves and behaving with dignity?
However they, of course, aren’t the first to embrace such behaviour.
The late John Gorton spent his post-prime ministerial years getting up to all sorts of anti-Fraser antics because of his bitter parting of political ways with Mr Fraser at the end of his brief prime ministerial career.
I’ve even had the doubtful pleasure of actually witnessing this proclivity first hand.
Coincidentally, I was in the Old Parliament House, either in 1976 or early 1977, I’ve now forgotten which, when the Fraser government was being censured over a matter the details of which also now slip my memory.
While walking down one of that precinct’s narrow stairways I was unexpectedly brushed by none other than Gorton, who was certainly in quite a hurry to get to another part of that house.
By then, of course, he was no longer in politics but had made a special trip to parliament to witness that debate, no doubt wishing to see Fraser humiliated, or, better still, toppled.
It never happened.
Gorton had actually resigned from the Liberal Party when Mr Fraser became its leader early in 1975.
He then went on to campaign against the Fraser-led coalition in the crucial December 1975 election, attempting to re-enter the Senate as an Australian Capital Territory independent, where he’d begun his political career in 1949.
On top of that, when Mr Fraser was ousted in March 1983, Gorton congratulated victorious Labor leader, Bob Hawke, for, wait for it, “rolling that bastard Fraser”.
Labor, of course, also has its unreconstructed haters.
One doesn’t need to look back very far since there’s Mark Latham’s now-famous diaries, as well as his subsequent ongoing remarks in press columns, and during radio and television interviews that invariably condemn both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
The mere fact that he actually kept such emotively charged diaries and went on to publish them, and so soon after departing politics, is itself amazing.
Such relentless bitterness and twisted campaigning against former colleagues suggests Canberra has a knack for inspiring long-standing hatreds and silly vendettas.
Former Australian party leaders, despite their disappointments, could take a leaf from MacArthur, by which is meant only quietly giving wise advice.
I can think of no two Labor leaders who needed it more than Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard since their political records are now so heavily studded with flaws and costly failings.
However, when I recently raised this point and added that Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, because of their governments’ record of real reforms, could have mentored the current crop of Labor leadership, a well-connected contact suggested that Ms Gillard may well have taken a leaf from the latter.
“What”, said my learned contact, “you’ve obviously forgotten Keating’s infamous pre-1993 tax cuts promise that he stressed were guaranteed because those cuts were already L-A-W. [Keating’s emphasis]”
Indeed, I had forgotten that scandalously broken promise, made for that year’s election campaign, which had been promptly dishonoured once Keating managed to narrowly retain power.
So Ms Gillard’s now most infamous line: “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”, has a precedent.
Let’s hope memory of her broken promise doesn’t fade, especially during the 2013 campaign.