Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Australia's Prime Ministers

The recent shenanigans between various members of the ALP leading to Kevin Rudd's unsuccessful shot at retrieving the leadership, and hence returning to be PM, caused me to wonder whether any of these people (or their Opposition counterparts) really have the stature and capability to lead this nation if there was a crisis. For example, a real shooting war, with enemy planes bombing Darwin and points south.

World War 2, in fact. What were our leaders like back then?

Our story begins in January 1932 when Joseph Aloysius Lyons became Prime Minister at the head of the United Australia Party (UAP), defeating James Henry Scullin (ALP) who had been shafted by ALP supporters of Jack Lang, as they sided with the UAP just to make sure they got rid of Scullin. Lyons was possibly Australia's best liked Prime Minister - in the book Australian Prime Ministers (Michelle Grattan ed., New Holland Publishers, 2008), Anne Henderson wrote: " It needed no spin doctors to craft Joe and Enid Lyons into salt-of-the-earth Australian family folk. " Lyons had been a Tasmanian Opposition Leader and Premier for the ALP, but couldn't stomach the federal ALP, and formed the UAP instead.

Lyons did well enough to be re-elected for a third term in 1937, but by then the toll of frequent commutes back to Devonport in Tasmania, and advancing years, left him ill and the government rudderless. There was a bitter and very public split with Robert Gordon Menzies in early 1939, which led Lyons to say that he believed " ... this situation is killing me. " He was right; he suffered a heart attack on Thursday 6 April 1939 and died the next day (Good Friday).

Earl Page, Lyons' deputy, took over as caretaker PM and used his 19 days in office to lambast Menzies, who he regarded as a traitor to Lyons, saying that if Menzies was elected leader, then the Country Party would withdraw its support for the UAP. Menzies justified himself by saying he had had a secret deal with Lyons whereby Lyons would hand over leadership to Menzies and Lyons had reneged (gee, does this sound familiar?). In the event the UAP elected Menzies as leader and the Country Party split, ensuring that Menzies had enough votes to survive any no-confidence motion.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain declared war on Germany on 1 September 1939 and Australia, as a loyal colony, followed suit, Menzies making the announcement a scant 5 months after assuming the Prime Ministership. Menzies has been much criticised (possibly unfairly) for not doing enough to put Australia on a proper war footing, but it is difficult to see what more he could have done. He has also been criticised for being too much of an Anglophile and sending our boys 'over there' when they should have been kept here to fend off the Japanese, but that criticism conveniently ignores the fact that in 1939 Australia had declared war on Germany while the war with Japan would not be declared for another 2 years.

One thing Menzies didn't do was butter up his colleagues; in fact, many positively detested him. This would prove fatal for his Prime Ministership. In February 1941 Menzies went to the UK to plead with Churchill face to face to reinforce the Pacific, particularly Singapore which was vulnerable to a land based attack. Churchill refused to do anything, probably because he couldn't, but also because he believed (or pretended to believe) that Singapore was impregnable. However, while Menzies was away the plotters plotted, and when he returned in May 1941 they pounced, claiming, amongst other things, that he was unpopular in the electorate and a liability (gee, does that sound familiar?). He called for a Cabinet vote of confidence, and was trounced.

Arthur William Fadden, until that point Leader of the Country Party, was elected in Menzies stead, there being no more suitable candidate. He assumed office on 29 August 1941 but he wasn't destined to last long in the job; on 7 October 1941 he lost the support of the independents and a Supply vote on the floor of the house, and John Joseph Curtin (ALP) became Prime Minister.

It was Curtin who received the news on 8 December 1941 that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbour. It was Curtin who announced, to Chruchill's fury, that Australia now looked to the United States of America for help to protect Australia's borders. It was Curtin who insisted on Australian troops released from the North African campaigns being repatriated to Australia, not Burma. It was Curtin who introduced conscription for overseas service, just before the 1943 federal election, which, far from unseating the government, resulted in the ALP being returned with control of both houses.

Of Curtin, David Day says (Australian Prime Ministers, p217) " Curtin's honesty of purpose, strength of character, power of oratory and political acumen all marked him out as a great leader." To cement this reputation, he died, probably from complications arising from emphysema, on 5 July 1945; as David Day says " ... to almost universal dismay."

Francis Michael Forde took over for a week while the ALP caucus organised itself, and the caucus then elected Joseph Benedict Chifley as leader and Prime Minister, a job he kept until he lost the election to the newly invigorated Liberal Party under Menzies in 1949. It is to Chifley's everlasting credit that he didn't want the job and was reluctant to stand. Obviously, he had little to do with the war effort.

Really Australia was led by just two Prime Ministers in World War 2 - first Menzies, then Curtin. Of the two Curtin is far the more impressive character, not least because he didn't shaft anybody on his way to the top job. Australia was lucky to have him. Menzies suffers by comparison in part because the news in the first 2 years of the war was all bad, but also because he came to the job having shafted Lyons (and possibly thereby helping to kill him), and was then shafted in his turn.

So who of the current cohort (on either side of the House, or in the ranks of the minor parties or independents) is the next John Curtin? Not a single one of them. Not one. Which is a worry, because if WW3 started tomorrow, we'd need such a person, wouldn't we.