It’s a controversial judgment, but the evidence indicates the two most successful prime ministers in Australian history were Labor’s Bob Hawke and the Liberal Party’s John Howard. Both achieved significant economic and social reform and both managed to win four elections.
Neither man is their party’s favourite prime minister. On the Labor side, the position is contested between John Curtin, Gough Whitlam and perhaps Paul Keating. On the Coalition side of politics, Robert Menzies – who won seven elections as Liberal Party leader – is the standout candidate. Curtin died in office and Whitlam was rejected by the electorate after only three years of Labor. Whitlam presided over an incompetent administration. Keating was a significant economic reformer but did not hold office for long.
Menzies was a fine politician but he benefited from a divided and poorly led Labor opposition. Moreover, Menzies’ main contribution to public life was not taking Australia down the path of democratic socialism. A real achievement, to be sure. Yet not one of the reforming kind.
Of course, the Hawke and Howard legacies were very much assisted by the contributions of others – including their respective treasurers, Keating and Peter Costello. Nevertheless we tend to associate successful governments with the politicians who lead them. The success of the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments has led to a situation where Australia has one of the strongest economies in the Western world. This fact makes political life difficult for the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott. Their actions are judged against very high benchmarks.
In view of the global economic uncertainties and the reality of minority government, if Australia can get through the next three years without winding back too much of the reform agenda of the past quarter of a century it will have done well enough. At the end of one of the most vibrant years in Australian politics, it is timely to challenge some of the myths and theories that have emerged about the contemporary political situation.
There is little doubt that the likes of Mark Arbib, Bill Shorten and Paul Howes saved Labor from outright defeat at the August 2010 election. In his autobiography Lazarus Rising, Howard writes that “Kevin Rudd would have led the ALP to a clear victory if he had still been PM” and opines that “it was a colossal blunder by Labor to dump him”.
This is a contentious judgment. If Gillard had not replaced Rudd, it is likely that the Coalition would have formed government. Labor scraped back into office after winning two seats in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. Gillard had significantly more appeal than Rudd in Victoria, where she enjoys a home-state advantage and where Abbott has yet to make an impact.
Also Rudd’s appeal in Queensland, where Gillard Labor polled poorly, has been exaggerated. The primary vote swing against Rudd in his electorate of Griffith was 9 per cent compared with a statewide primary swing against Labor of 9.3 per cent.
There is no doubt that, contrary to the claims of some commentators, Abbott was the best person to lead the Coalition. The facts speak for themselves. It is just one year since Professor Robert Manne speculated that Malcolm Turnbull’s replacement by Abbott could lead to “the destruction of the Liberal Party”. Around the same time, Professor Judith Brett wrote that, under Abbott, “the Liberals risk becoming a downmarket protest party of angry old men and the outer suburbs”.
Both assessments were hopelessly wrong. Many of the Coalition’s critics underestimated Abbott. The fact that the Coalition achieved 49.9 per cent of the total vote demonstrates Abbott’s appeal – especially since he was running against a first-term Labor government at a time when Australia had perhaps the best performing economy in the OECD.
It is quite possible that the Gillard government will survive the full term. This, obviously, is in Labor’s interests. But it would also suit the Greens MP, Adam Bandt, the independent MP Andrew Wilkie (who is a former Greens candidate) and the two rural NSW independents – Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. All four run the risk of losing their seats at the next election – either to Labor (Bandt, Wilkie) or the Coalition (Oakeshott, Windsor). If Labor survives until 2013, it is reasonable to expect that it will be led to the polls by Gillard.
It is likely that Abbott will lead the Coalition to the next election. The Liberals are most unlikely to return to Turnbull and Joe Hockey appears to be of the view that Abbott deserves another chance. Abbott has his critics in the media but he has been able to unite the Liberals and to preside over a relatively unified coalition of Liberals and Nationals. This demonstrates considerable people skills.
It is too early to make even a vague prediction. But Abbott has a reasonable chance of winning the next election. He needs to improve the Coalition’s vote in suburban Melbourne, western Sydney and on the NSW central coast. The Coalition has a chance of winning the seats held by Oakeshott and Windsor. And it may be able to do even better in Queensland and make inroads in northern Tasmania.
As the Victorian election demonstrated, the Greens are not as influential as many of their supporters imply. In August, the Liberals erred in preferencing Bandt in the seat of Melbourne. Next time around the Coalition can put Labor ahead of the Greens on its how-to-vote card and then campaign against a Labor-Greens alliance, based on the agreement that Gillard signed with Greens leader Bob Brown in September.
Three years is a very long time in politics and only fools make prophecies. However, it seems likely that Australian politics over the next three years will resemble that of the past four months. It will be a hard grind, with neither a Hawke nor a Howard in sight.