For supporters of right-of-centre politics, it’s fortunate indeed that there was no bar on the future careers of what Malcolm Turnbull has called “miserable ghosts”. The specific reference was to former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd and former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott. But the broader point was directed at one-time prime ministers who remained in politics after being dislodged from their leadership position.
In the Westminster system, the heroes of centre-right politics are Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher in Britain along with Robert Menzies and John Howard in Australia. Churchill remained in politics after his defeat in the 1945 British general election. And Menzies continued as a member of the House of Representatives after stepping down as United Australia Party prime minister in August 1941. Neither proved to be miserable ghosts.
Churchill returned as prime minister after the Conservatives defeated Labour in October 1951. By then his health was deteriorating and the period leading up to his resignation from office in April 1955 was not his finest hour. But he had returned his party to office and ended the political instability following the 1950 election.
Menzies’ years in the wilderness proved to be his finest hours. He was principally responsible for founding the Liberal Party of Australia in 1944. Sure, the Liberal Party-Country Party Coalition lost the 1946 election, but Menzies prevailed over Labor’s Ben Chifley in December 1949. He remained prime minister until January 1966 and won seven elections in a row.
Turnbull’s comment, delivered at a private function in New York and leaked to the Nine Network’s Chris Uhlmann, was unambiguous. He said: “If you want to be sane and sanity is important, it’s rare but it’s important, you’ve got to take a live-by-the-sword, die-by-the sword approach. But then, when you stop being prime minister, that’s it.” Churchill and Menzies took a different view.
Turnbull’s comments provide yet another example that Australia has not worked out how to handle its former leaders. In Britain it is not uncommon for former prime ministers to remain in the House of Commons for a while before obtaining a seat in the House of Lords.
In the US, presidents have a maximum tenure of two four-year terms. After that, they retain the honorary title of president and preside over libraries in their own names that record the achievements of their administrations.
In Australia there is no obvious pathway for one-time prime ministers who lose elections: Gough Whitlam (1975), Malcolm Fraser (1983), Paul Keating (1996), Howard (2007), Rudd (2013). Or who lose the support of their parliamentary colleagues: Bob Hawke (1991), Rudd (2010), Julia Gillard (2013), Abbott (2015) and Turnbull in August.
In recent years there has been an unedifying spate of one-time prime ministers criticising their predecessors.
This month Turnbull made his “miserable, miserable ghosts” reference to Rudd and Abbott, and Rudd retaliated in kind. Then Keating bagged Turnbull, alleging “if you needed to know what Turnbull truly believes in … you would need a microscope to help you find it”.
In a tweet last Tuesday, Fairfax Media’s Jacqueline Maley gave a “shout-out” to Gillard whom, she said, “stayed silent and gracious post-prime ministership”. Maley must have forgotten Gillard’s character assessment of Rudd in her 2014 memoir My Story. The second volume of Rudd’s memoir is due out shortly and is likely to contain a fair dose of retaliation.
Last year Keating delivered an extraordinary attack on Menzies when launching the first volume of John Edwards’s John Curtin’s War. Keating accused Menzies of being “a woeful coward” when prime minister for the first time between May 1939 and August 1941. Yet as Edwards acknowledges in his book, when Curtin was leading the Labor opposition in the 1940 election, his policies were essentially similar to Menzies’. Edwards writes: “Though he had for years warned of a Pacific war, Curtin did not prepare for one with much greater urgency than (Arthur) Fadden or Menzies.” Yet no one has accused Curtin of cowardice.
In his memoirs Hawke criticised Keating. And in the final years of his life Fraser was highly critical of Howard, even resigning from the Liberal Party during the Howard government. After his prime ministership ended, Whitlam focused his criticism on governor-general Sir John Kerr, who dismissed him for attempting to govern without supply, rather than Fraser, who had initiated the constitutional crisis by blocking supply in the Senate.
If political success is to be judged by international, economic and political security, then Australia has been well governed for most of the time since the creation of the commonwealth in 1901. It’s just that most of our leaders in recent decades have looked back in anger at their predecessors.
The exception here is Howard, whose memoir Lazarus Rising is not replete with attacks on his colleagues on either side of politics. He reminds us of an earlier time when the likes of Menzies, Curtin and Chifley enjoyed good relations with each other despite their political differences.
In the aftermath of being replaced by Turnbull in September 2015, Abbott remained relatively quiet. He acted professionally up to the 2016 election and campaigned actively for his supporters. What some have described as Abbott’s wrecking occurred after the 2016 election when Turnbull refused to give him a suitable job in cabinet or the outer ministry.
Turnbull’s decision was made in the face of advice from Howard, who urged him to give Abbott a good job along the lines that Abbott had given Turnbull a senior role in his government. Here Turnbull made an error by not respecting a former Liberal leader who won an election from opposition. Only Menzies, Fraser and Howard had also done so.
In the light of all this, Scott Morrison’s decision to provide Turnbull with an overseas travel entitlement when acting on behalf of the government makes sense. Former prime ministers deserve respect, even those who bag their predecessors as miserable ghosts.