Yes Prime Minister


I wrote the original version of this piece in July 2011, at a time when Julia Gillard had been PM (and won an election in her own right) for less than a year. Now as we approach three years, and the next election, I thought it was time (also prompted by the excellent recent post by Rodney Lever on the same topic) to re-evaluate, see if my view had changed. And to spell out in more detail my reasoning. See what you think.

In the last 70 years (a period which neatly uses the war years as the start of modern Australia, and allows me to consider only prime ministers serving in my lifetime) Australia has had 13 prime ministers (excluding the temporary Mr Forde, Mr McEwan) just as both the US and UK have had 13 leaders each. You would have to say by any objective measure, and ignoring sniping by people like me, we have been by and large very lucky and very well served by our baker’s dozen. We have avoided having any real dunces (unlike the US with Ford, Reagan, Bush and Bush) or crooks (Nixon). Our 13 also exceed the average quality of 13 British PMs (who avoid the US highs and lows) over that period.

I have, in the past, tried to separate out tops and bottoms. But this would be invidious among a continuous spectrum, and besides I find my opinion alters over time (Fraser up and Keating down for example). So let’s try to assess them over a range of qualities (not including IQ which I reckon averages high and pretty even).

OK, how might we judge the best of these thirteen? Lack of ideology; flexibility of mind; ability to relate to people; difficulty of political circumstances faced; ability to work with colleagues; concern for ordinary people; concern for minorities and the powerless; awareness of the big picture; ability to embody some aspect of the country; hard-working; willingness to take expert advice; someone I can imagine having an intelligent conversation with; someone I could imagine having a beer with; someone who can achieve outcomes; someone who can stand up to vested interests.

Applying those filters quickly begins to whittle down the big thirteen. McMahon, Holt disappear immediately, lightweights who were barely up to ministerial level, let alone PM. The next seven go for different reasons. Rudd and Gorton because of inability to work with colleagues; Howard because of his narrow-minded stubborn ideology; Keating because of his obsession for free markets and against environment; Fraser because of the unprincipled way he seized power, all go out in the first round. Then it gets hard Whitlam and Chifley are reluctantly, because of the magnificent achievements of both, eliminated in the second round. Chifley because of the miner’s strike. Whitlam because his best days were the duumvirate with Lance Barnard. After that he saw himself as the Emperor leaving his cabinet to do their thing, which after 23 years they were mostly not up to in the face of the Murdoch onslaught.

Which leaves just four in the grand final of Australia’s Got Prime Ministerial Talent – Curtin, Menzies, Hawke and Gillard. Now any of those would be a Winner you could argue for, give a standing ovation to, and I reckon you, my fellow judges, might easily disagree with me. Curtin is there because he seems by any measure one of the most decent, and  was the only one faced with stopping Australia being invaded in wartime in face of the self-interest of UK and US. Menzies, not because I think much of him (or his over-rated wit), but because you simply can’t ignore 18 years in The job. Hawke, again not because I think much of him but because, in contrast to Whitlam, he put together an extraordinarily good team, arguably the best in Australian history, and kept the public and media onside 

But, drumroll, my Winner is, on the basis of consistent performance overall – Julia Gillard. Yes, I know, I was surprised too. I fed all the data back into my PM “Difference Engine” (the very latest from Mr Babbage), and waited while the cogs whirred and spun, differences calculated, levers pushed for carries. Yes, it was still Julia by a nose. Do the calculations yourself (and get Ms Lovelace to double check, be analytical) I am sure you will agree.

So, what did the print-out show? That she’s really the only one who has had to deal with complex minority rule (Curtin did briefly in simpler circumstances). That she has had to deal with an Opposition determined to smash parliamentary conventions, and also in extraordinarily unprincipled moves force out two members of parliament to try to destroy the majority.

She has had other problems shared with other PMs, for example family difficulties (eg Hawke, Chifley), a persistent rival (again Hawke, plus Howard, Gorton), virulent press opposition (Whitlam, Keating, but I’ll come back to this), difficult world financial circumstances (Keating, Hawke, Rudd, Chifley), but no one else has faced them all simultaneously. Nor carried them off while remaining calm and pleasant and working well with all her colleagues except her predecessor and several of his supporters, and succeed in passing record amounts of legislation, much of great importance (carbon price, NBN). A number of them have given fine speeches, but none perhaps as significant as Gillard’s now world famous “misogyny speech”, the response to the constant nasty misogyny from the Opposition, outraged that a woman dared to be in charge.

Oh, look, I am no longer the starry-eyed boy who has political heroes like I once did (Jim Cairns, JFK). Julia Gillard is no Chifley or Whitlam in terms of Labor values. Her lack of interest in environmental matters is stunning. Her approach to asylum seekers leaves Fraser gasping. Her hard line on unemployed and single parents would have had her thrown out of Chifley’s cabinet. Her unconscionable pursuit of the Religious Right, in such matters as same sex marriage and school chaplains must have Whitlam and Hawke shaking heads. And so on and so on. Some of that has been forced on her by circumstances, some seems to be flaws in her thinking. But then all of them have had flaws of various kinds. If there is to be the perfect PM we haven’t quite found him or her yet.

So, best PM in 70 years, but there is another unique feature that distinguishes Ms Gillard from all her predecessors. No, not the size of her ear lobes, her hair colour, her clothes, her voice, her glasses. Give in? She has been subject to more personal abuse, vilification, hatred, death threats, than all of her predecessors put together.

At the same time she has been subject to the most one-sided unfair media coverage and constant virulent media attacks we have ever seen. The move by John Howard to not merely “neutralise” the ABC, but move it so far to the Right as to be able to run in harness with News Ltd has been decisive. As has the role of other media barons, their tame shock jocks, and their supportive “think tanks”. Not a government decision goes damningly uncritised, not a move is fairly reported, not a motive nastily unquestioned, not a fake leadership challenge left unturned. At the same time, the most incompetent, secretive, and low target Opposition in our history, has been not only left unchallenged, unquestioned, but praised in glowing terms, given dream runs, soft interviews, prominent soapboxes, on media outlets.

Both media and Opposition are determined to remove a vaguely left wing government and replace it with a hard right one which will undo all the advances Gillard has made and turn Australia into a ground as fertile for big business profit as America. If they succeed, and I reckon the chances are they will, then the baker’s dozen will end with her, a unique sequence come to an end. If Tony Abbott seizes the top job, then we will have not only taken on Tea Party politics from America, but their roller coaster leadership sequence in which some excellent, or at least above average, Presidents, can be succeeded by real dickheads, people who struggle to read a children’s book about a pet goat.

Anyway, over to you. Have I gilded the lily, overegged the pudding?

20 comments on “Yes Prime Minister

  1. Well you’ve certainly roped in the Ranga! There’s not much I agree with in your piece, but it’s a bloody good read.


  2. Buff McMenis says:

    You have a problem, 8 Degrees .. you don’t use your brain efficiently. You have what we used to call in the Balga Cricket Club .. an “attitude” problem.


  3. Terry Mcconville says:

    You are right,Julia has had to put up with much more opposition and garbage than any other, she has stated strong and steadfast and passed some nation changing bills.
    More power to her


  4. Mindy says:

    Excellent post Mr Melon. I agree.


  5. markje4 says:

    Have always considered the greatest but have been impressed with Julia Gillard from the very beginning. I don’t think there is any stronger performer and am constantly amazed at the strength and resilience she shows in the face of constant attacks.


  6. She is a very strong prime minister with loads of GUTS more than any of the opposition.


  7. Don says:

    OK. Some good summaries there but something irks. Not an “unprincipled” seizure of power but a remarkable lack of understanding of the consequences of her agreement to the stealth that brought it about and of the resultant divided house. Loss of points for Julia. I guess it depends how you weigh the things on your list. For the sheer weight of what he had to face and what he did, it’s Curtin.


  8. paul walter says:

    I think you got it fairly right, although for me, Gillards lack of gorm in facing down Israel and the US has had me perturbed.
    But yes,she’s earned the right to be taken seriously, I think of her in terms of Hawke; astute and pragmatic.


  9. fred says:

    Pretty much agree David.
    I wouldn’t put Menzies in the top 4 and Hawke [and therefore Keating also] was the epitome of the reasons I left the ALP.
    Gillard, despite her faults and those of the party she leads, certainly near the top.


  10. lursibelle5 says:

    Great article, David. I think you were a bit hard on her environment cred. She has a great Minister in Burke (except for the Tarkine).& she DID allow a conscience vote on Gay Marriage. (The bill would have passed if Abbott had allowed one too.) I liked Keating better than you do.
    I think she has failed on refugees – but she is now locked in to Houston’s manifesto.
    I think it’s fine that mothers should go on to Newstart when kids turn 8yrs. But Newstart allowance is not enough.
    I think she has failed to communicate her successes to the voting public. Has not been strong enough in disproving Abbott’s lies. eg no defence or explanation/denouncement of his “Carbon “TAX” lie. .
    I believe she should do a fortnightly address to the Nation. on every channel/station.
    Congratulations and please keep turning out these great articles.


  11. Chris Grealy says:

    Did you really take into account “unprincipled seizure of power?” That seems to have turned off many, many electors, and I don’t know if she’ll ever be forgiven for that. If that is a criterion, she’s an instant disqualification. As to Rudd being unable to work co-operatively, I’m inclined to think that this characterisation was done post mortem to justify his assassination.


    • David Horton says:

      Fair question Chris. I didn’t include any of the intra-party “seizures of power” which have characterised both parties since time began. There have been very few “peaceful handovers”. So I didn’t count that against say Hawke, or Keating, or Howard, or McMahon, or Chifley, or indeed Rudd. The notion that changing leaders from Rudd to Gillard, for what clearly seemed excellent reasons to a nig majority of the party is a uniqu sin by Gillard is a media and Coalition beat-up. The Dismissal engineered by Fraser and friends however was quite a different matter, a grave misuse of the Constitution.

      The view of Rudd’s style seems to have been pretty widely shared by those who most closely suffered from it.


      • Don says:

        All “handovers” are different, undoubtedly Fraser’s the worst and deservedly most deplorable. Without going into the machinations behind them (factions, broken promises etc) the public has the bad taste of why the “loyal” No.2 (Julia) did not simply go to Rudd and tell him that there was major disquiet about his style and direction and that he should change or be deposed. No, she deposed without any such opportunity for the man who had so convincingly brought them into office. If this characterises politicians I don’t want to have a beer with any of them.


        • David Horton says:

          Hi again Don. Don’t want to drag this on too far, and I am certainly not going to cast myself in role of Julia Gillard’s apologist. But I will say the action you suggest, given my experience with several extremely bad bosses during my working life, was simply impossible. If someone was approachable in such a way the problem wouldn’t arise in the first place.


  12. Sandy says:

    I agree with you David whole heartedly, I have been amazed at how Julia Gillard remains standing after the vitriol, abuse & disrespect thrown at her daily, I would be in bed with the pillow over my head!
    No PM has had to take this, yet she keeps on going, negotiating through a hung parliament, negotiating through her own party, keeping calm and plowing on with a smile and a laugh. Unfortunatley no matter how she plays it, she will be dammed if she does and dammed if she doesn’t by the mostly pale stale males of the opposition and media.
    Don’t get me wrong she has made mistakes but no PM has been perfect before why do we expect this one to be?
    I loved Hawke, was not keen on Keating until I looked at his term as PM in retrospect then realised just what he had done for Australia.
    I wish people would look at what this PM with her team has done, with a hung parliament and a feral opposition, and think what they could do for refugees, animal rights, the environment etc without that millstone around their necks. Think about that in September!


  13. susanai says:

    Reblogged this on SUSAN'S SPACE and commented:
    I think PM Gillard has been given rotten treatment by the media, also that the polls are out of whack or the people are in Australia have all turned into raving teabaggers.


  14. JohnB says:

    Well put together article David – JG is a brave, intelligent leader and has been “blessed” during her time with the convergence of some of the most difficult issues ever faced by western industrial civilizations. She has made significant progress on addressing social and sustainability issues, in the face of myopic greed based opposition from MSM and energy/resource based industries.

    Citizens today are encouraged by “conservative” politicians and MSM to have no regard or understanding of sustainability issues currently building at an alarming rate; to live in a thoughtless “magic pudding” world, where any change that threatens some restraint or discomfort to their present unsustainable lifestyles is howled down. Opportunistic coalitions politicians offer false hope, that upon their election to power, we can all get back on the bus of endless growth and consumption – all that’s needed is to ignore science, abolish climate change commissions/committees and carbon taxing/trading devices so we can all get on with our unfettered ‘fracking’ / fossil fuel consumption, thus to ensure we go on living wastefully in perpetuity.

    “The Dust Bowl” documentary currently showing on SBS TV is a salient example of how earlier human ignorance, stupidity and disregard for the environment lead to eventual natural catastrophe, albeit on a smaller scale than what is facing mankind not far into the future.
    I find it appalling that supposedly intelligent “leaders” are irresponsibility leading their citizens further down the road towards science predicted environmental disaster – for until apathetic misinformed citizens are impacted by the repercussions of natural or economic hardship, they will remain ignorant of the importance of today’s “unpopular” government environmental policies.
    This is not a sign of lack of leadership on Julia Gillard’s behalf, quite the contrary.
    It is a failure of capitalism to recognise and operate within natures boundaries, made possible by myopic human greed for unlimited power and wealth.


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