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?