History doesn’t repeat
Politics is messy and chaotic, and context always matters

The first Chifley cabinet, in 1945. Source.

There is much to agree with in George Megalogenis’s  ‘History repeats’, especially his central proposition that Abbott, Gillard and Rudd “have not been great leaders”. It is difficult not to nod in agreement at his depiction of Labor as “the cynical party of the focus group” and the Liberals as captives of “zealotry”.

Megalogenis also rebuts the misleading view that the Hawke-Keating years were a time of bipartisan “détente” as the major parties worked to “wave through reform in the national interest”. Instead, he sees the major parties in accord on “the nature of the challenge” while they “argued over the detail”.

However, Megalogenis over-simplifies and also constructs an unconvincing picture of cycles in Australian political history. He sees similarities between the period of Curtin, Chifley and Menzies (1941–66) and the more recent Hawke, Keating and Howard (1983–2007). “Australia’s history is almost long enough now to spot its repetitions,” he says.

Well, no. The coincidence of strong governments succeeded by weak says more about the decay resulting from the effluxion of time than it does about fixed historical patterns.

If we looked at federal politics in 1941, at the outset of the first “incumbent cycle that changed the nation”, we might have seen a different pattern. The first decade of federation was characterised by minority non-Labor governments, usually supported by Labor, which also formed the nation’s first elected majority government in 1910. But the next three decades delivered a Labor party that split twice, delivering defectors to its opponents, including two prime ministers, and rendering Labor unable to win elections or maintain government when it did.

In 1916, Billy Hughes split the ALP over conscription, joined with his opponents and went on to become the longest-serving prime minister to that point. He was followed by the three-term Bruce-Page government in the 1920s and the three-term Lyons government in the 1930s. In between, the Scullin government, elected in 1929, split three ways and was brought down by the Lang Labor forces and the renegades who defected with Lyons. Parliamentary elections being what they are, Labor regrouped and nearly won office in 1940, but the historical pattern suggested Labor would not be in office for long.

And this is where historical comparisons always run aground. The circumstances and context of particular periods cannot easily be compared. Perhaps the one constant is the similarity of strong and effective leaders.

Megalogenis points to the disappointing stints in office of Harold Holt (1966–67), John Gorton (1968–71) and William McMahon (1971–72). He finds one explanation in the varied apprenticeships of Curtin and Menzies and further similarities with the long political careers of Hawke, Keating and Howard. Interestingly, Menzies and Howard both lost their party leadership before making it back. Curtin lost his seat.

By contrast, Megalogenis points to the relatively short political careers of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Both entered parliament in 1998 and had never held ministerial office before becoming PM and deputy in 2007.

However, Megalogenis acknowledges that Tony Abbott doesn’t fit this pattern. Abbott had been a member of parliament for almost 20 years when he became prime minister. He was a minister for nine years under Howard from 1998, and Opposition leader for four. By any measure, Abbott was a seasoned politician, well-equipped for the top job. The same might be said of his cabinet, most of whom served as ministers under Howard, unlike the Rudd government which contained only two members (Crean and Faulkner) with previous ministerial experience.

What Megalogenis doesn’t mention is that Holt, Gorton and McMahon were also highly experienced. Holt first became a minister in 1940, and served continuously from 1949 until he became PM in 1966. Gorton had ten years’ experience as a minister and was government leader in the senate. McMahon was a minister for 20 years from 1951 in a variety of portfolios, including the big two of Treasury and External (Foreign) Affairs. Their political pedigrees didn’t save them: Holt was beginning to struggle at the time of his drowning, Gorton was toppled by his party, and McMahon lost an election.

Clearly, experience and background are not the definitive keys to political leadership. It’s more personal than that. Character and temperament might count more. Rudd is judged to have been deficient in the latter, but Gillard’s emotional stability did her no good at all.

Perhaps political cunning, the very factor many critics would have us revile, is the key. Menzies had it in abundance, as did Hawke and Howard. Megalogenis is right in saying that Keating wouldn’t have backflipped on tariffs to save the 1993 election, but he was more than prepared to backflip on the GST to win it. Let’s not ask for too much virtue and consistency when pragmatism comes calling.

Gambles and daring seem to matter. In 1951, Menzies held a double dissolution just 18 months after winning office. He shed a few seats in the lower house but won a majority in the senate. Despite heading into a difficult second term and a near-defeat in 1954, Menzies’s dominance over the ALP was gathering strength. By contrast, by not calling an early election in 2010, Rudd failed to secure the passage of his emissions trading scheme and opened the door to his internal opponents, while emboldening the miners and others who sensed a fundamental weakness.

Megalogenis doesn’t deal in any detail with the stark differences between the parties in the Curtin-Chifley-Menzies era but it’s hard to find much agreement between them on underlying principles. Chifley’s contentious plan to nationalise the commercial banks is about as stark a contrast in attitudes to the role of government as we’re likely to find. Attitudes to communism and political rights pointed to major philosophical conflicts.

Similarly, Megalogenis instances the Fraser government’s actions on the White Australia policy and on Vietnamese refugees as consensus between the parties. However, on policies such as universal health insurance, the gulf was wide and maintained for decades. Indeed, the battle to preserve Medicare is ongoing.

Perhaps it all depends on which policies each individual values most. Agreement on issues of race doesn’t preclude widespread conflict on bread-and-butter questions.

The 1980s program of the Hawke government also challenges the idea of a consensus on the nature of the challenge, let alone the solutions. Liberal attacks on the Accord rarely let up in that period. The political and media campaigns against the assets test on pensions and the fringe benefits tax were brutal. They point to fundamental differences over both problems and remedies. Add in other initiatives such as the Sex Discrimination Act, and even electoral reforms, and it’s easy to depict the 1980s as anything but the golden period of reasoned public debate that many now imagine.

It should also remind us that the idea of “reform” that has been taken up with alacrity by contemporary commentators should be taken with a huge grain of salt. It should be added to Don Watson’s list of weasel words, an exemplar of what you say when the political consequences decree you don’t dare say what you’re really thinking. The notion of reform in the national interest is a nice idea, but the daily reality is an ongoing political contest.

Politics is messy and chaotic. In his fundamental argument that history repeats, Megalogenis is wrong. Context matters. Much is framed by economic conditions. The quality of the individuals involved in the political process is important. It is indeed a matter of political party governance.

I don’t dispute the critiques of the major parties as organisations increasingly dominated by narrow cliques that often act as job placement agencies. And, yes, politics today is too often juvenile, nasty and poll-driven. But politics doesn’t stop. The ideal that Megalogenis postulates – a world in which “genuine conservatives” are pitted against “inspired reformers” – is a fantasy, an absurdity in a parliamentary system that is also one of the world’s most stable and mature democracies.

Political observers are throwing up their hands in despair these days. It’s not working out as smoothly as they had hoped. They see a crisis in the system that threatens our future.

You wonder what they would have been saying at the beginning of the Curtin era. A PM had been forced out of his party’s leadership and a government brought down on the floor of the house. In the midst of a world war and the fall of Singapore, the Opposition moved no-confidence in the new government.

Amidst life and death challenges, politics continued, altruism and self-interest colliding, philosophies clashing. That’s the only real lesson of history.

Malcolm Farnsworth

Malcolm Farnsworth publishes AustralianPolitics.com

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