The view from Billinudgel

Opposing forces
Even during a time of crisis, history shows that partisan politics has a role to play

John Curtin (left) and Robert Menzies at an Advisory War Council meeting. Photograph courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

Scott Morrison’s national cabinet is working pretty well so far.

There is contention – some premiers, notably Daniel Andrews in Victoria and Gladys Berejiklian in New South Wales – reckon the Commonwealth is dragging its feet, and all have made it clear that if necessary they will go their own way should they feel it is in the interests of their constituents.

Although there are decisions being taken at the national level, and a degree of consensus as the urgency of the crisis becomes more apparent, there is still a feeling that Morrison could have done better, and that he should have invited the federal Opposition to join Team Australia.

Anthony Albanese has made it clear that he feels snubbed, and that the rejection has more to do with partisan politics than considered policy. But he is not pushing his case too hard, perhaps because he knows his history.

There is a precedent: the Labor government took precisely the same approach in World War Two. The party’s leader, John Curtin, was in minority government in desperate times, but when he formed his war cabinet he was adamant that expanding it beyond his own members was not an option, not negotiable.

The then reborn leader of the Opposition, Robert Menzies, was radiating availability, eager to grab a share of power. In his brief earlier term as prime minister he had gone to London, where he had lobbied shamelessly to be included in Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet. And he had some support in Whitehall then: a handful of Tories even suggested that he should take over as leader to head a new transnational government on behalf of the British Empire.

Needless to say Churchill was not impressed, and when Menzies returned to Australia nor was Curtin. The prime minister made it clear to his colleagues that he wanted no political disputes in making the momentous decisions before him. He was the man in charge – his government was precarious, but it was the government.

Menzies was leader of the Opposition, and his principal task was, as the title implied, to oppose – to bring the government down and replace it. The conflict of interest would have been unworkable.

However Curtin threw Menzies an olive branch: he implemented his iteration of the Advisory War Council, a loose coalition comprising the war cabinet and members co-opted from both side of parliament. Its functions dealt with military strategy along with munitions production, transport and the general infrastructure associated with the war effort.

Menzies agreed with alacrity, and the arrangement lasted throughout the war. The council had no formal power, but the government usually accepted its decisions automatically. This is similar to the system that is prevailing during the response to the pandemic. The Opposition is not in the national cabinet, but Albanese, shadow health minister Chris Bowen and other relevant shadow ministers are well and truly within the loop.

During last week’s one-day parliamentary sitting Bowen went out of his way to thank the health minister, Greg Hunt, for his consideration in listening to Bowen’s suggestions. And although Labor spokespeople, including both Albanese and Bowen, have criticised what they see as Morrison’s sluggishness in moving towards more drastic measures, there is little or no real aggro.

But there isn’t consensus, and nor should there be. We still have an Opposition, with a right and a duty to oppose. That is called democracy. And if some people find it uncomfortable and inconvenient, well, tough.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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