October 2007


Le parti, c'est moi

By Mungo MacCallum
Le parti, c'est moi
Liberal leaders since Menzies

Liberals love leaders.

They shouldn’t; they are supposed to subscribe to a libertarian philosophy which centres on the primacy of the individual and aims to keep the role of government of any kind to a minimum. The mere idea that society needs a strong leader to keep it on track ought to be anathema to any true believers among the heirs of John Locke and Adam Smith.

Yet the modern Liberal Party, since its formation in 1944, has depended, not just for its success but for its very survival, on the quality of its leaders, the guiding principle being the more powerful the better. When the leader has been in total control, the party has flourished; when the leader has faltered, the party has slumped.

The same has been true of other political parties, of course: a headless chook is by definition non-functioning. But the Liberals are unique, at least in Australia, in that all power is concentrated at the top; the membership, from the deputy leader down to the neophyte backbencher, from the federal president down to the humblest envelope-stuffer, has no real function, except to support the parliamentary leader. A Liberal prime minister enjoys the same status as a medieval monarch, and in many cases exercises a great deal more power.

The reasons for this preoccupation with control go back to the circumstances of the party’s creation. It was, of course, the invention of Robert Gordon Menzies, who made it clear from the start that it was to be his party and nobody else’s; he knew from bitter experience what happened when power was shared around. In 1944 he was already a veteran of the internecine wars that had led to the eventual collapse of the United Australia Party, the conservative conglomerate that had gained government as a result of the Great Depression and had held it uneasily into the first years of World War II.

The UAP was so loosely constituted that initially it couldn’t even provide a leader of its own; it had to pinch Joe Lyons from the Labor Party to unite the brawlers in its own ranks and provide a prime minister acceptable to its coalition partners in the Country Party, whose leader, Earle Page, was an implacable enemy of Menzies. Lyons was always seen as a weak leader, not least because Menzies set out to undermine him; his wife, Enid, later a minister in her own right, warned him of what was happening, but he seemed incapable of asserting authority. When Lyons died, in 1939, Menzies took over as prime minister, but by then the coalition was in tatters and the whole conservative side in disarray.

Menzies’ long absence in England - to attend meetings of the war cabinet - ensured his own demise, and with it that of the UAP: “I shall lie down and bleed awhile,” he said as he made way for John Curtin and eight years of Labor government. He may have bled, but he also planned. Within three years he had picked up enough of the pieces to form what was to become the most electorally successful party in Australia’s history. And it was founded on an unshakable rock: the paramountcy of the parliamentary leader.

The Labor Party, understandably suspicious about the accretion of all power in the hands of a single person, has always placed - or at least attempted to place - strict limits on what its leader can and cannot do. For a start, he cannot make policy; nor can the parliamentary party as a whole. Policy is the province of rank-and-file members, who appoint delegates to the party’s national conference either through their unions or through their branches. The national conference is the supreme policy-making body, and in theory any Labor member who defies it faces expulsion, whether prime minister or backbencher.

In practice, of course, the parliamentary party and its leader have a greater or lesser amount of discretion; and if a determined leader shows the ability to gain and retain government for the party, he can demand something close to a free hand. Kevin Rudd has done exactly that. But no Labor leader can claim total independence from the organisational wing in the way a Liberal leader regularly does. The ALP considers party conferences to be important political events; for the Liberals, they’re an opportunity for a bit of a gee-up from the party heavies and some serious socialising in the bar afterwards.

The other thing a Labor leader cannot do is select his own ministry. This is done by a vote of the parliamentary party, although in recent times this has amounted to little more than a rubber stamp for a list previously agreed upon by the factional leaders. Once again, a determined leader can usually insist on a couple of personal choices: Kevin Rudd demanded that room be found for Craig Emerson and Peter Garrett, and it was. But in theory, the leader’s power is limited to the allocation of portfolio responsibilities. A Liberal leader, in contrast, can hire and fire at will: no need for WorkChoices here. Preferment is the sole prerogative of the chief, whose every whim is law.

In practice, there will always be a need to include certain heavyweights, however distasteful the thought; the deputy leader, an elected position, can hardly be left out. John Howard has always been stuck with Peter Costello, like it or not (and he doesn’t). There is also a need to acknowledge at least a semblance of balance between the states; the Liberals still like to pretend they are a federal party, although the years have seen them become one of the most centralised organisations in Australia.

By and large, though, the knowledge that advancement depends entirely on the leader’s goodwill is a mighty incentive for followers to toe the line. Mavericks can be tolerated on the backbench because they can never be inflicted on the ministry, unless the leader chooses to do so. This allows the Liberals to boast that they are not tied to a party line like their Labor opponents, that they can and do - well, occasionally - take an independent stance. But the price of that independence can be permanent political impotence.

This was pretty much the way Menzies planned it: the party was built at his direction, in his image, under his leadership. La parti, c’est moi. From the start, there was never any question of a challenge; in any case, he had already seen off his only serious rival on the conservative side, Richard Casey, by appointing him as Australia’s first ambassador to Washington in the dying days of his first prime ministership. It was a precedent he was to follow with other potential rivals: in later years, Percy Spender and Garfield Barwick were also made offers of government postings that they could not afford to refuse. Even after a disastrous electoral miscalculation in 1961 which nearly cost him government (and would have, save for a handful of donkey voters in Jim Killen’s seat of Moreton) there was barely a mutter of dissent.

As far as both the party and the public were concerned, Menzies was the government, the unassailable leader - so much so that when he eventually prepared for retirement, he effectively anointed his own successor. Unlike such new-fangled democratic institutions as the College of Cardinals, the Liberal Party did not really require a vote.

It is constantly said of Menzies that he left at a time of his own choosing, which he did, and that he left behind a party in good shape, which he didn’t. Seventeen years of authoritarian rule, however benevolent, had been too many; any serious ambition or ability to take over had been leached out of those he left behind. The heir apparent, Harold Holt, had been in parliament for three decades (cop that, Peter Costello!) before moving into the Lodge, and it showed.

Holt wisely chose not to try and emulate his Olympian predecessor, but unwisely went too far in the other direction; rather that showing the strength needed to pull a bewildered party together, he announced that he would be primus inter pares, the formula Costello used to describe Howard’s newly diminished role. It means ‘first among equals’, implying that the leader is no more powerful than any other minister; his job is little more than that of a chairman at cabinet meetings.

But if this was ever true in the distant past of the British Westminster system, it certainly wasn’t true of Australia in the post-Menzies era. The voters were accustomed to a an avuncular but aloof presence at the top, an all-powerful figure who would lift their cares and worries from their shoulders. Holt was a nice-enough bloke, but that was where it began and ended. In the Vietnam election of 1966 he was able to beat Labor’s ageing Arthur Calwell soundly, but it was all downhill from there.

The parliamentary figure who most resembled the sorely missed Menzies was actually Gough Whitlam, who was consequently loathed and reviled by the Liberals as a class traitor; if only he had been on their side, the great leadership tradition would have continued. As it was, they fell in a heap and effectively remained there until the emergence of another towering, aloof, authoritarian figure: the squire of Nareen, Malcolm Fraser.

Fraser never attained the heights of Menzies’ omnipotence: where the founder was Ming the Merciless, Fraser was merely the Big Bastard, but always in tones of respect, even admiration. Fraser tolerated dissent, but not rivalry; when it became necessary, he trampled Andrew Peacock, who was admittedly pretty easy to trample. Peacock never was and never could have been the kind of strong leader the Liberals demand. As he left the last of his futile stints at the helm, he was asked if he still wanted to be prime minister. Peacock’s reply, “I’m not sure I ever did,” said it all.

John Howard never has and never would contemplate such introspection. Having outlasted John Hewson, watched Alexander Downer self-destruct and out-manoeuvred Costello, he was determined to take no prisoners. His mentor now was Margaret Thatcher, who gave him two pieces of advice. The first: never admit you are wrong; give your enemies nothing - and they are all your enemies, especially the ones who pose as your supporters (remember when Fred Chaney was your deputy and betrayed you). The second: while in office, make it your top priority to secure the appointments of the 600 people who really run the country.

Howard came to the job from a position of strength; as the last remaining leadership possibility, he had been drafted to the job and so held it on his own terms. And once he had led the party back to office, he was effectively invulnerable. His image was not the patrician tyranny of a Menzies or a Fraser; rather, the cocky self-confidence of a Napoleon. But it was no less ruthless for that: his first act was to slaughter a full third of the public-service heads in pursuit of Thatcher’s second commandment. If the aim was to encourage the others, it worked; the bureaucracy was cowed as never before.

A similar purge of the moderates in his own ranks, apart from a few token survivors, left him in complete control, and in Peter Costello he had another Andrew Peacock, a deputy who perpetually posed as a threat without ever actually becoming one. Howard was the very apotheosis of Liberal leadership: omnipotent, invincible. And his self-assurance reflected it: people knew what he stood for, he said. In fact, they didn’t; what he purported to stand for changed from week to week. But that was another example of strength. The mere fact that he was tough enough to get away with broken promises and policy flips somehow inspired confidence. When he undertook to make people relaxed and comfortable - his version of “Don’t you worry about that”, the reassurance proffered by another autocrat, Joh Bjelke-Petersen - it was with such conviction that people wanted to believe him, even if it was demonstrably not happening. When the polls turned against him, he was able to bounce back.

It was partly luck, but it was also a tribute to his tenacity and stubbornness. In the end, people believed in him because he never showed weakness ... until recently. Suddenly the Man of Steel is going to an election as a lame duck, forced to concede that he will retire without completing the term, in tandem with his much-loathed deputy - no longer seen as strong enough face the Opposition on his own. The leader can no longer lead.

And what is left? As in 1966, the senior players have either departed, like Peter Reith; have already proved failures, like Downer; or have displayed serious weakness, like Costello or Tony Abbott or Brendan Nelson. The whole structure has been built around the leader. Without him, it is hard to see it remaining standing. It is not really Howard’s fault; he exploited the system, but he didn’t invent it. Sure, he stayed too long, but even if he had left a year ago it is doubtful if Costello - or anyone else - could have filled the gap. The Howard monolith has fallen. It may be a while before the dust settles and the Liberals can find another strong leader to love.

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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