Yet another suggestion that Labor MPs are wondering about whether or not to ditch their leader made me shake my head wearily. When will this stop? Changing the captain isn’t going to stop the journey of this ship: it is sailing to the port of no return. I tried to think of a time when things were worse. I couldn’t, and my memory of politics goes back to the late 1950s, when I began to study Australian politics as a graduate student.
At a funeral today I came across an old friend whose experience of government is much longer than mine (he was a very senior civil servant, and I was a statutory officer for only three years). So, out of the blue, I asked him the same question. Was our politics ever as bad is this? He shook his head. There had been a real bottom of the barrel in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he thought, when the Liberal party fractured itself over John Gorton’s leadership and Billy McMahon’s conniving and treacherous pursuit of power. But this one was worse.
‘At least, then, the Opposition had a real leader, in Whitlam. I don’t think that Abbott is in anything like the same class.’ He went on to point to some parallels. Billy McMahon, he said, was really hated, not just disliked, by some of those who had to work for him, in Treasury and elsewhere. You get somewhat the same reaction from senior civil servants today, if they are asked about the possible return of Kevin Rudd to the Lodge. The governing party is unable to focus on anything other than internal machinations: that is true today and was true then. There is little co-operation of any kind between the governing party and the opposition: true now, true then. And so on.
I thought I ought to put in a good word for Tony Abbott, and did so. I agree that he doesn’t inspire, me, or indeed anyone I know. And I know he puts some women off. But I don’t actually want an inspiring leader. Indeed, I’m not sure I want to be led at all by anyone in politics. I think that they are there to sort out some of the nagging immediate problems facing us, and to at least ask us to think hard about some of the longer-term ones. They are there to work for us, not to lead us — except in times of extreme national emergency. I’d much prefer a competent manager of government who is modest in what he or she thinks can be done in three years, and self-confident enough to talk to us sensibly about it.
And I can recall quite a few political leaders — at the State level, mostly — who didn’t look at all impressive until they reached the top of the food chain. Ben Chifley was one. There’s been a lot of hagiography about J. B. Chifley, and he deserves at least some of it. But neither he nor John Curtin were ‘inspiring’. Both were rather dour, but they did their jobs effectively, and Chifley was an excellent manager. Had he not gone down the bank nationalisation path he could well have won the 1949 election and survived, his party with him, for another term or three.
Bolte in Victoria and Askin in NSW were not seen as inspiring, and both were much disliked. But they were effective managers and they won further terms in office. Billy McMahon was never an Opposition leader, but he was a long-term Minister and generally thought to be an effective one, though not at all trustworthy. And once he became Prime Minister, at least for a few months, he sounded, and seemed to act, as though he was a competent one.
But he wasn’t. It’s worth remembering, however, that Gough Whitlam, with all his charm, intellect and energy, did not have a comfortable victory against McMahon in 1972. I expect Tony Abbott and the Coalition to win power in 2013, very comfortably indeed. I also expect that he will look much more impressive as PM than he does today as Leader of the Opposition. He is no dope, and he had long experience as Leader of the House, which is a testing position. I would not write him off, not at all, even if he does not ‘impress’.