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What's New
2016, May, 4 publication

Australian Prime Ministers: the first 50 years

Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin (source: Wikimedia commons)

My review of an important new book on the Australian Prime Ministership has just been published in the Australian Book Review (May, 2016). Forget the weird cover of the book; the content is fascinating and important. The authors are Paul Strangio, Paul 't Hart and James Walter. They weave together the emergence of the office of Prime Minister (a process of historical institutionalism) with the role and impact of the individuals who occupied it (a process of human agency, or leadership). Here is a link to the review in ABR (though to be fair, you should subscribe: it's a great mag). And anyway, here is the review:

In the early years after Federation ...

... Australia’s first Prime Minister Edmund Barton, was accommodated on the top floor of the Victorian Parliament in Spring Street, in a converted garret. At the end of a parliamentary day, the convivial Barton would invite ministerial colleagues up to the flat where they would talk long into the night. Then, as one Senator later recalled, before going home they would cook chops and make billy tea in the open fireplace ‘in bush fashion.’

Could any of our current leaders boil a billy? Is an open fire in the PM’s suite even allowed? Perhaps in this sense our system of government has lost something useful. Prime Ministers are better accommodated these days, but they’ve lost the bucolic capacity to resolve policy over a barbequed chop and a cup of tea.

This book traces the emergence of the office of the Prime Minister over five decades, from its billy tea origins to become the predominant political office in the Australian system. At a simple level, it’s a history of ‘firsts’:

the first Prime Minister to resign (Barton); the first PM to serve multiple terms (Alfred Deakin); the first prime minister’s department (created by Andrew Fisher in 1911); the first prime ministerial motor car (‘an eye-catching myrtle green Renault’ acquired by Fisher); the first private staffer (Lloyd Dumas, appointed Billy Hughes’ press officer in 1917); the first to draw up a Cabinet agenda (Stanley Bruce) – and so on through to John Curtin and Ben Chifley in the 1940s, the first to realise the ‘potential of the prime minister’s office as the platform for national leadership.’

At a more analytical level, the book unravels the complex reasons for this steady accretion of Prime Ministerial power. The authors locate three drivers: an institutional process (how the Prime Ministership was adapted from its Westminster roots, creating a gradually changing set of practical opportunities and constraints for each incumbent); a performative process (how each individual used his personal skills and style to improvise the role and to establish personal authority); and a contextual process (the historical ‘moment’ of booms and busts, war and peace, with which the PMs had to deal).

Within this framework, we see each Prime Minister dealing with circumstances that were constantly changing but also strangely recurrent, and doing so using institutional tools and concepts that, in the path-dependent structure of the job, were inherited and familiar, but also gradually expanding. The compelling narrative reveals the Prime Ministership grappling with rival centres of political power - the ministry, the bureaucracy, the Cabinet, the parliament, the states and, not least, the political parties.

Some were gradually subsumed under prime ministerial authority while others remained untamed and contingent. Perhaps the most potent of these untamed challenges is the ever-contested relationship between the roles of Prime Ministership and party leader. Contrast the stalwart and collegial Labor man Fisher with Hughes, whose personal arrogance, secretive style and divisive volatile populism ultimately split the Labor party – and then led to him being dumped by the Nationalists. Hughes’ fate, the authors observe, ‘confirmed that prime ministerial power in Australia did now hinge on maintaining the confidence of his party.’

Taking a short detour from their historical narrative, the authors elaborate on that insight. Hughes was not unlike Kevin Rudd a century later, in that both suffered the ‘dangerous self-conceit’ of being the smartest guy in the room: they were disdainful of those around them, impatient and autocratic. The Hughes era, in other words, was a ‘harbinger of the modern ‘presidential prime ministership’, and yet the trend towards personalised government and leader autonomy’ is accompanied by more frequent party room coups.

This is a “collective biography,” and the authors unapologetically present some PMs as making more significant contributions than others to the institutional development of the Prime Ministership. The titans in this narrative are Deakin, the ‘ringmaster’ of the first decade, Fisher and Hughes, Bruce and the doomed Jim Scullin, Joe Lyons and Robert Menzies, and the ‘nation-building tandem’ of Curtin and Chifley. By contrast Chris Watson, George Reid and Joseph Cook are bit players, and the interstitial Earle Page, Arthur Fadden and Frank Forde scarcely appear.

This makes sense, though it does mean some important aspects of prime ministerial expansion are overlooked. In the twilight of Empire, for example, dominion Prime Ministers had to establish their authority over the local viceroy, the British Government and the crown. The otherwise forgettable Cook took an important step in 1914, when he persuaded the Governor-General to grant the first double dissolution. As well as securing a very handy constitutional tool for future PMs, the move also underlined, as John Nethercote has recently shown, that Governors-General must take the advice of the Australian government.

Scullin’s larger contribution to the cause of prime ministerial power is similarly underdone. In 1930 Scullin resolutely confronted King George V, in his very palace, to insist on the Australian nomination of Isaac Isaacs as Governor-General. By thus procuring the appointment of the first Australian-born Head of State, Scullin junked the previous system (Bruce had been required to select from a short-list of Tory peers drawn up in London) and ensured, for once and for all, that the crown’s discretion was confined to accepting the advice of a dominion Prime Minister.

The authors lay claim to writing “the first comprehensive history of the Australian prime ministership.” Reading this useful and important story, one wonders why it has taken so long.

The three authors are all prominent and prolific scholars in the burgeoning field of public leadership at Monash University (Paul Strangio and James Walter) and Utrecht and ANU (Paul ‘t Hart ). This ARC-funded collaboration follows their comparative study (2013) of Prime Ministers in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK and the study (2012) by British scholar Mark Bennister of PMs John Howard and Tony Blair. We thus have important new insights into the emergence and capacity of a distinctive and powerful Australian institution.

Satisfied with the content of this book, readers are likely however to be confused by its cover. The awkward title, ‘Settling the Office: from Federation to Reconstruction’ seems determined to be obscure. It has nothing to do with the Deakinite Settlement but refers (it eventually emerges) to the Prime Ministership becoming ‘settled’ as a platform for national leadership. It wrongly excludes the colonial era, which is the subject of the first, fascinating, chapter, while ‘reconstruction’ refers not to the prime ministership but (we finally learn) to the post-war Australian economy. Why not: “Australia’s Prime Ministership: the first fifty years”?

This confusion is doubled by the truly baffling cover design. The image is of a key (why?) on which is balanced (why?) the old parliament house in Canberra. But surely the whole point of the book is that the Prime Ministership is separate and distinct from the institution of parliament. And, what’s more, it forgets that Barton boiled his billy in the Victorian Parliament, which served as the seat of national government for more than half the period covered by this book.

Settling the Office: The Australian Prime Ministership from Federation to Reconstruction

By Paul Strangio, Paul ‘t Hart and James Walter

Miegunyah Press, $49.99 hb, 313 pp, 9780522868722

Stephen Mills