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Political partnership greater than the sum of its parts

16 March 2013 1,597 views No Comment

AS the federal election date looms, there will be a heightened interest in Tony Abbott and his leadership team.

A defining feature of Australian politics has been the partnerships where two strong personalities have come together to complement each other in a way that means the combination is greater than the sum of the individuals.MNIR Story Ad

Australia’s longest serving prime minister Robert Menzies had a close relationship with his immigration minister Harold Holt, who went on to be treasurer during the latter half of Menzies’ government and succeeded him as PM. As a minister, Holt oversaw the dismantling of the White Australia policy, the establishment of the Reserve Bank and the conversion to decimal currency, while as PM Holt presided over the decision to hold a referendum granting the federal government power to legislate specifically for Aboriginal Australians.

For the first two weeks of the Whitlam government, the duumvirate of Gough Whitlam and his deputy Lance Barnard ran the country, with Barnard holding 14 portfolios until a full ministry was formed. Barnard remained deputy leader, but when Jim Cairns replaced him many saw it as the beginning of the end, with Whitlam undermined by a chaotic administration.

The next great political partnership was that of PM Bob Hawke and treasurer Paul Keating. Unlike Whitlam, Hawke and Keating were at the helm of a competent and capable government that played no small part in transforming Australia into the open modern economy that we enjoy today.

But the relationship between Hawke and Keating became increasingly frayed. When Keating unsuccessfully challenged Hawke in June 1991 he went to the backbench and denied federal Labor the benefits of their dynamic partnership. Unable to find another individual of Keating’s stature with whom to form a new partnership, Hawke lost the leadership in December 1991 to Keating, who went on to the win the unwinnable election of 1993. However, deprived of the talents of Hawke, Keating struggled to regain his standing with the Australian community and within three years lost to John Howard.

The 1996 election brought the political partnership of Howard and his foreign minister, Alexander Downer, which operated in tandem with Howard’s partnership with his treasurer, Peter Costello. While Howard and Costello dominated the economic landscape, they did not form a close political partnership or personal friendship.

In contrast, Howard and Downer became increasingly close. As PM and foreign minister they occupied two of the three most senior roles in government for the entire 11-year term and their mutual trust and regard was a driving force behind its success.

After the stability of the Howard administration, Kevin Rudd’s time as prime minister was a study in instability. One of the main failings of Rudd’s leadership was his inability to form close political partnerships with any of his colleagues. Isolated from his senior ministers, Rudd attempted to run a presidential government in a parliamentary and ministerial system designed to guard against individual politicians wielding too much power.

Having learned nothing from the Rudd experiment, Julia Gillard has followed in his footsteps, emulating his style of non-consultation. Her claim that she is being decisive may seem to be well and good, but such an authoritarian method works only if a prime minister possesses sound political judgment. Even the political colossuses of Hawke and Howard did not presume to have such impeccable judgment that they could ignore their parliamentary colleagues.

Therein lies a key to Gillard’s problems. Her political judgment is poor, the advice she relies on from staff is even worse, and some of the senior roles in her cabinet are occupied by ministers who do not support her leadership.

In contrast to the shambles that characterises the Gillard government, there are promising signs that the Coalition has a strong and stable leadership. Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop have grown enormously in stature, especially in recent months. It is clear they are forming a dynamic partnership that could propel both to achieve great things.

Although Abbott’s relatively low personal approval ratings might have made him a sitting duck to a disloyal deputy, Bishop has shown she has the personal discipline to provide unwavering support to her leader.

As a product of Sydney, Abbott is deeply involved in the life of that city, from his days at university playing rugby to his ongoing community roles as a surf lifesaver and volunteer firefighter. He is well regarded by the business community as a pragmatic Liberal with a strong social conscience.

Reared on a farm in South Australia, Bishop moved to Perth in the early 1980s. She is now a proud West Australian, intimately involved in the Perth business and arts scene. It is clear that she is a friend of successful WA Premier Colin Barnett. This will be important for Abbott, as WA will play a crucial role in the economic health of the nation. Bishop will bring a zeal for development and a deep suspicion of centralised government to her partnership with Abbott. She is widely seen as more of an economic conservative and a social moderate than Abbott and provides the balance that reassures the Liberal supporter base.

While there is no certainty as to how their dynamic will work under the pressure of government, it is important to remember that Bishop was a successful minister for ageing under Abbott’s health portfolio. More important, in opposition they have not only resumed but improved their close working relationship.

If elected, Abbott and Bishop will have a huge reform agenda with which to grapple in their first term. How their partnership evolves will be vital for the success of an Abbott-led government.

Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books.

The Weekend Australian, March 16 -17, 2013, Inquirer p 24

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