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Disposing of leaders, Australian-style

8 April 2017 225 views No Comment

Disposable Leaders
Rodney Tiffen
NewSouth Books $34.99

Coups are becoming increasingly common in Australia. This in turn means that, in recent years, party leadership has become much more precarious.

Rather clumsily subtitled “Media and Leadership Coups from Menzies to Abbott”, Rodney Tiffen’s ‘Disposable Leaders’ begins with the claim that in 1941 the later long-serving federal Liberal luminary, Robert Gordon Menzies was “the first Prime Minister to be overthrown by his own party.”

This is questionable on two counts.

In early 1923 W.H. (“Billy”) Hughes was forced to resign as Prime Minister due to the refusal of the Country Party to support him and the willingness of his Nationalist Party colleagues to bow to Country Party demands. On 9 February 1923 Hughes was replaced as PM by his protégé, Stanley Bruce.

And in August 1941 Robert Menzies was not overthrown, but chose to step down as PM. He then resigned as leader of the United Australia Party to be replaced by “Billy” Hughes. A joint UAP-Country Party meeting then chose Arthur Fadden to lead the coalition and hence become prime minister.

While Tiffen’s claim about Menzies is doubtful, he is correct in stating that, after Liberal PM John Gorton fell in March 1971, it was 20 years until Paul Keating defeated Bob Hawke to take over as prime minister in December 1991.

Tiffen helpfully contrasts the political stability of the mid to late 20th century with the fact that, in a mere five years, 21st century Australia has witnessed three sitting Prime Ministers being the victims of party coups. In June 2010 Labor’s Kevin Rudd was defeated by Julia Gillard. In June 2013 Rudd defeated Gillard. Then in September 2015 the Liberals’ Malcolm Turnbull ousted Tony Abbott.

In ‘Disposable Leaders’, all these events are dealt with in useful detail. So too is the battle between John Howard and Peter Costello, plus a number of crucial state conflicts.

A major contribution of Tiffen’s book is its careful and critical analysis of the pivotal role that all forms of Australia’s media have played, and continue to play, with regard to how and when leadership challenges occur.

‘Disposable Leaders’ is at its strongest in dealing with the overthrow of John Gorton by William (“Billy”) McMahon.

In January 1968 then Senator Gorton had become prime minister after Harold Holt disappeared, presumed drowned, in December 1967.

Then in March 1971, after the federal parliamentary Liberal Party was tied 33/33 in a vote of confidence in his leadership, Gorton resigned as PM – after which McMahon was elected Liberal leader and hence became PM.

The passions aroused by the McMahon ascendancy were compounded by the personal failings of McMahon who, as Tiffen puts it, “was perhaps uniquely lacking the qualities needed to unify the party.”

Leading Liberal minister and later Governor-General Paul Hasluck, who was extremely proper in public, was privately savage about McMahon. In an assessment, published after his death, Hasluck wrote: “The longer one is associated (with McMahon), the deeper the contempt for him grows … Disloyal, devious, dishonest, untrustworthy, petty, cowardly … a contemptible creature.”

Hasluck had earlier written that he was unwilling to serve in any government led by McMahon, who was widely known as “Billy the Leak”. As Hasluck said, “I did not trust or respect him, had a deep contempt for his political methods … and had learnt to expect disloyalty and betrayal from him.”

Tiffen explains that in a later parliamentary debate, to the amusement of both sides of the House, Labor leader Gough Whitlam “captured all McMahon’s weaknesses with the telling phrase – ‘Tiberius with a telephone’.”

In ‘Disposable Leaders’ McMahon is portrayed – accurately – as arguably Australia’s worst and most treacherous prime minister.

A weakness of Tiffen’s sometimes-unsatisfying book is the repetition of the utterly unnecessary phrase “of course”. Another is that, in Tiffen’s list of newspapers and other publications consulted, there is no mention of any Queensland media, not even the influential Brisbane daily ‘The Courier-Mail’.

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 39 books.

The Sydney Morning Herald & The Age, April 8, 2017.

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