Most departing prime ministers leave gracefully, others go kicking and screaming

Crossing paths: Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: Alex EllinghausenIn the past half-century it has often been the case that prime ministers, on leaving office either voluntarily, as in the case of Sir Robert Menzies, or otherwise, also withdrew from parliamentary politics.

What Tony Abbott is going to do is so far unclear. This is causing quite a bit of angst in various quarters. There is much history among ex-prime ministers for Abbott to draw upon.

Among Menzies’ successors, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, and John Howard all left Parliament immediately. Julia Gillard stayed three months until the 2013 general election which she did not contest.

Kevin Rudd, after his second innings as prime minister ended with Labor’s defeat at the 2013 election, lingered a little before resigning.

This was far from the historical pattern. Indeed, apart from the three incumbents who died in office (Joe Lyons, John Curtin and Harold Holt), only two departed immediately – Sir Edmund Barton, appointed to the High Court; and Andrew Fisher, to London as high commissioner.

Even Stanley Melbourne Bruce, who lost his seat in 1929, recovered it at the following election (1931) and immediately joined the Lyons government as assistant treasurer.

The rest, including Rudd after his first innings at the prime ministerial crease, remained in parliamentary politics and were far from inactive.

Two, having relinquished the prime ministership, stayed in cabinet. Menzies, still leader of the United Australia Party, was Minister for Defence Co-ordination in Arthur Fadden’s short-lived ministry.

In 1971, John Gorton, who became deputy leader of the Liberal Party after voting himself out of office in the party room, took the Defence portfolio in William McMahon’s government.

He was asked to resign a few months later following a controversial newspaper article defending himself from various claims in Alan Reid’s The Gorton Experiment. McMahon’s unpopularity meant periodical speculation that Gorton would recover the leadership. Nothing perceptible appeared to happen.

Both Gorton and McMahon joined the shadow cabinet when the Liberals went into opposition in 1972.

When each of Deakin’s first two prime ministerships ended, his various manoeuvrings ensured no other prime minister – Chris Watson, George Reid and, finally, Andrew Fisher –  was assured of long tenure.

Deakin’s machinations were modest compared to Billy Hughes’ long record in disruption. He became leader of the Labor Party in October 1915. In little more than a year the party split over conscription. Hughes hung on tenaciously, soon combining in a Nationalist government with his former opponents in the first Liberal Party (including Joseph Cook, prime minister, 1913-14).

Hughes won two elections, 1917 and 1919, but, in 1922, the emergence of the Country Party committed not least to his removal brought his time at the top to an end in February 1923. His party deserted him in favour of S. M. Bruce, the treasurer since 1921, the first time in Australian politics that a party leader had been explicitly unseated by his own followers.

He went to the backbench but he was not idle. Eventually, in 1929, he orchestrated defeat of the Bruce-Page government in a committee vote that legislation concerning the maritime industry and the role of arbitration should not be adopted until approved at a referendum.

After a few more years on the outer, he joined the UAP and was soon in the UAP-Country Party ministry. A colleague was none other than the engineer of his 1923 deposition, Dr Earle Page.

But he had written a book on foreign policy at odds with government policy and had to resign. Soon forgiven, he resumed his place in the ministry and contested the succession after Lyons’ death.

When Lyons died, the UAP was in turmoil. Menzies, the deputy leader, had resigned three weeks earlier. Hughes was thus the ranking UAP minister (and also Attorney-General).

Neither R.G. Casey, the treasurer, nor Page, the prime minister pro tem, wanted Menzies or Hughes. Without success, they urged Bruce, high commissioner in London since 1935, to return and take the leadership.

In a closely contested ballot for the leadership, Menzies defeated Hughes by one vote in April 1939.

Hughes eventually won the leadership of the UAP in opposition when Menzies resigned in October 1941. Two years later, following the 1943 election debacle, Menzies resumed the leadership without challenge.

In the intervening years he was less active in the House itself, where he was nominally a backbencher. But his stature was obvious when, in mid-1943, Fadden moved a confidence vote against the Curtin government. It was seconded, not by Hughes, but by Menzies. During 1942 he delivered his justly famous “Forgotten People” speeches. And, as the 1943 election approached, he was a vigorous campaigner for the Coalition. Moreover, he had something of a clash with Fadden, leading the Coalition forces, over a proposed scheme of post-war credits.

Fadden protested that “this stab in the back makes another betrayal in the series for which Mr Menzies has become notorious.”

After the election, Menzies reclaimed the leadership of the UAP (with Hughes as his deputy!) and leadership of the Opposition. He set about the creation of a formidable political force, the Liberal Party.

As well as Fisher in 1913-14, three Labor prime ministers, following electoral defeat, have led the party in opposition. James Scullin, the ill-fated prime minister during the Depression (1929-31), had nearly four years and led the party in the 1934 contest, resigning in 1935 but remaining in Parliament until 1949. Long thought to have been a confidant of his successor, John Curtin, some doubt has recently been cast on this.

Ben Chifley, defeated in 1949, also took Labor to the double dissolution election of 1951. He died in the first days of the new Parliament.

And, finally, Gough Whitlam stayed to lead Labor in the 1977 election after the defeat two years earlier.

He was the last ex-prime minister to stay until Kevin Rudd persisted after his deposition in mid-2010. Rudd remained in Parliament, successfully held his seat at the 2010 general election and rejoined the cabinet as Minister for Foreign Affairs. But, early in 2012, he resigned with a dramatic speech from Washington, DC.

Again remaining active in politics, he recovered the party leadership and the prime ministership on the cusp of the 2013 election. The party lost, he surrendered the leadership and, shortly afterwards, resigned from Parliament.

If only briefly, Rudd wore the mantle of Billy Hughes with aplomb.

J.R. Nethercote is adjunct professor at the Canberra Campus of the Australian Catholic University.

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