Which Former Prime Minister Made The Quickest Departure From Parliament?

On September 1, The Weekend Australian published this list of prime ministers ordered by the time they remained in parliament after leaving the prime ministership.

Unfortunately, the newspaper has made a number of mistakes in the table.

The Australian

 

The most important error in ordering this list is the misunderstanding about the correct dates for the terms of members of parliament. A member’s term begins on their date of election. A member’s term ends on the day they resign or die. The term of a retiring member, or one who has lost pre-selection, ends when the parliament is dissolved ahead of an election. Only members re-elected at general elections are deemed to have continuous service. Election day is the final day for members who recontest and are defeated.

The lesson here, which I also learned the hard way, is not to rely on Wikipedia when checking dates. It is mostly correct for Australian MPs but there are crucial errors. The most reliable source is the current 45th edition of the Parliamentary Handbook.

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1. Andrew Fisher Should Be First

Andrew Fisher resigned from parliament on October 26, 1915. He resigned his third, and final, term as prime minister the following day, October 27. He is the only prime minister to have resigned his seat before resigning the prime ministership, and should be listed first on the table.

Note: Under Section 64 of the Constitution, an individual can spend three months as a minister before they need to become a member of parliament. Fisher’s position on October 27, 1915, was completely constitutional.

Fisher left to become Australia’s second High Commissioner to London, succeeding former PM George Reid. The table says Fisher departed parliament on December 11, but this was the date of the by-election for his Queensland seat of Wide Bay. Fisher’s three listings on the table should each be reduced by 46 days.

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2. Edmund Barton Beat Malcolm Turnbull

The table places Turnbull in first position, since he resigned from parliament seven days after losing the prime ministership.

Australia’s first prime minister, Edmund Barton, is listed in eighth position, having resigned from parliament on December 16, 1903, ninety-three days after he left the prime ministership. However, December 16 was the date of the general election that year, not the day Barton resigned. Barton had stood down from the prime ministership on September 24. He resigned his NSW seat of Hunter six days later, on September 30. Barton, therefore, should be listed second on the table, ahead of Turnbull.

Barton’s resignation was necessitated by his appointment as one of the three inaugural justices of the High Court. He was sworn in on October 5, 1903. Richard O’Connor resigned from the Senate on September 27 and was also appointed to the High Court on October 5. The Chief Justice, Sir Samuel Griffith, also took office on October 5, having resigned as Chief Justice of Queensland the day before.

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3. Fraser Moved Fast

Malcolm Fraser resigned from parliament on March 31, 1983, having lost the March 5 election. The table lists his departure as May 7, but this was the date of the by-election to fill his seat of Wannon.

Fraser left parliament twenty days after relinquishing the prime ministership on March 11. Accordingly, he belongs in fourth place on the table, behind Barton and Turnbull.

Thanks to @theredandblue for alerting me to this one, which led me to examine all the dates.

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4. Sir Robert Menzies Had A Second Term And Departed Quite Quickly

The table shows Menzies’ first term – notating it as (1) – and points out that he remained in parliament for another 8,938 days.

However, the table omits his long second term of 16 years, 1 month, 7 days. Menzies relinquished the prime ministership on January 26, 1966 and resigned his Victorian seat of Kooyong on February 17, twenty-two days later.

Menzies, therefore, should be listed in fifth position on the table, after Fraser.

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5. George Reid Was Already In London

George Reid resigned from parliament on December 24, 1909. This was to enable him to become Australia’s first High Commissioner to London on January 22, 1910. The table says he left parliament on April 13, 1910, but this was the date of the general election. Reid’s 1,773 days should be reduced by 110 days, moving him up one place on the list, ahead of Gorton.

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6. What Have They Done With Bruce?

Stanley Melbourne Bruce poses a singular problem for placement on this list. Having lost the 1929 election and his Victorian seat of Flinders, Bruce was returned as the member for Flinders at the 1931 election. Given that he did not serve a second term as prime minister, should he even be on the list? Like John Howard, who lost the 2007 election and his seat of Bennelong, the decision about when to leave was made for him.

Bruce retired from his second term in parliament on October 6, 1933. The table says he left parliament on November 11, 1933, but this was the date of the Flinders by-election. The 693 days shown on the table is the [incorrect] totality of his second term as a member of parliament. His prime ministership ended two years previously. It really makes no sense at all.

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7. Deakin Should Be Moved Up

Alfred Deakin retired from parliament on April 23, 1913. In three places, the table lists his departure as May 31, 1913, but this was the date of the general election. Deakin should have 38 days deducted from each of his entries on the table. His first term should be moved up one place to just ahead of McMahon.

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8. Five Dating Errors That Don’t Affect Anyone’s Position

James Scullin retired from parliament on October 31, 1949. The table lists his departure as December 10 but this was the election date and a retiring member ceases to be a member when the parliament is dissolved. Scullin left parliament forty days before the general election of December 10, 1949, so forty days should be shaved off the table’s 6,548 days.

Arthur Fadden retired from parliament on October 14, 1958, the day the parliament was dissolved ahead of the November 22 election. The table lists his departure as March 26, 1958, but this was the date he relinquished the leadership of the Country Party. His 6014 days should have another 202 added. Fadden continued as Treasurer until December 10, 1958, as permitted under Section 64 of the Constitution.

Joseph Cook retired from parliament on November 11, 1921. The table says it was December 10, but this was the date of the Parramatta by-election. Cook’s 2,641 days should be reduced by 29.

Chris Watson ceased to be a member of parliament when the Third Parliament expired on February 19, 1910. It is the only parliament to have expired by effluxion of time. The table says Watson served until April 13, 1910, but this was the date of the general election. Watson’s 2,064 days should be reduced by 53 days.

John McEwen retired from parliament on February 1, 1971. The table says it was March 20, 1971, but this was the date of the Murray by-election. McEwen’s 1,165 days should be reduced by 47 days.

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My Revised List

The list shows prime ministers as I have reordered them. The number in brackets shows the days each PM remained in parliament after ceasing to be PM.

  1. Andrew Fisher (third term – 0)
  2. Edmund Barton (6)
  3. Malcolm Turnbull (7)
  4. Malcolm Fraser (20)
  5. Robert Menzies (second term – 22)
  6. Julia Gillard (39)
  7. Paul Keating (43)
  8. Bob Hawke (62)
  9. Kevin Rudd (second term – 65)
  10. Frank Forde (443)
  11. Ben Chifley (551)
  12. Stanley Bruce (657 ??)
  13. Andrew Fisher (second term – 854)
  14. Gough Whitlam (992)
  15. Tony Abbott (1082)
  16. Alfred Deakin (third term – 1090)
  17. John McEwen (1118)
  18. Kevin Rudd (first term – 1247)
  19. Alfred Deakin (second term – 1662)
  20. George Reid (1663)
  21. John Gorton (1707)
  22. Chris Watson (2011)
  23. Joseph Cook (2612)
  24. Alfred Deakin (first term – 3283)
  25. William McMahon (3317)
  26. Arthur Fadden (6216)
  27. James Scullin (6508)
  28. Earle Page (8263)
  29. Robert Menzies (first term – 8938)
  30. Billy Hughes (10,854)

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A Quibble on Methodology

There is undoubtedly an internal logic to the table’s listing of prime ministers by their separate terms. They are clearly noted.

However, the contest between Fisher and Deakin was between two men in the prime of their political lives. The combat that led to their six separate terms is instructive of the emerging two-party system post-Federation. Neither man was going to leave parliament after his short first term. For each, their second term was their most significant, and their third was a coda to their main body of work. Which to list?

Similarly, in 1941 Menzies was young enough – 46 – to believe he could return to the prime minister’s office at a future date. Retirement wasn’t under consideration. Placing him second behind the aged Hughes as a prime minister who hung around for a quarter of a century after losing office presents a somewhat misleading picture.

Likewise with Rudd. He was just 52 when he was deposed in June 2010. He correctly believed he could in time return to the leadership of his party. Even when he finally left in 2013, he was only 56.

And is there any point in even listing Page, Forde and McEwen, let alone describing them as “defeated” PMs? All three were stop-gap leaders who temporarily filled the position following the death of their predecessor. As deputy leader of the ALP, Forde faced the possibility of becoming leader after Curtin died but he was defeated by Chifley. The two Country Party leaders had no realistic prospect of becoming prime minister, even though attempts were apparently made to conscript McEwen.

As always, tables, lists and dates need to be accompanied by some contextual and historical knowledge, and even psychological insight. It’s not that difficult to get the numbers right, but they never tell you everything.


John Howard, Historian Of Menzies, Addresses National Press Club

Ahead of the broadcast of his television documentary on Sir Robert Menzies, former prime minister John Howard has addressed the National Press Club.

Howard

It was Howard’s 40th appearance at the Canberra press club. The documentary on Menzies will be shown on ABC television at the end of this month.

Howard spoke about the Menzies period but also commented on contemporary politics.

He said Senator Sam Dastyari had become a liability for the ALP. He also warned the major parties against embracing identity politics and cautioned against too much legislative interference in political donations. [Read more…]


On This Day In 1966: Menzies Retires, Holt Government Takes Office

Having announced his retirement on January 20, Sir Robert Menzies officially departed the prime ministership on this day in 1966. Harold Holt’s first ministry was sworn in at the same time.

It was a historic moment 50 years ago that brought to an end the political career of Australia’s longest-serving prime minister. Menzies had been Prime Minister for two years between April 1939 and August 1941. He formed the Liberal Party in 1944 and served for six years as Opposition Leader before defeating the Chifley Labor government in December 1949.

Menzies went on to win six more elections in 1951, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961 and 1963. When he retired, he had been prime minister for 16 years and 5 weeks.

Holt

Harold Holt took office at the age of 57 with a ministerial career that had started 26 years earlier. He had first served under Menzies in 1940 and had been Treasurer since 1958. [Read more…]


Abbott On The Liberal Party’s 70th Anniversary

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has used his weekly video message to remember the 70th anniversary of the Liberal Party.

The Liberal Party was founded in 1944, following conferences in Canberra and Albury that were convened by Robert Menzies. Menzies was a former leader of the United Australia Party (UAP). He had been effectively deposed from the party’s leadership in 1941. The UAP collapsed in the aftermath of its landslide defeat in the 1943 election. [Read more…]


75 Years Ago Tonight: Robert Menzies Declares That Australia Is At War

Seventy-five years ago, on September 3, 1939, Prime Minister Robert Menzies broadcast to the nation the news that Australia was at war.

Menzies was 44 years old. He had been prime minister since April 26, 1939, taking over the leadership of the United Australia Party after the death of Joe Lyons.

Menzies would be forced from office in 1941 and the ALP’s John Curtin would carry the war effort whilst Menzies set about forming the Liberal Party. He returned to the prime ministership at the 1949 election. Winning another six elections, Menzies retired undefeated in January 1966, having served as PM for over 18 years.

  • Listen to Menzies’s announcement of war:

Edited transcript of Menzies’s announcement on September 3, 1939.

Fellow Australians,

It is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war. [Read more…]


December 10: Most Popular Federal Election Date

Today, December 10, is the single most popular day for federal elections in the history of the Australian federation.

Federal elections were held on this day in 1949, 1955 and 1977.

All three elections held on December 10 resulted in substantial victories to the Coalition.

In 1949, Robert Menzies swept the Chifley government out after 8 years of Labor rule.

In 1955, in the aftermath of the ALP Split, Menzies called an early election and won his fourth consecutive victory.

In 1977, Malcolm Fraser won a second term in office, defeating Gough Whitlam in a near-repeat of his 1975 landslide.

December is also the single most popular month for federal elections. Twelve of the 44 federal elections since 1901 (27%) have been held in December. The last was on December 1, 1984.

Two elections have been held on December 13, in 1919 and 1975. Two elections have also been held on December 16, in 1903 and 1922. Two elections have been held on August 21, in 1943 and 2010.


More Anniversaries: Three Elections, A Floating Dollar And The Redfern Speech

Twenty-nine-years ago today, the Hawke government floated the dollar.

It was a move little understood at the time but now regarded as timely and crucial to Australia’s economic development. Whilst former prime ministers Hawke and Keating still differ over who had most influence on the decision, no-one questions its significance. [Read more…]