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Peter Costello on Australian Prime Ministers

Last updated on January 22, 2024

This is the text of a speech given by the Treasurer, Peter Costello, on launching “Australian Prime Ministers”, a book edited by Michelle Grattan.

Text of speech by Treasurer Peter Costello at launch of Michelle Grattan’s “Australian Prime Ministers”.

Peter Costello, Federal Treasurer and Deputy Leader of the Liberal PartyOne of the reasons this book has been published is that research commissioned by the National Council for the Centenary of Federation showed 64 per cent of Australians did not know the name of Australia’s first Prime Minister.

Apparently Australians were far more comfortable identifying the first President of the United States than in identifying the first Australian Prime Minister Edmund Barton.

But it is hard to recognise the political divisions that animated Australian politics at the turn of the Century – Protectionist or Free Trade and it is hard now to understand where the differences arose and what they meant in practical terms.

And with the rise of Labor representation at the 1903 election politics was conducted, as Alfred Deakin was to famously remark, with three elevens, instead of two on the field. This led to chronic instability as two elevens joined against the third to form an incumbency then fractured with one joining the third to form a new alliance against its old ally until that too fractured leading to new alliances.

A series of short-lived Governments meant few individuals emerged as strong leaders and few had a long enough time to make significant achievements.

Politics is best understood when it involves the clash of great issues, or personalities, or parties: Politics is more easily remembered in an adversarial system.

Possibly too Barton’s best years were before his Prime Ministership. One wet weekend this winter I had the chance to read Alfred Deakin’s “The Federal Story.” There is no doubt it is Barton that emerges as our hero – our hero in securing the Commonwealth, not so much for being the first practitioner to operate under it.

And then with fusion – and the evolution of a two party system Australian politics gets more comprehensible to the modern Australia.

It has become rather fashionable in some circles to decry the two party system in politics. But I think a reading of this volume demonstrates the importance of having a government and alternative government on hand at all times. It brings a stability which looks predictable, perhaps stultifying, but the importance of which is best demonstrated when it is absent.

The absence of a two party system brings with it populism, short-term decision making, instability, and a surrender of a nation’s long-term interests to chicanery.

As Australia moved into a two party political system with a certain predictability a new hero, or anti-hero enters the script with uncanny regularity: the Labor defector. From my side of politics we would describe this as someone whose conscience or individuality is more important to them than being told how to act on a certain issue. From the other side of politics this person is known as the Labor rat.

So we have Chris Watson who leaves Labor after his Prime Ministership. We have Sir Joseph Cook who leaves Labor before his Prime Ministership. And we have Billy Hughes who leaves Labor during his Prime Ministership. And Joe Lyons who leaves Labor to begin a Prime Ministership.

The Labor rat is blamed for all the misfortunes of Labor Loyalists who rarely make mistakes themselves. For example in this book John Moloney (p. 149) tells us about J.A. “Stabber Jack” Beasley and how Joe Lyons became Prime Minister “The episode was the ultimate betrayal in Labor Party history” he says. But from the Labor perspective the competition to do the ultimate betrayal is fierce.

Sometimes the Labor rat even brings down a Loyal Labor man before he becomes Prime Minister as the Groupers were alleged to have done with H V Evatt. The Labor Party spends enormous amounts of energy and venom on hounding such figures and not just during their lifetimes but in hounding their legacies too.

And then we have the Prime Ministers, whose careers are defined by international events – the First World War to which Fisher pledges ‘our last man, our last shilling’ or the Second World War where Curtain makes it “quite clear that Australia looks to America”. The Great Depression which engulfs Scullin (about which he has more reason to complain than even about ‘Stabber Jack’) and in the Cold War which is a dominating motif for Menzies.

Also the Prime Ministers hold office against the great economic story of the 20th Century, the rise of Socialism and its defeat by Liberal Capitalism.

George Reid begins to fight the socialist tiger in 1904, Scullin leads the push for Labor to adopt a socialisation objective in 1921, Chifley brings the socialist objective to its height with proposals for bank nationalisation and by the 1980s one of the proudest boasts of the Hawke Labor period is the deregulation of the financial system.

Labor still retains socialisation as an objective but Liberal capitalism has triumphed not just in Australia but throughout the world. Socialism is defeated. Funnily enough the removal of this as a great defining issue meant that we could end the century with some debates we had had at the start – free trade and protection. But the bipartisan tenets of the start of the Century: White Australia, compulsory arbitration, Empire loyalty have been swept away.

But as you read this volume the towering figure amongst the Australian Prime Ministers is Sir Robert Menzies. His length of office practically doubles that of the second longest serving Prime Minister. And practically alone among Prime Ministers he left office voluntarily at a time of his own choosing.

And the Prime Minister’s office is probably more powerful than ever – as the Commonwealth strengthened at the expense of the States, as media demanded continuous commentary on virtually every development in society, as the nation no longer saw itself represented by the Crown, the person who was given the role of stating the nation’s views, its reactions, who was called upon to lead the cheer at its sporting success was the Prime Minister.

So what makes such a person? What are the qualities a person must have to be a Prime Minster?

At this point my text says: You’re on your own here.

Harold Wilson said “the main essentials of a successful Prime Minister are sleep and a sense of history”.

Knowing where things have come from is a help in trying to figure out where they are going and how you can influence the outcome for the better.

Perhaps the most useful part of the book are the tables at the end which show Father’s occupation, education, occupation, religion and age of each our Prime Ministers. But I don’t think that will yield a statistical prototype. Other than that Prime Ministers have been overwhelmingly male.

Michelle Grattan is one of those journalists in Canberra who is a demon for a fact. Those of us that have dealt with Michelle know that it can sometimes take up to two days of briefing before she’ll write a one column news brief with one or two facts in it. She’s high maintenance, but she’s always accurate. And if Michelle states a fact it’s correct.

In a very useful introduction, Michelle gives us some of the overview of the stories of all of those Prime Ministers, some of which have not yet been finished. But I like to think that each story is not the story of the Prime Ministers. The story is really the story of the nation. How the Prime Ministers played into that story, how they came across the stage and how they developed it, how they took it forward, how they contributed, and how history brought them in and history took them out. And the story of the nation is the story of the nation which has changed so much that the nation has changed its Prime Ministers as much as the Prime Ministers have changed the nation. And you see it reflected in some of the stories that are told throughout this volume.

I think for readers of Australian politics this will become a very useful volume. It’s something I think that will add to our understanding of today’s events, possibly help take us forward, and something I hope that will be a lasting reminder of the Centenary of Federation, what we were about, and where we were all going.

And it’s with great pleasure I therefore launch what I think should be on every students’ bookshelves. Maybe even some politicians can read it too, “Australian Prime Ministers”, edited by Michelle Grattan. Thank you very much.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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