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Julia Gillard’s Place Amongst The List Of Australian Prime Ministers

It’s January, it’s the holiday season, but it’s also an election year, so let’s play with some historical data.

Don’t take it too seriously, but 2013 offers a number of interesting possibilities for Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Gillard is the 27th person to serve as prime minister in the 112 years of Australia’s federation. She is the 11th Labor prime minister.

Gillard is currently the 17th longest serving prime minister, having exceeded the terms of 10 prime ministers, 7 from the conservative side (Page, McEwen, Fadden, Reid, Cook, McMahon & Holt) and 3 from Labor (Forde, Watson & Scullin).

Of the ten PMs Gillard has already overtaken, only three ever won an election (Cook in 1913, Scullin in 1929 & Holt in 1966). None could be regarded as raging successes.

  • Joseph Cook called a double dissolution in 1914 and became one of the first casualties of the Great War. Andrew Fisher, the Labor PM Cook had defeated in 1913, returned to the post.
  • James Scullin’s government, elected one week before the Wall Street crash ushered in the Great Depression in 1929, split three ways and was demolished at at an early election by his former Treasurer, Joe Lyons, who had defected to the conservatives.
  • Harold Holt won a smashing victory against the ALP and Arthur Calwell in 1966. At the time of his death by drowning in 1967, his leadership was under threat from rivals within and from without by a rampant Gough Whitlam.

Three of the prime ministers Gillard has overtaken (Page, Forde & McEwen) assumed the office on a temporary basis following the death of the incumbent.

  • The Country Party leader Earle Page served for 20 days after Lyons died in 1939. Despite a vicious verbal assault by Page, the United Australia Party elected Menzies as their new leader.
  • Frank Forde was prime minister for 8 days after John Curtin died in 1945. He continued serving as the ALP’s deputy leader after Ben Chifley became leader but lost his seat at the 1946 election.
  • Like Page, John McEwen was leader of the Country Party when he became prime minister after the death of Harold Holt. His major achievement in this time was to threaten to bring down the government if the Liberals chose McMahon to replace Holt. He succeeded in delaying McMahon’s accession to the position for another three years.

Two of the prime ministers Gillard has surpassed (Watson & Reid) served briefly after upheaval in the House of Representatives.

  • John Christian (Chris) Watson became the first Labor PM after the House amended Alfred Deakin’s Conciliation and Arbitration Bill. Deakin handed the job to Watson who lasted nearly four months until the House passed another amendment to the same bill. The Governor-General refused to grant Watson an election and Reid took over.
  • George Reid lasted for 10 months until the House amended the Address-in-Reply and the Governor-General again refused to grant an election. Deakin returned for the second of his three terms as prime minister.

The 10th prime minister Gillard has overtaken (Fadden) would appreciate the position she has faced for the past two years.

  • Arthur Fadden was Country Party leader when a joint meeting of the United Australia Party and the Country Party made him prime minister in 1940 after Robert Menzies resigned. Even though the UAP had elected the 77-year-old Billy Hughes as their leader, it wasn’t thought he was sufficiently able-bodied to return to the post he had last held in 1922. Fadden lasted for 40 days until the two independents who held the balance of power in the hung parliament tossed him out in favour of Labor’s John Curtin.

Gillard’s achievement in rising to 17th place in the list of longest serving prime ministers doesn’t look overly impressive when you consider the circumstances of the 10 men she has overtaken.

In terms of prime ministerial longevity, what does 2013 hold in store for Gillard?

On January 14, Gillard will move into 16th place when she overtakes Kevin Rudd’s term in office: 2 years, 6 months and 21 days. Barring something calamitous in the next fortnight, she is guaranteed of this. We can imagine there might be some clinking glasses in the Prime Minister’s office on that day.

On March 20, Gillard will overtake Australia’s first prime minister, Edmund Barton. He served for 2 years, 8 months and 24 days before he resigned and moved to the High Court. Gillard will then be in 15th place.

A more significant Labor anniversary falls on May 31 when Gillard equals Gough Whitlam’s 2 years, 11 months and 7 days as prime minister. In the absence of an early election, or a panic attack by the ALP caucus, Gillard seems assured of reaching this milestone and moving into 14th place.

After Whitlam, there is only one more prime minister Gillard can hope to overtake before she must face an election. On August 24, Gillard will match John Gorton’s 3 years and 2 months as prime minister and move into 13th place.

August 24 is a possible election day this year. It’s a Saturday and the nearest date to the anniversary of the August 21 election in 2010. It’s most likely Gillard will still be prime minister on this day.

What does it all mean?

Not much really, but as I said, we are on holidays…

Any analysis of a prime minister’s term should focus on achievement, not longevity. And you can bet the Gillard team will argue her list of legislative achievements far out-strips all the PMs she has overtaken on the historical calendar so far.

Nevertheless, if she’s still PM on August 24, Gillard will join a select group of 12 men who served the longest as prime minister.

  • Five of the longest-serving 12 are Labor PMs: Hawke, Fisher, Chifley, Keating & Curtin. Their Labor governments were in office for nearly 26 years.
  • Five are Liberals or predecessors of the modern Liberal Party: Menzies, Howard, Fraser, Bruce and Deakin. Their governments held office for nearly 64 years. Yes, the coalition’s electoral track record is far superior to Labor’s.

The other two prime ministers in the top 12 – Hughes and Lyons – are also Liberals but they began their political lives in the ALP.

  • William Morris Hughes served in the early parliaments after 1901 as a Labor minister. He succeeded Andrew Fisher as Labor prime minister in October 1915. He governed as a Labor PM for a year before presiding over a split in the ALP over conscription. From November 1916 he governed with the support of Labor defectors and the Liberal opposition, eventually becoming leader of a new combined group called the Nationalist Party of Australia.
  • Joseph Lyons had an equally impressive Labor pedigree. From 1909 until 1929, he served as a Labor member of the Tasmanian parliament. He was Labor premier for nearly five years until June 1928. He entered federal parliament in 1929 and became a minister in the Scullin Labor government. Lyons was acting Treasurer in January 1931 when Scullin reinstated Ted Theodore to the position, precipitating Lyons’s resignation from the Cabinet. By the end of 1931, Lyons and a handful of Labor dissidents had joined with the Nationalists to form the United Australia Party. Under Lyons’s leadership, the UAP defeated Scullin and Lyons served as prime minister for 7 years until his death in 1939.

Hughes is the greatest Labor ‘rat’ of all. He has been air-brushed from much of Labor’s official history. Like Hughes, Lyons is also disowned by the ALP, but the early political history of Australia’s federation cannot be understood without reference to these two men.

Assuming Gillard is defeated at this year’s election, she will be the ALP’s 6th longest-serving prime minister. In all likelihood, only her most devoted supporters would rank her with the likes of Hawke, Fisher, Curtin, Chifley and Keating.

But if she won and served another 3-year term, she would overtake Curtin, Keating, Chifley and Fisher. Then she would be in 8th place and only Bob Hawke would have served longer as a Labor prime minister.

How’s that for personal motivation in this election year?

UPDATE – June 27, 2013

Julia Gillard lost the leadership of the ALP at a Caucus meeting on June 26, 2013. She won 45 votes to Kevin Rudd’s 57. Gillard surrendered her commission that evening and her resignation took effect at 9.51am on June 27 when Kevin Rudd was sworn in as prime minister.

Gillard served 3 years and 3 days as prime minister, putting her in 14th position in terms of longevity, just behind Gorton and just ahead of Whitlam.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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