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 most important error in ordering this list is the misunderstanding about the correct dates for the terms of members of parliament.
- Members’ terms begin on their date of election.
- Members’ terms end on the day they resign or die, or on the day of their defeat at an election.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
6. What Have They Done With Bruce And Howard?
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.
John Howard is less of a problem. He lost his seat at the November 24, 2007 general election, but he continued as prime minister until December 3, when Kevin Rudd was sworn in. Strictly speaking, Howard and Bruce should not appear on this list because neither man made their own decisions to leave parliament. Paul Keating and other defeated prime ministers are in a different position because they won their seats and had to be declared as elected members before they could resign.
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.
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.
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.
- Andrew Fisher (third term – 0)
- Edmund Barton (6)
- Malcolm Turnbull (7)
- Malcolm Fraser (20)
- Robert Menzies (second term – 22)
- Julia Gillard (39)
- Paul Keating (43)
- Bob Hawke (62)
- Kevin Rudd (second term – 65)
- Frank Forde (443)
- Ben Chifley (551)
- Stanley Bruce (657 ??)
- Andrew Fisher (second term – 854)
- Gough Whitlam (992)
- Tony Abbott (1082)
- Alfred Deakin (third term – 1090)
- John McEwen (1118)
- Kevin Rudd (first term – 1247)
- Alfred Deakin (second term – 1662)
- George Reid (1663)
- John Gorton (1707)
- Chris Watson (2011)
- Joseph Cook (2612)
- Alfred Deakin (first term – 3283)
- William McMahon (3317)
- Arthur Fadden (6216)
- James Scullin (6508)
- Earle Page (8263)
- Robert Menzies (first term – 8938)
- Billy Hughes (10,854)
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.