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Potted portraits of those who shaped Australia’s politics

28 January 2012 1,776 views One Comment

THE irrepressible Mungo MacCallum has for decades been one of our most entertaining political journalists. This breezy book is vintage Mungo, although one can’t help noticing it contains neither footnotes nor an index.

Researching his subjects, MacCallum has leaned heavily on The Australian Dictionary of Biography, Australian Prime Ministers, edited by Michelle Grattan, and Colin Hughes’s much earlier book Mr Prime Minister. He has filled in the gaps, often via news reports and what he loosely terms as “anecdotes”, of which he has a stash.

Since Australia became a nation in 1901, we have had 27 prime ministers and for the general reader there is much to enliven and entertain in this group biography of our leaders. It is illuminating to know that our second PM, Alfred Deakin, was an ardent spiritualist and that our first, Edmund Barton, had such a severe drinking problem he was widely known as “Tosspot Toby”. Deakin claimed he received direct instruction from the ghosts of Sophocles, John Knox, Lord Macaulay, Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill. As MacCallum puts it, although “rather out of place in such exalted company”, Deakin was also spoken to by Richard Heales, a former Victorian chief secretary.

During his time as PM, Deakin provided an anonymous account of the workings of his government: first for the London Morning Post and then for the London National Review. Deakin’s columns were witty, comprehensive and, refreshingly, often highly critical of himself.

Barton’s alcohol consumption was so out of control that the proprietor of Truth, John Norton, himself a huge imbiber, wrote of the PM: “I charge you with being very frequently under the influence of drink ever since the [first] meeting of the federal parliament . . . Quite recently you came into [the] chamber so drunk you were scarcely able to stand. On another occasion, seeing your drunken, helpless state, the Speaker generously put an end to the painful scene!”

It is useful to remember that while Chris Watson’s four-month ministry was the first national Labor government in the world, it boasted in its ranks the future Labor prime minister Andrew Fisher as well as the world’s first Labor premier. The latter was Anderson Dawson from the dual electorate of Charters Towers. Dawson’s Queensland colonial government, which had lasted less than a week in December 1899, had contained within its ranks the Scottish-born Fisher who had worked in Queensland as a miner and journalist before entering politics.

Among the prime-ministerial also-rans, MacCallum deals briskly with the Queenslander Frank Forde who served for eight days; Earle Christmas Grafton Page who enjoyed 19 days in power; the long-serving Country Party treasurer, Arthur Fadden, another Queenslander who was PM for 40 days and 40 nights; and John “Black Jack” McEwen, who held the top job for 23 days when he was aged 67.

Unfortunately MacCallum badly underestimates Tasmanian Catholic PM Joe Lyons, who is dismissed as a Labor “rat”. MacCallum would have benefited immensely had he had the chance of reading the excellent recent biographies – both written by Anne Henderson – of Lyons and of his wife Dame Enid, with whom he had 11 children.

However MacCallum is on the money when he regards William McMahon – a Liberal and notorious leaker to the press – as a prime minister whom it was difficult to take seriously, even by his increasingly disillusioned colleagues. McMahon’s self-pitying prime-ministerial lament to the party room that “I sometimes think I must be my own worst enemy” provoked Jim Killen, who had been ousted from the Navy portfolio, to reply: “Not while I’m alive.”

It is useful to be reminded that when John Howard was swept from office, he became only the second PM in history to also lose his seat (that of Bennelong) in the same election. That humiliation had occurred 68 years earlier to the conservative Stanley Melbourne Bruce, a politician more English than the English, who was best known for wearing plus fours and spats.

Although some pundits would plump for Robert Menzies, Gough Whitlam or Bob Hawke, perhaps our most fascinating prime minister is Billy Hughes, widely known as the “Little Digger”, who suffered throughout his political career from chronic dyspepsia and deafness. A member of parliament for 58 years, 51 of them in the federal sphere, Hughes who began as a Laborite, was the leader of five political parties, a minister in four, and ratted on three. As MacCallum justly concludes, “this is a political record unlikely to be beaten”.

When asked why he had joined every major political party in Australia with the exception of the Country Party, Hughes famously replied: “I had to draw the line somewhere!”

The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely: Australia’s Prime Ministers, By Mungo MacCallum, Black Inc, 213pp, $29.95

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 35 books. The Weekend Australian January 28-29, 2012

One Comment »

  • Rob wilson said:

    RE: Earle Christmas Grafton Page, after whom the city of Grafton was named”

    Professor,
    Could you let me know if the above statement is in the book or is from your knowledge?
    Regards,

    RL Wilson