Every few years, scholars rank the success or failure of American presidents. Successful presidents are usually those who have led the US out of crises: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt rank highly. At the bottom are usually those who allowed corruption to flourish (Warren Harding) or whose actions led to the destruction of the union (James Buchanan).
In Australia, there is a much less scholarly tradition of prime ministerial rankings, most of which unfairly place Bill McMahon at the bottom. This is a tradition that has always been extremely popular among left-wing commentators, perhaps as a cunning plan to divert attention from the calamitous record of McMahon’s successor Gough Whitlam.
In recent years, McMahon and Whitlam have had new rivals for the mahogany ladle: Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Noted leftist commentator but one-time Howard voter Robert Manne recently described Gillard as ‘the least impressive Australian prime minister since Billy McMahon’. Meanwhile, leftist historian Stuart Macintyre thought she may be ‘the least effective in articulating a viewpoint since McMahon’.
Comparisons with McMahon are not favourable to any politician. The Sunday Age recently dedicated its front page to the subject, ‘Gillard is the worst PM since McMahon. Discuss.’ The truth, though, is that by any objective yardstick McMahon was a much better prime minister than Gillard.
McMahon came to the prime ministership with 20 years’ ministerial experience, more than any other PM. He was particularly well regarded as Treasurer, in which post he reduced the budget deficit from $644 million to $30 million (today’s budget deficit is forecast to be $37.1 billion). He also correctly argued against protectionist policies favoured by the Country party at a time when such arguments were hard to win even among the Liberals.
McMahon came to office in unusual but orthodox circumstances. When Malcolm Fraser resigned from John Gorton’s ministry in early 1971, accusing the Prime Minister of disloyalty, a party room meeting was held and Gorton lost a vote of confidence. Gorton resigned and did not contest the leadership ballot which McMahon comfortably won 40 votes to 26.
In contrast, Julia Gillard came to office after only two-and-a-half years as a minister. Although regarded as a good media performer, her record as an administrator was poor. She was responsible for the school building scandal, wasting $1.5 billion of tax dollars, as well as the Fair Work Act, the epitome of ministerial excellence for the union movement but regarded somewhat differently by everyone else. She became Prime Minister when the Labor mafiosi of union bosses and factional heavies executed Kevin Rudd. There was not even a party room contest, nor any other forum in which she put her case about why she wanted to be PM. Although Gillard replaced Rudd because his poll numbers were softening, Manne correctly observes that ‘Kevin Rudd led one of the most popular governments in Australian political history. Julia Gillard is now leading one of the least popular.’
Like Gillard, McMahon had a fractious cabinet. Unlike Gillard, however, he dealt strongly with dissenters. McMahon sacked Gortonites Jim Killen, Tom Hughes and Les Bury. When Gorton was constantly undermining the government in speeches and newspaper columns, McMahon demanded, and got, Gorton’s resignation.
Gillard’s leadership, in contrast, is so weak she was not even able to remove Robert McClelland, Peter Garrett and Chris Evans from Cabinet or Kim Carr from the Ministry. And she has been unable to bring Rudd’s leadership campaign to heel, despite the constant subterranean undermining.
Then there are the policy differences. In government, McMahon’s achievements include creating the first Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts. His government provided assistance to independent schools on a per-capita basis, relieving the burden on public schools by enabling parents to exercise choice about their children’s education. He established Commonwealth funding of childcare centres and gained full Australian membership of the OECD, which has proven to be much more useful than a seat on the UN Security Council. McMahon left office with unemployment at 2.7 per cent. Under Gillard, it is at 5.3 per cent. Under McMahon, government spending as a percentage of GDP was 19.7 per cent. Under Gillard it is 34.3 per cent.
It is hard to categorise Gillard’s actual achievements. The carbon tax she said she would not introduce is now hailed as a triumph — the Big Lie as the Big Achievement. The asylum-seeker issue remains unresolved, while the mining tax has left smaller companies disgruntled and larger companies claiming they won’t have to pay tax.
Even at the ballot box, McMahon had a better result than Gillard. He took office in March 1971 with a seven-seat majority. Gillard took office in 2010 with an 18-seat majority. At the 2010 election, Gillard lost 11 seats with a swing of 2.6 per cent after three years in power. In 1972 McMahon lost only eight seats with a swing of 2.5 per cent after — let’s not forget — 23 years in power. In fact, despite the collective historical memory, McMahon very nearly won! Only 1,917 votes across five seats would have made the result different.
Sure, McMahon was far from perfect. He was ultimately unable to fix the economic malaise or unite his government. He was beset by many slips of the tongue — though he never gave us anything as obtuse as the key message of Gillard’s speech to last year’s Labor national conference: ‘We are us.’
After 23 years of Liberal government there was a strong ‘It’s Time’ factor, which Gough Whitlam exploited well. Unlike contemporary commentators, even Whitlam held McMahon in high esteem. Writing in 1985, he observed: ‘McMahon was an extraordinarily skilful, resourceful and tenacious politician. Had he been otherwise, the ALP victory in December 1972 would have been more convincing than it was. McMahon tried, not altogether without success, to bestride two horses. He claimed to be the real heir to Menzies, yet he claimed to recognise and accept the need for change in a changing world. This balancing act he did with some skill.’
Right now Labor would be lucky to have a prime minister as good as McMahon. The problem for the government is not just that Gillard’s record does not stack up, but that the record of her leadership rival Rudd is just as bad. Remember many of the problems Gillard faces today were of Rudd’s creation. If Rudd is the solution, Labor is solving the wrong problem.
Julian Leeser is executive director of the Menzies Research Centre.