Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Prime Ministers: from Lyons to Howard forms a complete circle

By James Cumes - posted Monday, 20 January 2003

I was 16 when Joe Lyons died in office. He was a distant figure. I never met him. With every Prime Minister since, I have had some personal contact.

The 33 years from Lyons' death to Whitlam's advent brought great changes, which, despite the Cold War, at least promised some remedies to the economic and social miseries and political afflictions of the inter-war period.

By the late 1960s, changes were so great that economic and social policies and, consequently, party-political programs, needed major adaptations. Those adaptations were never satisfactorily made. Vietnam ended and the Soviet Union collapsed. The trend accelerated towards globalisation, along with territorial fragmentation resulting especially from the end of colonial and communist empires. Political, economic and social instability, together with abdication of responsibility by governments in the name of freedom and "free-market" efficiency, tended to diminish disciplines and intensify violence, wars and terrorism.


Against this world background, who were the most effective Australian Prime Ministers over the whole period from 1939 to 2003?

We must first consider the Prime Ministers during what was, at least until recently, fairly regarded as the most challenging period in Australia's history, that of the Pacific War and postwar reconstruction.

After barely weeks in office, the untried John Curtin faced the threat of imminent Japanese invasion with a competence that, in retrospect, seems remarkable. Panic was never far away among ordinary Australians during the months after Pearl Harbor. I recall joining a group of fellow university students to plan how we would wage guerilla warfare when - not if - the Japanese landed. Somehow Curtin and his team held the country steady and led us safely through those turbulent and terrifying months. It was not the politicians but "a handful of brave kids" who, on the Kokoda Track and at Milne Bay, turned the invader back; but somehow Curtin managed to get the "brave kids" in place and to arm, feed and supply them, however poorly, so that they could inflict the first defeats on the seemingly "invincible" Japanese army.

Inevitably, Curtin made mistakes in his conduct of the war, his handling of the home front and his dealings with the Americans - and British - but overall he managed an unprecedented, complex situation surprisingly well. To keep Macarthur on side, he was sometimes unfair to Australian generals, in particular Clowes at Milne Bay and Allen in the advance back to Kokoda, but, pragmatically, he saw that as a price that had to be paid.

The war hastened Curtin's death and brought to power - characteristically to a room at the Hotel Kurrajong instead of the PM's Lodge - the man who probably ranks as our finest political leader of the past 60 years. Ben Chifley came to power without seeking it or deriving any personal benefit from it. Intelligent and decisive, he had, above all, a personal integrity rarely seen among his successors.

As an imaginative though unschooled political economist on the Royal Commission on Money and Banking in the mid-1930s, as Curtin's Treasurer and in re-ordering our economic and social environment after the war, it was Chifley who led Australia into one of our periods of most dramatic national growth and stability between 1945 and 1970.


Chifley was defeated in December 1949, partly because of concern over his policy to nationalise the banks and, as some saw it, his too fierce determination to safeguard his economic and social revolution; and largely by an Opposition leader who lured electors with his promise to abolish petrol rationing and unsettled them with lurid references to Hayek's Road to Serfdom.

Menzies, who had not distinguished himself between 1939 and 1941, retained power after 1949 through a deep split in the Labor Party and such good fortune as the Petrov defection. However, he could claim a measure of greatness because, despite all the portents, he preserved the essence of Chifley's revolution. He was also the first of three postwar Prime Ministers who were personally impressive both at home and when they ventured overseas.
Even so, Menzies diminished himself by his sometimes nauseating attachment to the British monarchy and, indeed, to everything British and especially Scottish, and he diminished his country by such episodes as his performance during the Suez crisis of the mid-1950s. In his last days in office, he nourished allegations that he was racist by declining to go to or be represented at a Commonwealth Conference to discuss Rhodesia after UDI.

Nevertheless, he was a man of fine physical presence and good though rather superficial intellect. I was at our Embassy in Bonn when he made the first postwar visit by an Australian Prime Minister to (West) Germany. President Heuss and Chancellor Adenauer were both men of distinction with whom Menzies, unlike many of his successors in similar circumstances, could deal on better than equal terms. As always, he spoke well both publicly and privately. Incidentally, he arrived in Bonn by everyday train, in a standard compartment, with a mere couple of officials. He was confident, at ease and modest in his personal demands.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

James Cumes is a former Australian ambassador and author of America's Suicidal Statecraft: The Self-Destruction of a Superpower (2006).

Other articles by this Author

All articles by James Cumes
Related Links
Australian Prime Ministers since 1901
Photo of James Cumes
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy