"The United States has had three
great leaders, Washington, Lincoln and
Roosevelt. We've never had one such person,
not one" - Paul Keating at the
federal parliamentary press gallery annual
dinner, December 7, 1990.
This occasionally-quoted comment by Keating
in his Placido Domingo mode leads to the
question: Who has been my favourite Prime
Minister in Australia in the past 40 years?
It is a valid question and it has been
asked of me, as an observer of the scene
in Canberra, often. But it is a simplistic
question because "favourite"
is not the appropriate adjective.
Let me answer this way:
It has been my privilege, as a political
journalist based continuously in Canberra
since 1961 for Brisbane's The
Courier-Mail and associated newspapers,
to have been in personal contact with,
reported on, commented about, and travelled
with, all Prime Ministers - 10 of them
- over that period:
- Robert Menzies, the most accomplished
politician and parliamentarian.
- Harold Holt, a most courteous and
capable lieutenant who had spent too
long in Menzies'shade.
- John McEwen, the most single-minded
- John Gorton, the first modern Australian
nationalist larrikin in the job.
- William McMahon, the most disappointing.
- Gough Whitlam, the most innovative,
self-confident and erratic.
- Malcolm Fraser, the most controversial
- Bob Hawke, the most egotistical but
a good chairman of the Cabinet board.
- Paul Keating, the savage big-picture
man who liked to live dangerously.
- John Howard, the most conservative,
and the most tenacious, under-estimated
If asked which of these I would regard
most as a good, genuine, uncomplicated
down-to-earth bloke, my answer would be
John Gorton or Harold Holt. But they were
not great Prime Ministers. If asked who
was the most fun, the most entertaining,
the most newsworthy and the wittiest,
my answer would be Gough Whitlam. But
he was not a great Prime Minister either
and was much better as an excoriating
In a deliberate hypothetical, controversial,
subjective and selective process, I have
honed this fascinating subject further
by compiling an ideal cross-party Cabinet,
a First Fifteen from the politicians I
It is this (with the reasons):
- Prime Minister: Sir Robert Menzies,
(not because he has been the longest-serving
PM, 18 years, 5 months and 12 days,
but because he had a Presence, had an
abiding respect for Parliament, ruled
it with debating skill and raised eyebrow
and admonishing finger, was a fine chairman,
and ran a corruption-free government.
Also, unlike many of his successors,
particularly John Howard, he did not
politicise the public service)
- Deputy Prime Minister and Aboriginal
Affairs: Bob Hawke, Labor.
(because of his abilities as a chairman,
negotiator and reconciliator, and like
Menzies he ran a stable government)
- Foreign Affairs: Gough Whitlam, Labor.
(his recognition of Communist China
qualifies him for this portfolio. I
almost made him Opposition Leader against
Menzies. But I settled on the largely-forgotten
Eddie Ward for that, because the uncompromising
Ward could match Menzies in debate and
riled him the most)
- Trade: Sir John McEwen, Country (National)
(whose outstanding achievement in this
context was the negotiation of the far-sighted
Australia-Japan trade treaty in the
1950s, when anti-Japanese sentiment
still ran high in post-war Australia)
- Treasurer: Paul Keating, Labor.
(because though he gave Australia the
"recession we had to have",
it was in his time as Treasurer that
Australia floated the dollar and introduced
- Attorney-General: Sir Garfield Barwick,
(though remembered now mainly as the
Chief Justice who, correctly, advised
Governor-General Sir John Kerr he had
the reserve power to dismiss a government,
he was Australia's most eminent constitutional
lawyer at the time and had been leader
of the Sydney bar - and the Attorney-General
should be eminent as well as capable.
Some have not been)
- Education: Malcolm Fraser, Liberal.
(because in that role he extended the
Commonwealth's participation in education
that had been initiated by Menzies.
Incidentally, Fraser's current views
on issues such as refugees, the environment
and Aboriginals are not those of a latter-day
Leftie. Basically he has not changed.
The apparent new small-l liberal Fraser
is the old Malcolm)
- Health: Bill Hayden, Labor.
(who as Social Security Minister in
the Whitlam Government, introduced the
first national health scheme, Medibank)
- Defence: Kim Beazley Jnr., Labor.
(who studied all the ramifications,
particularly when it came to the Australian-American
alliance, and revelled in the portfolio)
- Primary Industry and Regional Development:
Doug Anthony, National Party.
(none better to combine these two portfolios.
The unnecessary present proliferation
of 30-odd Ministers and 10 Parliamentary
Secretaries is jobs for the boys and
girls gone mad)
- Secondary Industry and Industrial
Relations: John Button, Labor.
(same comment as for Anthony)
- Environment: Barry Cohen, Labor.
(responsible for some of the better
Hawke Government initiatives, including
the North Queensland World Heritage
- Immigration: Harold Holt, Liberal.
(who looked towards Asia and began the
dismantling of the White Australia policy)
- Social Security: Dame Margaret Guilfoyle,
(not a token woman, but a compassionate
administrator of social security in
the Fraser Government, also a competent
- Transport and Communications: Tim
Fischer, National Party.
(slightly and delightfully eccentric
but an efficient enthusiast with clout)
It may be noted that seven members of
my First Fifteen are Prime Ministers.
The three omitted are Gorton, who I would
put in an all-party Opposition as shadow
education minister, matching Fraser with
fireworks; McMahon, who I would not put
in either Cabinet or Opposition; and Howard,
who I would have as shadow industrial
relations minister, marking Button.
Why not Howard in the First Fifteen Cabinet?
The short answer simply is that he does
not make the cut. A longer answer invites
these questions: what portfolio would
he warrant: Treasurer? Not when his high-taxing
government has been responsible for a
botched GST. Foreign Affairs? Not as US
deputy sheriff in South-East Asia. Immigration?
Environment? Aboriginal Affairs? Hardly.
Education? Not with the cutbacks in that
No, at this stage he is best suited on
the all-party Opposition front-bench,
with industrial relations as his forte
and tenacity as his undoubted overriding
characteristic. Howard is not yet history
and the time-frame probably is too close
to assess properly his place in it. Ten
years from now it will be easier.
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