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Prime Ministers: the magnificent seven (and the other three)

By Wallace Brown - posted Tuesday, 14 January 2003

"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:

  1. Robert Menzies, the most accomplished politician and parliamentarian.
  2. Harold Holt, a most courteous and capable lieutenant who had spent too long in Menzies'shade.
  3. John McEwen, the most single-minded and strong-willed.
  4. John Gorton, the first modern Australian nationalist larrikin in the job.
  5. William McMahon, the most disappointing.
  6. Gough Whitlam, the most innovative, self-confident and erratic.
  7. Malcolm Fraser, the most controversial and complex.
  8. Bob Hawke, the most egotistical but a good chairman of the Cabinet board.
  9. Paul Keating, the savage big-picture man who liked to live dangerously.
  10. John Howard, the most conservative, and the most tenacious, under-estimated survivor.

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 oppositionist.

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 have known.

It is this (with the reasons):


  1. Prime Minister: Sir Robert Menzies, Liberal.
    (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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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)
  4. Trade: Sir John McEwen, Country (National) Party.
    (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)
  5. 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 dividend imputation)
  6. Attorney-General: Sir Garfield Barwick, Liberal.
    (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)
  7. 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)
  8. Health: Bill Hayden, Labor.
    (who as Social Security Minister in the Whitlam Government, introduced the first national health scheme, Medibank)
  9. Defence: Kim Beazley Jnr., Labor.
    (who studied all the ramifications, particularly when it came to the Australian-American alliance, and revelled in the portfolio)
  10. 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)
  11. Secondary Industry and Industrial Relations: John Button, Labor.
    (same comment as for Anthony)
  12. Environment: Barry Cohen, Labor.
    (responsible for some of the better Hawke Government initiatives, including the North Queensland World Heritage area)
  13. Immigration: Harold Holt, Liberal.
    (who looked towards Asia and began the dismantling of the White Australia policy)
  14. Social Security: Dame Margaret Guilfoyle, Liberal.
    (not a token woman, but a compassionate administrator of social security in the Fraser Government, also a competent Finance Minister)
  15. 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 area.

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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About the Author

Wallace Brown is the author of 'Ten Prime Ministers, Life among the politicians', launched by Bill Hayden in Brisbane and Laurie Oakes in Canberra and published by Longueville Books of Sydney.

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