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What should former PMs do?

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 6 July 2017

At a recent lunch I got into a discussion about the current tensions within the Liberal Party, and more particularly the extent to which they were due to what a friend called the 'irresponsible' behaviour of Mr Abbott. I had written about Mr Abbott's situation before, and offered some of that comment at the lunch. My friend would have none of it. Mr Abbott should have left Parliament at the first opportunity, and if he stayed, should have maintained a dignified silence. My view, set out in the conclusion to the essay linked above, is that, 'He ought to be allowed to say what he thinks without his automatically attracting the 'naughty boy' label by doing so.' His address to the Centre for Independent Studies on 29 June is a good example. He does not say anything adverse about the Turnbull Government, says that he should have been more forceful when he was PM, and offers an interesting discussion of the options about submarines. But the media comment was about yet another attack on Mr Turnbull.

Other matters intruded into that my conversation, but I have thought about it since, and devote this essay to whether there is any rule or convention that should, most of the time, guide former PMs in their behaviour after their fall from power. There is, as it happens, no formal guide, and there are of course different reasons for the fall from power, and of course different outcomes as well.

You can lose an election, where the losing leader offers his resignation (not always taken). You can be defeated in a party-room vote, as happened to Mr Hawke, and later to Mr Rudd, then to Ms Gillard, then to Mr Abbott. Ms Gillard manoeuvred Mr Rudd into agreeing that whoever lost the vote would leave Parliament. She lost, and perforce left. He left shortly after his defeat at the polls some months later. R. G. Menzies resigned in August 1941 when he felt that the government's position was unworkable, probably anticipating a vote against him in the joint party room. He was replaced as leader by Billy Hughes, and by Arthur Fadden as Prime Minister. But he didn't leave Parliament, and indeed returned to power in 1949, for another sixteen years or so, retiring as PM and from his seat at a time that he chose.


There isn't much guidance from the mother country, either. Since the 18th century about one in four former prime ministers have come back to serve in other Governments. They don't automatically leave Parliament. Lloyd George stayed in Parliament for twenty-two years, and Edward Heath for twenty-seven. Tony Blair left at once, as did David Cameron. The United Kingdom does have the possibility of kicking former PMs upstairs into the House of Lords. From the middle of the 19th century a former PM who was not a peer could expect a hereditary earldom as a consolation prize, but the last one to do so was Harold Macmillan. As the author of a useful essay on the topic says, There is no fixed or predetermined role for former Prime Ministers in Britain. What they do after they leave office depends on their personal choices and on circumstances… there is therefore little in the way of a common pattern…

I think the same goes for Australia. Mr Abbott appears to have no greater interest in life than parliamentary politics. Mr Rudd had his eye on a UN post, or so it was said. In any case, it was plain that he saw the world, rather than Australia, as his oyster. He is presently, or was in February, the president of the Asia Society, a think tank based NewYork which I once visited and spoke at. Ms Gillard is a sort of roving adjunct professor, but for the most part stays out of focussed comment on Australian politics. John Howard has joined the ranks of the international former political captains, having failed to gain election as president of the International Cricket Council. Paul Keating thunders from time to time in the prints, radio and television. Bob Hawke recently launched, or was at the launch, of a beer in his name. Malcolm Fraser had a property in Victoria to return to. There's not much of a pattern there.

So, let us to return to Mr Abbott. If the Liberal Party were a strong, united and confident party, then Mr Abbott might well be a senior member of its Government, as former PM Sir Alec Douglas-Home was in the Heath Government. It is not. I cannot be sure how much of what I read, see and hear is the work of the press gallery, but it seems to be the case that the Liberals now have two streams or factions, a 'progressive' faction and a 'conservative' one. Mr Turnbull is very much of the progressive camp, while Mr Abbott is very much of the conservative group. The latter faction is not even conservative enough to satisfy Cory Bernardi, who left the Liberal Party altogether to form a Conservative party, which apparently has some supporters within the Liberal Party, though no one yet has come out to join him.

If we set aside Mr Abbott's understandable crossness at having been displaced by the man he earlier displaced as Leader of the Opposition, and his feeling that the current Government is just 'Labor-lite', what ought he to do? It would be difficult indeed to sit on the back-benches and maintain a dignified silence. He could do it if he thought that after the electoral shambles in 2019 (assuming such an outcome), Mr Turnbull would resign, and he (Tony Abbott) would valiantly pick up the reins again, as Menzies did after 1944. He is young enough to put in a couple of terms waiting to return to office.

His difficulty is that he has ideas and he wants to share them. Like Kevin Rudd in a similar position, he has support from discontented back-benchers, and in the present case from the true conservatives within the party. They look to him for leadership. And as I wrote in my own essay, whatever he does, whatever he says, journalists will point at yet another example of destabilisation. It's not an easy path.

Those who want the business of government to proceed in an orderly way because they are part of it or have been part of it, find all this inter-party feuding detestable, if only because while it is going on Ministers are distracted from their real work, whicb is getting policy discussed, developed and put into place. For them Mr Abbott should leave Parliament for the good of the nation, or if he must stay, become the first Trappist MP, speaking only when it is absolutely necessary.


I see no reason why Mr Abbott should remain silent, and there is certainly no convention, let alone rule, to suggest that that is the proper thing for him to do. Indeed, we are used to Labor heavies quarrelling with one another, and using the State and Federal conferences of the Party, not to mention those of the ACTU and the major unions, to argue out their positions. It may not be what we are used to in the case of the Liberal Party, but I see no better alternative at the moment. Nor can I see why it is OK for Labor but somehow wrong for the Libs.

My summary is that what we are seeing is a further example of the crumbling of the old two-party system. The Liberal Party was always a coalition of 'liberals' and 'conservative', 'dries' and 'wets', held together by the reality or prospect of power. You can say comparable things about the ALP. At the moment the ALP can simply shut up and watch its opponents strangle themselves.

For both sides governing is not the fun it used to be. Too many issues are unsolvable, too little money is available, there are too many demands on the public purse and too many single-issue lobby groups. No leader can bring the warring factions together, not Mr Turnbull and not Mr Abbott. What we may be seeing is the move towards two new parties, a Liberal Party and a Conservative Party.

It won't happen now, but it might when non-Labor is in Opposition.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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