Greatest Australian prime ministers

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Since Federation, there have been great Australian prime ministers, says Rodney E. Lever. Now a woman has the chance to join the list.

Australia's greatest PM's? Fisher, Curtin, Chifley and Whitlam.

SINCE THE TIME of Federation Australia has had four great Prime Ministers: Andrew Fisher, John Curtin, Ben Chifley and Gough Whitlam.

Is there anyone who could raise a rational argument against this point of view? Is there anyone who could raise a rational argument that the rest have been nonentities?

Now, for the first time in Australia’s history there comes a woman with a chance to join the list above and truly define her own plans for the nation. Ether we trust her or we don’t. On their own past record, we cannot trust the Opposition.

This is the challenge awaiting Julia Gillard in 2013. Is she up to it? She is not an Iron Lady like Margaret Thatcher of England, who bumbled her way through a series of disasters that everybody now regrets. Julia Gillard is a well-educated and determined woman, called by her own ambition to a mission that no other woman in Australian history has ever dared.

The Labor Party’s history is one of perpetual challenge. Sometimes it has seemed to be its own worst enemy. It needs a strong leader.

Andrew Fisher

One such leader, 100 years ago, was a handsome young Scotsman named Andrew Fisher, who sported a walrus moustache in the fashion of his times. He had already been blooded in politics as a union official. A working coal miner from the age of 10, he worked 12-hour shifts down the shafts at night with only a lantern, after walking eight kilometres every day to and from school.

At 17, he was a union official. When his union called a strike he lost his job at the mines. Fisher, and the rest of the union leadership, were permanently blacklisted.

With no more work available, he and his brother boarded a sailing ship to Queensland in 1885. It was 30 years after my own family arrived in Queensland for similar reasons of poverty in England. From my own family background, I can understand why they chose to come here.

Queensland had separated from New South Wales in 1859, in one of the earliest moves towards federation and desperately needed a working population. The reward was a free voyage and a block of land — if you were willing to work hard and stay on. The Fisher brothers found work in the coal mines near Gympie.

Six years later, Andrew’s instinct for unionism involved him in the historic shearer’s strike of 1891. It was a clash between several thousand union members and some Chinese non-union workers who accepted conditions that the unionists compared with slavery.

One outcome was the foundation of the Australian Labor Party. Fisher became the first president of the Gympie branch and two years later was elected to the Queensland Legislative Assembly, where he worked alongside my own great-grandfather.

Like my great-grandfather, he also invested in a newspaper to promote his own career. In my ancestor’s case, it was the Townsville Daily Bulletin, of which he later became chairman of the board. Andrew Fisher’s newspaper was the Gympie Truth.

Australia’s first national election took place in 1901 and Fisher won the seat of Wide Bay, which he would continue to hold for the rest of his political career.

Australia’s first prime minister, in 1901, was a lawyer Edmund Barton, who joined the Federation movement that was first launched seriously by the venerable Henry Parkes in a famous speech at the Tenterfield School of Arts in 1889. His rousing words became the trigger for Australia to become an independent nation, no longer just a remote colony of Britain.

The first federal election did not produce a majority for any of the three parties that contested it. As head of the Protectionist Party, Barton became prime minister only with the support of the Australian Labor Party. In 1903 he resigned as prime minister to take an easier job as a judge of the High Court.

The new Australian parliament, based in Melbourne, had a succession of prime ministers over the next seven years years: Alfred Deakin (three separate short terms between 1903 and 1910), Chris Watson, George Reid and then Andrew Fisher, who also served three terms of varying length.

Australia had four different prime ministers over the first decade of its existence, the voters moving them around like the pieces on a chessboard.

In the end, it was Andrew Fisher who proved the strong man of the nation — pulling it together and achieving more that all the others could do.

He established a military and a police force, provided pensions for the first time, started construction of a transcontinental railway and launched the Royal Australian Navy, with three torpedo-firing destroyers from the US.

He introduced laws to protect the rights of crews on trading vessels, replaced the British pound with the first Australian currency and introduced tariffs to protect the burgeoning sugar and wool industries.

All this activity was carried out by Fisher while he dealt with political mayhem that saw short-term governments come and go. To give the national parliament a headquarters of its own, he introduced the Seat of Government Act. A new Federal Parliament would be created in New South Wales but, by clever compromise, roughly half way between Sydney and Melbourne. It would be decades later that Fisher’s plan became the reality of today’s Canberra.

While John Curtin, Ben Chifley and Gough Whitlam all have important places in the history of Australia and of the Labor Party, some also might argue that the longest serving Labor prime minister, Bob Hawke, should get a mention. I disqualify him simply on the ground that his ego prevented another great leader, Paul Keating, from the opportunity of truly putting his own stamp on history.

Similarly, it is hard to justify any of the leaders of the Coalition parties alongside the names I have mentioned.

Robert Menzies was Australia’s longest serving prime minister, but as a national hero he fell short when he introduced conscription in a “lottery of death” forcing hundreds of young Australian men to fight for the Americans in Vietnam. Menzies acted in the face of angry protests from families all over Australia as their sons, only because of the date of their birth, were taken away to a war than nobody wanted.

The war was an embarrassment that ended in defeat for the US and was so expensive that it emptied the gold hoard held at Fort Knox and became the trigger for the economic disasters that haunt America today.  The Americans fled, their staff at the embassy in Saigon rescued at the last minute by helicopters as enemy tanks crashed through the gates.

The war had been justified to keep Communists from taking over a country that had previously been a French colony. With the French and Americans gone, Vietnam has today become a happy country, still run by Communists; nobody seems to mind.

What a waste.

This was just the first in a series of unnecessary wars designed to emphasise America’s power but, in the end, only revealing that its enormous military might had its limits against a dogged enemy.

Some of his followers may say Menzies’ decision in the face of such protests was a brave move. The young conscripts he sent to Vietnam were certainly brave and heroic. But while they were fighting and dying, Menzies went off to London to watch the cricket.

Another Liberal contender for a list of great Australian political leaders might have been John Howard, but he, too, disqualified himself by allowing Australian troops to enter the equally unnecessary and costly war in Iraq — a war based on lies and trickery.

Howard showed an insulting level of contempt for the outrage all around Australia. A million Australians were inspired to march on a hot February day in protests all around the country at Howard’s decision. Our prime minister had lied to us, as had Tony Blair and George W Bush. The voters knew the truth. Our prime minister took us for idiots who could be easily manipulated.

As heroes of the coalition governments could you really choose any other of Menzies’ successors? Harold Holt? John Gorton? Billy McMahon? Malcolm Fraser?

Only one man stood out as a non-Labor leader who would have made a fine prime minister and that was John (Black Jack) McEwen, who led the country for only a fortnight after Harold Holt drowned in the surf at Portsea in Victoria in 1967.

McEwen joined the army in World War I, but was still only 18 when the war ended. He nevertheless qualified for an ex-soldier’s land grant and established a farm near Shepparton in Victoria. Strapped for cash, he went to Melbourne and worked double shifts as a stevedore to earn money to establish his farm.

In 1934, he was elected as the Country Party member for Echuca and served in parliament for another 34 years. In 1958, he replaced Arthur Fadden as Country Party leader and began a savage tug of war with Menzies and the newspaper magnate, Frank Packer.

McEwen’s issue was tariff protection for farmers and their produce. The rest of the world was demanding free trade. He lost his battle, retired to his farm and died in 1982. He served as prime minister for only 23 days, until the Liberals elected John Gorton as their new leader.

John McEwen

McEwen had the strength of character, the honesty and intelligence, and the skills of oratory to have been a great leader. The Country Party was weakened for his loss and now exists in coalition only as a minor political force called the Nationals.

Politics, as we all know, is a dirty business. It is as it has always been, thoroughly exploited at every level by media organisations that care less for integrity and clarity than for sensation and disruption. The real issues of the day are buried when politicians prefer or are forced to deal in gossip and scandal and insults.

Yet the media remains central to the outcome of every election.

For 200 years, the print media has been the primary source. Publishing newspapers is incredibly expensive. Modern printing machinery costs hundreds of million of dollars to build and maintain. Vast reams of paper, manufactured from millions of trees around the world, feed the machines — an important aspect in this climate conscious age. Hundreds of trained staff are required — engineers, electricians, journalists and office workers.

Only multi-millionaires can afford to publish newspapers today and they will continue to lose money to promote their private agendas — which are often not to the benefit of the country or the people. They are prepared to spend their money, simply to make more.

In this election year, the internet and television will play a greater part than newspapers and opinion polls — which are always subject to suspicion.

For Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, the best advice may have come from the 20th president of the United States, James Garfield, who said:
“Political issues cannot be manufactured by party leaders and cannot be evaded. The real political issues of the day declare themselves and come out of that deep well we call public opinion.”

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