Modern ministerial sackings (Part 3): Purges over performance and positions

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The worst of the worst (Image screenshot from YouTube)

The Turnbull and Abbott Governments had the most lost ministers per year for performance issues or disputes since the Whitlam days. Alan Austin concludes this IA series on ministerial sackings and resignations.

[Read Part One] [Read Part Two] 

Part Three: Purges over performance and party positions

The most rapid exodus of Federal ministers in Australia’s history took place just over four years ago, when 15 executive council members resigned in the space of five months. Extraordinary!

This, on the face of it, seems abundant proof of a failed administration.

Yet, in 2013, the Gillard/Rudd Government delivered the world’s best-performed economy, gaining for Australians the world’s highest median wealth, all-time high hours worked per adult per month and the greatest economic freedom in the OECD. Many major social reforms were advanced, including protections for the environment, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski education reforms.

Australia enjoyed an unsurpassed reputation as a global citizen that year, taking a seat on the U.N. Security Council and accepting the chair of the G20 group of the world’s major economies.

This demonstrates emphatically that categories are critical in analysing ministerial departures.

This series examines Federal executive council members sacked or resigned in four categories:

      (A) Ethics and legality: breaches of parliamentary standards or the law.

      (B) Performance: portfolio mismanagement or underachievement.

      (C) Policy and positions: disputes over internal party direction or leadership.

      (D) Generational change or voluntary retirement.

Part Two examined category A in detail. These certainly can indicate low personal standards among elected MPs. Category B failures also suggest failure in either party policy or personal character. Categories C and D do not.

In category D, the tallies are pretty close. The Coalition has shunted 38 ministers into retirement in 23 years, and Labor 43 in 22 years. Nothing much to see here.

So now we must list the departees in categories B and C. Again, the contrast between the main political parties is most intriguing.

Whitlam Labor Government (Dec 1972 to Dec 1975)

(B) Only one dumping for performance, Al Grassby by his electorate – narrowly – at the 1974 election. This is a tough call, as Grassby had arguably served well and copped a particularly vicious campaign in Riverina. But them’s the rules. [Total: 1]

(C) On policy and positions, Clyde Cameron was sacked after refusing a portfolio change. [Total: 1]

Fraser Coalition Government (Dec 1975 to March 1983)

(B) Ivor Greenwood was sacked after refusing to resign while incapacitated due to an extended illness. [Total: 1]

(C) Fraser dumped Don Chipp for inability to work together; Robert Ellicott resigned over a dispute about costs in a court case; Eric Robinson resigned via a letter telling Fraser he no longer had his "unqualified support"; and Andrew Peacock stormed out in a ripper of a dummy-spit. [Total: 4]

Hawke Labor Government (March 1983 to Dec 1991)

(B) John Kerin resigned as treasurer after failing to explain fiscal policy matters, but stayed in cabinet with another portfolio. [Total: 1]

(C) Stewart West resigned in dissent against uranium mining; Gary Punch resigned to protest the Sydney Airport decision; Paul Keating resigned to challenge Bob Hawke for the leadership; Bob Hawke departed when defeated in a party room leadership ballot. [Total: 4]

Keating Labor Government (Dec 1991 to March 1996)

(B) Ros Kelly was sacked after mismanaging sports grants. [Total: 1]

(C) None.

Howard Coalition Government (March 1996 to Nov 2007)

(B) Bronwyn Bishop was sacked for failing to respond to appalling abuses of elderly citizens; Warwick Smith, Larry Anthony, Trish Worth and Chris Miles all lost their seats at elections. [Total: 5]

(C)  John Moore, Danna Vale and Robert Hill were dumped after opposing Howard’s decisions; Grant Tambling was disendorsed by his party. [Total: 4]

First Rudd Labor Government (Nov 2007 to June 2010)

(B) None.

(C) PM Kevin Rudd resigned after Julia Gillard’s leadership challenge. [Total: 1]

Gillard Labor Government (June 2010 to June 2013)

(B) Maxine McKew lost her seat at the 2010 election. [Total: 1]

(C) Kevin Rudd resigned as foreign minister in February 2012 to challenge Julia Gillard unsuccessfully for the leadership.

After Rudd’s failed tilt against Gillard in March 2013, five pro-Rudd ministers quit: Simon Crean, Chris Bowen, Martin Ferguson, Kim Carr and Richard Marles.

Following Rudd’s successful coup in 2013, eight executive councillors resigned: Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan, Peter Garrett, Stephen Conroy, Joe Ludwig, Greg Combet and Andrew Leigh. [Total: 13]

Second Rudd Labor Government (June 2013 to Sept 2013)

No departures.

Abbott Coalition Government (Sept 2013 to Sept 2015)

(B) David Johnston left defence after multiple gaffes and perceived performance failures; Joe Hockey was dismissed as treasurer after failing to deliver two Federal budgets and other conspicuous performance failures. [Total: 2]

(C) There were eight departures over policy and leadership: Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews, Eric Abetz, Ian Macfarlane, Bruce Billson, Michael Ronaldson and Bob Baldwin. [Total: 8]

Turnbull Coalition Government (Sept 2015 to present)

(B) Peter Hendy, Wyatt Roy and Richard Colbeck all lost their seats at the 2016 election. [Total: 3]

(C) Luke Hartsuyker lost his portfolio when Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce dumped the leadership aspirant from the list of ministerial candidates handed to the PM. [Total: 1]

Hence the totals in category B – competence – are 15, of whom four were Labor and 11 Coalition. That is a statistically significant difference.

Here also the question must be raised as to whether Labor tolerates more incompetence than Coalition. The answer, again, is that there is no evidence for this. As outcomes in economic management, foreign affairs, trade and social reform attest, Labor has been conspicuously the party of greater competence over the last 45 years.

The totals in category C – internal party disputes over position – show 17 departures during Coalition regimes and 19 during Labor periods. That indicates little, apart from contributing to overall stability — or instability.

Taking all three categories together – A, B and C – and measuring the rate of exit per year in office enables ranking in order from most stable to least stable, as follows:

Kevin Rudd, both terms together: 0.72 exits per year.

Bob Hawke: 0.91 per year.

Paul Keating: 0.95 per year.

Gough Whitlam: 1.65 per year.

Malcolm Fraser: 1.66 per year.

John Howard: 2.05 per year.

Julia Gillard: 4.65 per year.

Malcolm Turnbull: 5.16 per year.

Tony Abbott: 5.45 per year.

This reflects extremely poorly on the administrations of Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. But so do virtually all indicators of progress and achievement. Why should this area be any different?

We shall update these lists in months and years to come. Meanwhile, discussion in the comments section following is warmly welcomed.

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanAustin001.

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