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The art of the political comeback

5 July 2016

Robert Menzies mastered it, but this might be one of the skills Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t share with his long-serving predecessor, writes Norman Abjorensen


On the way back: Liberal leader Robert Menzies (left), with senior party figures Dame Enid Lyons, Eric Harrison and Harold Holt, and an unnamed airforce officer, outside Parliament House, Canberra, c. 1946. Department of Information

On the way back: Liberal leader Robert Menzies (left), with senior party figures Dame Enid Lyons, Eric Harrison and Harold Holt, and an unnamed airforce officer, outside Parliament House, Canberra, c. 1946. Department of Information

Once there was a bright young lawyer who, from his earliest days, seemed destined for the top. Still in his twenties, he appeared in high-profile cases, and won. Politics seemed to be beckoning, and no one expected him to be content with anything but the top job. Within a few years of entering the Commonwealth parliament, he was the leader of his party, only to be driven out of the leadership.

He would return in triumph, but the way would not be easy. Twice, in government, he came close to defeat, but resilience was always part of his make-up. The stumbles and setbacks now are largely forgotten; history remembers, above all, the victories. He was, of course, Sir Robert Menzies, with whom, in some respects, a comparison with Malcolm Turnbull is inevitable – but only to a point.

Neither man entertained any doubts about his superiority, and woe betide anyone who questioned him. Menzies, as attorney-general in the Victorian government of the patrician Sir Stanley Argyle, was asked by the premier why he had recommended certain names to cabinet for appointment to the Supreme Court. Menzies replied curtly, “You will accept my advice or you will have my resignation.” The wartime Labor prime minister, John Curtin, who liked Menzies, once remarked that Menzies would rather score a point than make a friend.

Malcolm Turnbull, famously, is known not to suffer fools. And as Paddy Manning’s book Born to Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull reveals, arrogant behaviour is a feature of a man who is accused of never giving credit where it’s due, being ungracious towards those who help him, and having little empathy for those less fortunate. One of his worst traits, according to Manning, is that under pressure he lashes out at those around him, especially his inferiors.

The comparisons continue. Bright lawyers both, they appeared in celebrated cases before turning thirty. In 1920, Menzies, then not quite twenty-six, appeared for the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in the High Court, where the union was seeking the right to a Commonwealth industrial award for state government employees. It was a case that went to the heart of the issue of federal versus state rights, challenging the doctrine of the “immunity of instrumentalities,” which limited federal powers, by directing the court’s attention to the actual words of the Constitution. After six days of argument, the judges, with one dissenting, were persuaded by Menzies’s argument. It was a landmark ruling that had the potential to greatly expand the scope of the federal government and firmly established the young Menzies as one of Australia’s leading constitutional lawyers.

Malcolm Turnbull, not yet thirty, successfully defended media owner Kerry Packer against the baseless allegations that he was somehow linked to an unsolved murder, drug importation and tax fraud. After that, he became known throughout Australia for the Spycatcher affair, defending Peter Wright, a former British MI5 agent, who wrote a book the British government was seeking to prevent being published in Australia.

The legal world was seemingly at the feet of both men, but the siren call of politics seduced them away from the bar. In each case, it was a quick rise up the ministerial ranks soon after entering parliament (though Menzies had already made a mark in the Victorian parliament before going to Canberra in 1934). In each case, the party leadership was theirs within five years – Menzies in government and Turnbull in opposition.

Again, each would lose the support of the party and contemplate retirement from politics. But each would rise again – Menzies at the head of a new party that came to office in 1949 after missing out in 1946, and Turnbull at the head of a government that was floundering and headed for certain defeat.

Menzies, like Turnbull, had his detractors, especially in Sydney where, prior to 1949, a common slogan was “You’ll never win with Menzies.” There were also those within whose ideological bent diverged from the pragmatic Keynesianism of Menzies: a NSW-based “cave” that advocated less government intervention in the economy and an end to the two-airline policy. Menzies simply ignored them – and there just might be a lesson there for Turnbull as the sniping from the right continues. Menzies’s logic was unassailable: politically, they were in a minority and had nowhere else to go.

Here, though, is where the parallel narrative stalls. Menzies’s triumph in 1949 looked like it might be ephemeral, especially as Labor made significant gains in 1954, winning a majority of the vote and looking poised to regain office. Menzies looked anything but secure, but thanks to an improved economy and the split in the Labor Party, an audacious snap election called in 1955 produced a convincing comeback.

Again in 1961, after a horror budget to counter rising inflation, Menzies barely scraped home, this time coming within one seat of losing. An anxious nation waited on the count of a single seat, Moreton, in Brisbane, in which Jim Killen’s 130-vote margin saved the day, saved the government and saved Bob Menzies. With economic prosperity restored in 1963, he called a snap election, regained a handsome majority and retired before the next election.

Menzies could easily have fallen at any one of these hurdles. But with a sure grip on his party, his ruthless elimination of rivals, including Eric Harrison (diplomatic posting), Dick Casey (House of Lords) and Garfield Barwick (High Court), left him in control and, ultimately, enabled him to be the only prime minister who, quite unequivocally, left office at the time of his own choosing.

Malcolm Turnbull will not, of course, emulate the sixteen-year record of Menzies, but whether he can navigate his way around the obstacles, and overcome the setbacks as Menzies did, will determine the extent to which he bears comparison to that master politician.

It may well prove to be the case that the comparison, for all the superficial parallels, is simply way too flattering. •

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Another day of uncertainty: prime minister Malcolm Turnbull outside his home in Sydney this morning. David Moir/AAP Image

Another day of uncertainty: prime minister Malcolm Turnbull outside his home in Sydney this morning. David Moir/AAP Image