Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Mean Girls: The Squabbles of Former Liberal Party Prime Ministers

Regina George: She's so pathetic. Let me tell you something about Janis Ian. We were best friends in middle school. I know, right? It's so embarrassing. I don't even... Whatever. So then in eighth grade, I started going out with my first boyfriend Kyle who was totally gorgeous but then he moved to Indiana, and Janis was like, weirdly jealous of him. Like, if I would blow her off to hang out with Kyle, she'd be like, "Why didn't you call me back?" And I'd be like, "Why are you so obsessed with me?" So then, for my birthday party, which was an all-girls pool party, I was like, "Janis, I can't invite you, because I think you're lesbian." I mean I couldn't have a lesbian at my party. There were gonna be girls there in their *bathing suits*. I mean, right? She was a LESBIAN. So then her mom called my mom and started yelling at her, it was so retarded. And then she dropped out of school because no one would talk to her, and she came back in the fall for high school, all of her hair was cut off and she was totally weird, and now I guess she's on crack.
(Mean Girls, 2004)

Watching Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser rip apart the modern Liberal Party on The 7:30 Report over the past two nights sure was an eerie experience. Let’s be clear here: I hate the man, despite his apparent ideological devotion to the Left in his retirement. Why? It’s nothing to do with his policies, but rather I regard him as possibly the most treacherous politician in Australian history.

Forget about the Whitlam dismissal of 1975, because you could argue the merits of that particular act depending on your partisan point of view. However, what Fraser did to John Gorton four years earlier was far worse. Fraser resigned from the post of Defense Minister after assuring Gorton he would not do such a thing the day before, and then reneged in the most public of ways, by attacking Gorton on the floor on Parliament with the political kiss of death ‘He is not fit to hold the great office of Prime Minister’. Could you imagine Robert Hill, John Moore, Peter Reith or Brendan Nelson attacking John Howard like that? Neither can I. This assault on Gorton led to the famous Liberal Party leadership ballot where Gorton used his casting vote against himself to install William McMahan as Prime Minister, universally regarded as the worst Prime Minister this country has ever had.

Yet here was Fraser using the opportunity on The 7:30 Report to plug his political memoirs (On sale this Thursday!) attempting to cast himself as the martyr. Fraser wanted deregulation of the economy, but his evil young Treasurer John Howard wouldn’t let him. If it weren’t for Howard Fraser suggests that he would have been able to claim much of the credit for what the Hawke Government did in their first term, I struggle to believe this. For someone as domineering as Fraser was in Cabinet it is hard to fathom that he wouldn’t have been able to push these reforms through if he wanted to, even if Treasury strongly opposed them. Fraser is not the victim here, rather the worst kind of politician. He is the Regina George of Australian politics: Very ruthless in order to get to the top job, not ruthless enough once he got there. For all of Howard’s policy and ideological failings at least he has a clear set of values. Fraser likes to pretend he has values, but it is his attitude that is toxic.

All this goes to a larger question. Why do former Liberal Party Prime Ministers act like a bunch of Mean Girls. In the ALP, we revere our Prime Ministers, sometimes too much, but at least we respect them and recognise their contributions. The Liberal Party however spend their time looking back at internal wars and holding grudges. Fraser hates Howard, Howard hates Fraser, and Gorton hated Fraser. To be sure Hawke hated Keating for stabbing him in the back, but they have both acknowledged publicly a mutual admiration and respect for one another. Contrast this with Gorton and Fraser. When Fraser was defeated by Hawke in 1983, Gorton called Hawke and thanked him for ‘…rolling that bastard Fraser.’ A year before his death in 2002, at the ripe at old age of 90, Gorton told his biographer Ian Hancock that he could never tolerate being in the same room as Fraser.

I have two theories to explain this. Liberal Party leaders have more power organisationally than their Labor Party counterparts. Theoretically they have the final say on Cabinet appointments, policy issues and internal tactics. Although the culture is changing within the ALP to favour a similar structure, power is still distributed more evenly. ALP leaders have to consult with Caucus and other powerbrokers when making the above decisions. Therefore, Liberal leaders have far more to lose when being deposed. Enemies of Liberal Party leaders have been known to chant ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead’ and enemies of Labor leaders generally chant ‘The King is Dead, long live the King’. This leads to a second theory. The Labor Party is the party of the collective, while the Liberal Party is the party of the individual: there is inherent solidarity for people in leadership positions within the Labor Party whereas, the Liberal Party tend to think in Darwinian terms: survival of the fittest, and former leaders are amongst the most injured.

Perhaps god forbid Fraser can take a leaf out of Keating’s book. For years the ALP abandoned his economic legacy in a display of myopic vote winning. But he has now forgiven the Party, which gave him a life in politics and is instead doing what every Former Prime Minister should do: contributing to the policy debate whilst destroying the other side instead of his own. I know the Liberals are loathed to learn anything from Keating, but their history depends on it.

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