Reviewed by Antonella Townsend
Toby Tosspot, Pig Iron Bob, Black Jack, The Laird of Melbourne, Lying Rodent, Ming the Merciless, Eggwit, The Silver Bodgie, The Mad Monk, Dr. Death!
I love Australia! Only here would Prime Ministers be given such irreverent epithets. Not Australian born, and woefully ignorant of its political history, I really appreciated Mungo MacCallum’s latest edition of The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely. Whereas this amusing tour through the lives of Australia’s Prime Ministers often takes the scenic route, it also maps out the development of how the socialists and free marketers morphed into the Labor and Liberal Parties, who led the charge in promoting equality, and who just didn’t care about Australia at all!
MacCallum’s account of Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce puts him firmly in the ‘didn’t care’ slot. And, it looks as if we can censure Billy Hughes, keen to impress ‘the big end of town’, for persuading a reluctant Bruce to leave London to head up the Treasury in Australia. Apparently, wealthy Bruce revered all things British, boasting of his Cambridge Blue and his membership of the Royal Society. An old piece of wisdom comes to mind: No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other. Emotionally, Bruce was forever in England; consequently he did a lousy job of being Prime Minister, leaving Australia’s economy in a bad way before being ousted from parliament by a disgruntled electorate.
If I stick with the ‘no man can serve two masters’ rationale, I might, nervously, (I’m dusting off my passport as I write) apply it to the legend that is Robert Gordon Menzies. Whereas I knew Menzies was, ridiculously, enamored by Queen Elizabeth II, I did not know that he regarded himself as ‘British to the bootstraps’. His policies followed suit, believing payments to British bondholders should be held as sacrosanct, even if it meant starvation for Australians. Different times and no doubt he was just being dramatic, but really how un-Australian. And then, hoping to be included in Churchill’s war cabinet, he hotfooted to London, leaving his deputy PM in charge at this crucial time. This didn’t go down well, on his return from London he was dumped, and stayed dumped for eight years. He maneuvered a come back, as, apparently, a humble and changed man, to reform the UAP into the ‘big-business backed’ Liberal Party. His new popularity was accomplished through weekly radio broadcasts, effectively side-stepping the media to speak directly to the general public. Casting Twitter as the modern version of radio broadcasts, it seems nothing much has changed. In fact in reading MacCallum, I was often surprised how much has stayed the same. Particularly the importance of Independent Members holding the balance of power and communism (read immigration/terrorism) which must be greatly feared, so allowing the government to trample over democratic principles. Creeping communism was the great ‘other’ of the day and Menzies employed it to the full. His lasting legacy for his sixteen years of service: the establishment of the Reserve Bank, and the birth of the Liberal Party/Country Party coalition. MacCallum respectfully accounts for Menzies’ political longevity to his calm, patriarchal demeanor.
Whereas much is the same, the personalities of some pollies were wildly more entertaining. A personal favorite of mine is Alfred Deakin, Australia’s second Prime Minister. MacCallum writes: If Henry Parkes was the father of federation and Edmund Barton its midwife, then Alfred Deakin was its nanny. Clearly a competent man, Deakin was responsible for putting in place the two-party structure – Labor and anti-Labor. But also, entertainingly, believed he received messages from beyond the grave! And I have to say, he kept company with the best – Sophocles, John Knox, Lord Macaulay, Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill, and … Richard Heales (who?). Apparently, this ghost hailed from Victoria, being the chief secretary at one stage. Malcolm Fraser losing his trousers, and Paul Keating berating other heads of state, feels a bit ‘run of the mill’ now.
In the first line MacCallum writes: Australians aren’t very fond of their politicians, alive or dead… Well, this book goes a long way to creating a real interest and fondness for The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely Prime Ministers of Australia.
The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely
By Mungo MacCallum (2019)
Paperback ISBN: 9781760641559 – $32.99
Ebook ISBN: 9781921870910 – $14.99