05 February 2015

Is Abbott a worse PM than McMahon?

Baby-boomer journalists have created the unshakeable impression that Billy McMahon was the worst Prime Minister ever.

They do his piping old-man voice involuntarily these days. He used to leak, they say - as though journalists hate it when pollies do that. Part of it is old-school homophobia; they were young blades then, and McMahon was a queer old irrelevance delaying the coming of Gough. For all their experience of politics they can't quite explain why, in modern parlance, McMahon 'saved the furniture': he went into the 1972 election with a surplus of seven seats and out with a deficit of only nine, which is why the Coalition were back in office under three years rather than waiting out the decade.

Because they don't do policy, they really can't explain why McMahon was so terrible. He didn't divide the country while at war, like Hughes, and nor did he faff around in the face of economic emergency and geopolitical threat like Lyons.

Even more embarrassingly, they can't explain why they thought so highly of Tony Abbott, and why all the evidence shows they were so so wrong to do so. This isn't some sudden development; Abbott was never good enough to become Prime Minister. The more experience you have covering politics, the greater your professional negligence in failing to notice that.

The comparison is stronger than you realise. The alternatives available, much less so.

Tertiary education
LLB BEc, University of Sydney
BEc LLB, University of Sydney
‘Cheerful, rowdy extravert’ while at uni
Threatened by homosexuality
Not necessarily
Yes (except for own sibling); voted against same-sex marriage
Number of children
Year entered House of Representatives
Number of years in Parliament before first appointed to frontbench
Role of John Howard
NSW Liberal State Executive member; manually operated teleprompter at public speeches in 1972
Mentor, appointed him to several ministries
Leaked against Liberal leaders under whom he served
Minister responsible for workplace relations system
Criticised by Victorian colleague for lack of economics knowledge
Yes (McEwen)
Yes (Costello)
Became leader only after critical colleague left Parliament
Became leader in party-room spill
Narrow party-room victory
Tied vote; incumbent (Gorton) voted against himself
Won by one vote with supporter of incumbent (Turnbull) absent
Strong orator and parliamentary performer
Ahh, no
Ahh, no
Labor opponent a strong orator and parliamentary performer
Labor opponent more popular
Became Prime Minister after general election
Length of service as Prime Minister
21 months
16 months so far
Came to office with strong approval rating
Women in cabinet
1, then 2
Wartime leader
Yes (Vietnam)
Yes (Afghanistan)
Withdrew troops from conflict
Appointed predecessor to ministry
High Commissioner to the UK
Alexander Downer (Sr)
Alexander Downer (Jr)
Supported by Rupert Murdoch
Yes, then no
Relationship with Packer family
Leaked to journalist Alan Reid, who was employed by Sir Frank Packer
Employed by Kerry Packer as a journalist
Criticised in book by Susan Mitchell
Stand by your man
Tony Abbott: A man’s man
Public appearances with wife wearing white
Wrong-footed by US President over China
Criticised Whitlam for recognising and visiting People’s Republic of China, just before President Nixon did
After removing carbon pricing scheme, President Obama signed carbon pricing arrangement with PRC
Aboriginal tent embassy protest
Yes (was set up under his Prime Ministership)
Yes (protest at the site in 2011 targeted an event he attended nearby)
Brief, pointless visit to Aboriginal settlement in Northern Territory
Immigration policy
Watered down but did not end the White Australia Policy
Watered down but did not withdraw from UN Convention on Refugees
Unemployment rose during term
Relationship with Secretary of Treasury
Sir Roland Wilson resigned rather than work with him
Sacked Dr Martin Parkinson
Actions against civil liberties
Voted to ban Communist Party
Detention and refoulement of refugees; legislated to imprison journalists and whistleblowers with unauthorised material; data retention; proposed banning verbal advocacy of Islamist organisations
Child care
Child Care Act 1972
Vague talk about childcare after dumping of paid parental leave scheme; wife manager of daycare centre
Cut university funding
Cut government support for non-fossil-fuel energy
Cut other areas of science
Hostile Senate
Not necessarily, then yes
Liberal Party performance in state elections during tenure
WA (lost)
NSW (won)
Tasmania (lost)
Tasmania (won)

SA (lost)
Victoria (lost)
Queensland (lost)
NSW (tbd)
Denied lying
Big ears
Yes (looked like a Volkswagen with both doors open)
Yes (what’s a Volkswagen?)
Accused of not listening


  1. Good stuff, Andrew.

    I remember Billy as a bit of a joke before Gough, but he was certainly not as big a joke as Abbott is becoming, promulgated by his own so-called supporters.
    I think his days are numbered but I must say as a Labor supporter I would prefer he stays until the next election.

    1. Like you, Dave C, I remember the McMahon Months. He wasn't a particularly adept PM, but neither were either of the others (Holt, Gorton) post-Menzies. (Google tells me Black Jack McEwin was also PM. That must've been as a temp immediately after Holt disappeared.) I would probably have categorised him as the worst PM we've had in my lifetime until recently, but Abbott makes him look like a statesman with enormous gravitas.

  2. Excellent summary/tabulation. But I do have one suggested change to put your summary beyond dispute. In the section 'strong orator and parliamentary performer' in the Abbott column there should have been at least one 'er' plus a reference to Julia being the worst PM ever and/or 'debt and 'deficit', 'toxic tax', 'Whyalla wipeout' & etc

  3. And now this from Laura Tingle:

    "It turns out there is a lot more to the whole budget thing than a simple slogan about Labor mismanagement. Who would have guessed?"

    The Aus media are in the process of pretending they knew all along how hopeless Abbott was going to be. It's enough to make a grown man cry.

  4. Such a succinct analysis - I am impressed!

  5. McMahon was before my time, but I feel like I know the man, after reading that handy table of comparison.

  6. You've been in peak form these past few posts and this is no exception.

    It is extraordinary what parallels there are between the two. Another is the restoration of reactionaries to the ministry. Billy brought back Howson and Cairns. Andrews and Abetz is similar.

    You are right that it is a typical Press Gallery unthinking assumption that Billy was the worst ever. For all his fumbling, he was more competent than his predecessor Gorton, even if the latter had a much clearer nationalistic vision. Probably better than Holt, too. Billy suffered, as they all did, from being contrasted with the eloquence and wit of Gough. Certainly he looked more helpless and dated because of that contrast.

    But he did save the furniture from what looked like being a rout. For that alone he justifies leaving the bottom of the table. I'd even put him ahead of Lyons and Bruce despite them winning several elections on the back of Labor splits.

    I think Cook is the current titleholder, but Abbott is rapidly closing in.

  7. There is one major difference between the abbott (lower case delib.) government and the McMahon government.

    The abbott government is actively and deliberately malevolent; the McMahon government was only passively so.

  8. Killen's Ghost6/2/15 9:17 pm

    I've been saying this for months, Andrew, so many thanks for the table. Time to share this page!

  9. Obvious personal shortcomings aside, Abbott's dilemma is rooted in the deep fissure within the Liberal party.

    He was installed to deliver the outcomes demanded by the hard-right within the party and their urgers and backers in the media and business.

    He could not tell voters about his intentions because the Libs would not have been elected.

    As we all know the govt is in strife now because voters have woken up. They understand full well what the government agenda is and they do not like it one bit. They have no respect for Abbott because he lied to them.

    I can't see the Libs installing Malcolm. I wonder at the motives of two climate change sceptics leading the charge for a spill?

    But if Turnbull gets in, the public will soon realize that he is TA in a better suit as Shorten put it pithily.

    Ah me. It is in none of our interests to have one of our major parties in such a state. I hope the ALP have worked out their problems. They have certainly been very quiet. I take that as a positive. Hopefully.

    Meanwhile the country appears to be on the slide. If I were unemployed or facing the sack with few prospects, I would not find the goings-on in Canberra at all hilarious.

  10. One other point they both share is that the Liberal Party does not do succession planning well especially after a long serving autocratic leader (Howard/ Abbott and Menzies/ McMahon).

    Conservatives love their "strong" leaders but those same leaders poison the waters for some years after their departure.

  11. McMahon actually did come to office with a strong approval rating; it just didn't last very long. His first Morgan in April 1971 had him with a +47 netsat (55 approve 8 disapprove); by late August he was already negative.