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Malcolm Turnbull's cabinet dilemma: history suggests former leaders spell trouble

Should Malcolm Turnbull bring Tony Abbott back into the cabinet? The lessons of history suggest not.

The push by Tony Abbott loyalists, led by Eric Abetz, for the former prime minister to be reinstated to cabinet poses an interesting dilemma for Malcolm Turnbull: whether to offer an olive branch to heal the wounds in a still-smarting party or to heed the lessons from history, which surely would counsel against any such move.

The first ex-prime minister to serve under a successor was Sir Joseph Cook (1913-14), who joined the breakaway government formed by Billy Hughes after the Labor split over conscription in 1916. Cook served with distinction as navy minister and later as treasurer before going to London as high commissioner in 1921. Cook was a dutiful minister, showing no signs of wanting his old job back. (And no one was even contemplating that, given Cook's dismal record as prime minister).

Eric Abetz: Return Abbott to ministry

Liberal senator Eric Abetz suggests that Tony Abbott should be restored to a prominent frontbench position in Malcolm Turnbull's upcoming ministry reshuffle. Courtesy ABC NewsRadio.

Billy Hughes (1915-23) was a different story, having been deposed after the 1922 election when his Nationalist Party lost its majority and needed the support of the nascent Country Party, whose price was not only the removal of Hughes as prime minister but also a veto on his serving in cabinet. Hughes, exiled to the backbench, exacted a terrible revenge in 1928 when he orchestrated a backbench revolt against his successor, Stanley Bruce (1923-29), forcing him to an early election, which he lost. In retrospect, Hughes might have been significantly less dangerous inside the tent than outside it.

Hughes, whose prime-ministerial ambitions never died, returned to cabinet under Joseph Lyons in 1934, but was forced to resign the following year over a policy difference. He returned to the ministry in 1938, serving again under Lyons (1932-39) and Sir Earle Page, on Lyons' death in 1939. He was included in the cabinet of Robert Menzies (1939-41), elected to succeed Lyons, but played a key role in undermining Menzies, who was forced to resign in 1941. Hughes was trouble, inside the tent as well as outside.

There is a push for Tony Abbott, left, to be reinstated in Malcolm Turnbull's Cabinet.
There is a push for Tony Abbott, left, to be reinstated in Malcolm Turnbull's Cabinet. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Bruce, who supplanted Hughes in 1923, lost his seat in 1929, but returned at the next election, serving briefly under Lyons as assistant treasurer before going to London as a special minister, subsequently resigning to become high commissioner. Bruce, however, continued to nurse prime-ministerial ambitions, keeping in touch with colleagues and discussing plans. He was not impressed with Lyons or his ministers, as his correspondence reveals, the implication being that he could do far better. Eventually, he settled for a seat in the House of Lords.

The case of James Scullin (1929-32) is unusual in that he remained in parliament after his defeat in 1931, staying on as opposition leader until the 1934 election, after which he retired to the backbench, declining office in the wartime ALP governments of John Curtin (1941-45) and Ben Chifley (1945-49).

Inveterate meddler

There is no doubt that his advice was valuable, having been allocated an office between that of Curtin and his loyal lieutenant, Chifley. But in an interview in 1987 with the last surviving member of the Chifley cabinet, Nelson Lemmon, he told me the story of the sagacious elder statesman was only partly true: Scullin was an inveterate meddler and an intriguer with time on his hands.

Robert Menzies, cut down in his first term in 1941, had no qualms about serving in the brief government of his successor, Arthur Fadden, working in the vital wartime portfolio of defence co-ordination. Menzies, of course, was to have his day, returning in triumph in 1949, presiding over a cabinet containing two former prime ministers, Page and Fadden.

In 1971, when a party room revolt toppled John Gorton (1968-71), the Liberals surprisingly elected Gorton deputy leader to the man who replaced him, William McMahon (1971-2). Gorton asked for, and got, the defence portfolio, but in two newspaper articles he wrote, he sought to settle scores, detailing the problems he had had with ministers leaking information from cabinet. He was dismissed.

Both Gorton and McMahon served briefly on the frontbench in opposition after the Labor victory in 1972, but were dropped after the 1974 election. Gorton retired in 1975, but McMahon remained in parliament until 1980, unsuccessfully lobbying Malcolm Fraser for a ministry while forever button-holing journalists to tell them how bad things were.

In 1983, when Fraser (1975-83) lost the election, he promptly resigned from parliament, a precedent followed by Bob Hawke (1983-91) when he was deposed and Paul Keating (1991-96) when he lost the 1996 election. In 2007, John Howard (1996-2007) had the matter taken out of his hands when he lost both the election and his seat, but Kevin Rudd (2007-10) showed no inclination to follow the Fraser precedent.

After being dumped in favour of Julia Gillard in 2010, Rudd devoted every waking hour (and possibly every sleeping hour as well) to finding a way back to the job he believed was rightfully his. Despite one failed challenge and another challenge that failed to eventuate, he eventually returned in 2013 to preside, briefly, over the carnage that was largely of his own making.

Humility has never been an apparent trait in Tony Abbott's make-up, where ambition has always run far ahead of ability.

History would suggest that former leaders hanging around spell trouble. Humility has never been an apparent trait in Tony Abbott's make-up, where ambition has always run far ahead of ability; it would be stretching credibility to see him as a dutiful Cook or Menzies. Having declined the Fraser option, his continued presence draws more apt comparisons with Hughes and Rudd.

For the prime minister, it really is a no-brainer.

Norman Abjorensen's The Manner of Their Going: Prime Ministerial Exits from Lyne to Abbott (Australian Scholarly) was published in November.