"All political careers," argued Enoch Powell, "end in failure." Some end in a bang, others in a whimper; but the heartache stays the same: crushed ambitions, shattered illusions, wounded egos and all too often sad and lonely farewells.
Even the mighty fall, and they fall mighty hard. Who can forget a tearful Margaret Thatcher climbing into her prime ministerial car outside Number 10 for the final time in 1990? An exhausted Bob Hawke being knifed by his Labor comrade a year later? Or a humbled John Howard in 2007 losing not just power to a nerd from Nambour who dined on his own ear-wax, but the electoral seat he'd comfortably held for 33 years?
If only, advised Powell, they had "cut off" their political careers "in midstream at a happy juncture." If only Howard had passed the torch of leadership to his patient and loyal deputy Peter Costello in 2006, we would have had a political grown-up running the country and been spared the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era.
History, as the maverick British Conservative observed, is littered with examples of politicians collecting lots of capital only to overspend it to the point of bankruptcy. Succumbing to hubris, they assumed they were politically immortal until they committed the fatal error that ended their career in humiliation. Why? Because their ambitions pulsed as long as their hearts beat, and they always wanted to achieve just one more victory.
I can think of only one prominent national Westminster-style politician in the modern era to defy Powell's dictum that all political careers end in failure. As it happens, he did so 50 years ago. On January 20, 1966, Robert G. Menzies – Australia's longest serving prime minister (1939-41, 1949-66), founder of our most successful political party, a brilliant orator and parliamentarian, international statesman and a philosophical icon for millions of us who oppose socialism – stepped down from the highest post in the land.
What made this act so extraordinarily rare was not just Menzies' decision to retire at a time of his choosing. Nor was it the seamless transition of power to the next generation of Liberals. His treasurer, Harold Holt, could rightly claim he did not have to step over any dead bodies to get the top job. The reason why Menzies' resignation was so historic, and so enviable and so downright admirable, was because he had the good sense to leave the arena at the height of his powers and popularity.
As his biographer Allan Martin documented, the most prominent media assessments at the time were positive. Even Menzies' critics admired the manner of his departure.
"In all his long reign he has never enjoyed greater dominion over his party. His government has never seemed more secure," editorialised the Herald. "His health and energy are amazingly good for a man of 71. His mind is as sharp as ever. No one can doubt that, if he wished, he could remain in power for many years yet and fight at least one more election with success." The Herald concluded: "His retirement is a model for other politicians both in Australia and abroad."
At his final press conference, Menzies said an election was due later that year; it was better to retire while he was on top of his game and to allow his successor time to establish leadership in his own right before facing the voters. Menzies was vindicated: Holt went on to win the greatest landslide election in history – even bigger than Malcolm Fraser's devastating victories over Gough Whitlam in 1975 and 1977.
Whatever one thinks of his 16-year tenure, Menzies provides an important lesson for long-time politicians – or, for that matter, any pub-patron and partygoer who hangs around to become mad, drunk or both: the time to go is when everyone tells you to stay.
Which brings us to another Liberal PM, one who (like Menzies during his first stint in the Lodge) had been in power for only two years. I am, of course, referring to Tony Abbott. As he ponders his political future, the 22-year parliamentary veteran is receiving all kinds of advice. Liberal Party branch members across the nation want him to stand for re-election in his seat of Warringah; metropolitan sophisticates just want him to go. Here is a political career ending in failure if ever one did. Or is it?
Abbott is no Menzies – no one compares to our greatest prime minister – but he could do worse than learn from "Ming." From 1939 to 1941, he had led a minority government before losing his party's leadership in controversy. Widely dismissed as yesterday's man, Menzies went to the backbench, nursed his bruises, learnt from his mistakes and fashioned a centre-right party from bitter sectional interests. By decade's end, he returned to power – and won the next six elections.
Reviewing Allan Martin's first-volume biography of Menzies in 1993, John Howard wrote: "There is something poignant, even evocative, in [Menzies'] comment to his private secretary… after he resigned as prime minister [in failure in 1941]: that he would go away 'and bleed a while.' It portrays a sense of dejected loneliness, but also a hint of a destiny as yet unfulfilled. He feels rejected but not completely finished."
Howard, as Alan Ramsey noted at the time, could have been thinking about himself. So could Abbott today. This summer he has been reading Charles Moore's widely acclaimed second-volume biography of Thatcher. He might care to dust off his copy of Martin's second-volume biography of Menzies to read before parliament resumes.
Tom Switzer is host of Between the Lines on ABC's Radio National and a research associate at the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre.