If, as might happen, Tony Abbott is dumped as prime minister, what lies ahead for him?
Already, there has been speculation that the situation unfolding resembles an ominous reprise of the Rudd-Gillard struggle, in which a deposed leader retreated quietly for a time, only to plot his revenge and organise the numbers for a comeback, destroying a government in the process.
But this won't happen again. The Rudd and Abbott situations are very different. Kevin Rudd, while declining in the polls, still had a base of popular public support that Tony Abbott has never enjoyed. Rudd knew this and played on it at every opportunity, from the morbid self-pity of the ashen-faced victim consigned to the backbench immediately after his ousting to a series of carefully orchestrated public appearances and utterances, as both foreign minister and backbencher, aimed at letting all and sundry know he was still around, still in the game and ready for the call. He always had an audience to play to.
Put simply, Rudd was held in affection – except, that is, in Canberra and his own caucus – and this amounted to political capital. Abbott, in stark contrast, has never been a popular figure, and his political capital account is heavily in the red.
I wrote at the time of Rudd's losing the prime ministership that the best thing Julia Gillard could do to protect her position was to ensure Rudd was not in a position to undermine her, as he most certainly would given half a chance. Rudd had apparently made it clear he was not moving and, to keep his supporters on side, she made him foreign minister – a poor decision and a fateful one, because it offered him a platform. The rest is history.
A look at what has happened in the past suggests former prime ministers can cause trouble – and for a variety of reasons. The first, as in the case of Rudd, is to seek to return to power. After all, almost no one leaves the prime ministership willingly, and of the 27 former prime ministers, only one – Robert Menzies, in 1966 – can be said to have unequivocally walked away from the job on his own terms and at a time of his choosing. And even Menzies, who had been deposed by his party once before, in 1941, had to fight his way back for a second term.
If a return to power is not possible, revenge is a powerful motive. When Billy Hughes was forced out of office in 1923 as the price for the Country Party joining the Nationalists in a coalition, he had begrudgingly handed the reins to his treasurer, Stanley Melbourne Bruce, in the confident expectation that Bruce would fail and he would be welcomed back. When this failed to eventuate, he took the next option and wrecked the government, engineering a backbench revolt that defeated the government in Parliament in 1929 and forced it to an early election, which it lost.
Bruce lost his seat at that election, but returned in 1931. The Labor renegade, Joe Lyons, who had defected to the Nationalists and formed the United Australia Party, was half-hearted about bringing Bruce into his cabinet, and then only as assistant treasurer, with himself as treasurer and well as prime minister.
Bruce was then sent to London – conveniently far away – first as resident minister, but then he resigned from Parliament and was appointed high commissioner. He retained a loyal following among senior government figures who wanted him back. He criticised the Lyons government and its leadership privately and even contemplated a return to replace Lyons, which, for a variety of reasons, did not happen.
James Scullin, who had the misfortune to win government just as the Great Depression was looming, relinquished the Labor leadership some time after losing office, but remained in Parliament, even during the wartime and post-war Curtin and Chifley governments, but declined ministerial office.
Popular Labor history has it that Scullin served as a grey eminence to both Labor prime ministers, but the last surviving member of the Chifley cabinet, Nelson Lemmon, told me shortly before his death in 1990 that the reality was a little different: Scullin had time on his hands; he was an inveterate intriguer, a gossip and a nuisance.
In 1972, when John Gorton faced a party room revolt and was replaced by Bill McMahon after a tied vote, he then bizarrely contested the ballot for deputy and, even more bizarrely, was elected. McMahon would have preferred not to have him in the cabinet, but was forced to make him defence minister. Gorton knew a comeback was out of the question, but he was determined to make life uncomfortable for the man who supplanted him, publishing articles detailing the problems he had had with ministers leaking information from cabinet. McMahon forced Gorton's resignation.
After Gough Whitlam led Labor back into office in 1972 after 23 years of coalition rule, the unsettled Liberal ranks contained two former prime ministers in Gorton and McMahon, each of whom new leader Billy Snedden included on his front bench, but dropped following the 1974 election after lacklustre performances.
Gorton left Parliament but McMahon stayed on. He was overlooked for the Fraser ministry and was happy to background any journalist about the government's shortcomings. Fraser, for his part, refused to have Snedden in his ministry and sidelined him into the speakership.
Fraser left Parliament after he was defeated in 1983, setting a pattern followed by Bob Hawke after Keating deposed him in 1991 and by Keating after losing the 1996 election.
So the question is, if Abbott is deposed, will be do a Rudd or will he go quietly? It is hard to see him serving under a successor – and whether his successor would want him is another matter.
If history is any guide, he needs to be led gently away from the political arena if a modicum of political peace is to be restored and his successor can breathe easily.
And what better candidate for ambassador to the Vatican?
Dr Norman Abjorensen is at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy. His book on prime ministerial exits will be published later this year.
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