Bizarre rise to political leadership

24 October 2015

Last month marked thirty years since a bizarre event took place in politics.  Even if you’re conditioned to expect the unexpected in politics, I doubt that anybody would’ve confidently predicted what happened in Canberra in early September 1985.

How often does a man start a day as the deputy leader of a political party, theoretically one step away from being a rooster, and wonder if by day’s end he’ll be a feather duster as a mere MP on the party’s backbench, only to end up actually the leader of the party and hence a rooster?

Well, this was what happened to John Howard in September 1985.  Arguably by accident, he became leader of the Liberal Party, for the first of two stints in the job, the second of which included his election as Prime Minister in a big election win in 1996 and more than a decade on top.

Howard had run for the Liberal leadership after the Liberals lost office in 1983, with defeated Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser calling it quits in the aftermath, but Andrew Peacock beat Howard to the leadership.  Both Peacock and Howard had been senior ministers under Fraser, the former holding several different portfolios in the Fraser Government and the latter being Treasurer for all but the first two years of it.  Peacock was considered the more popular of the two among Liberal MPs, but Howard was thought to be stronger on advocating policy.

In late 1984, less than two years after leading the Labor Party to its first Federal election win since 1974, Prime Minister Bob Hawke saw fit to call a snap election.  Despite Hawke’s immense popularity, Peacock reduced his parliamentary majority a fair bit in that election.  Afterwards, Peacock was unsurprisingly elected as Liberal leader again.  But Howard publicly declined to rule out challenging Peacock for the leadership in future, which unsettled Peacock to some degree.  Howard presumably decided that Liberal MPs clearly preferred Peacock to him, and that he should just concentrate on doing his job as both a shadow minister and as deputy leader of the Liberals, to which he’d been elected.

During the period from late 1984 until September 1985, Howard came across as a better parliamentary performer than Peacock, who was considered all-style-no-substance.  Peacock subsequently became flustered and was convinced that Howard was undermining him, although Howard was never apparently doing any such thing.  In the end, Peacock sought a change of deputy leadership, but nobody was really interested in taking on Howard.  A challenger was subsequently found, namely former minister John Moore, who ran reluctantly.

When a vote was held for the deputy leadership, Howard was probably wondering if he’d still have the job by day’s end.  But he ended up winning the vote over Moore.  Peacock was therefore humiliated, and he resigned as leader, with Howard becoming the new leader in the aftermath.

Howard’s accidental rise to the Liberal leadership that day must surely rate as a bizarre rise to political leadership if ever you could describe one.

Interestingly, soon after Howard had become Liberal leader, he and his supporters held a celebratory meeting, during which his wife proclaimed that their next destination, so to speak, would be The Lodge, namely the official residence of the Prime Minister in Canberra.  But history shows eleven years passing before they got there.

In that eleven-year period, Howard would go through rough times which might’ve broken the back of countless other politicians.  He’d go on to lose an election to Hawke in 1987, lose the Liberal leadership to Peacock in a surprise coup in 1989, live through election losses in 1990 and 1993, and ultimately return to the Liberal leadership in 1995, ten years after first obtaining it and only after Liberal MPs reluctantly decided that only he could bring them back to office.  Howard sensed that he’d never been as popular among Liberals as Peacock was, and his accidental rise to the leadership in 1985 didn’t really endear him to them, for years after the event.

As a final point, when Howard finally made it to The Lodge upon his election as Prime Minister in 1996, he seldom lived there.  He preferred to base himself at Kirribilli House, the Sydney residence of the Prime Minister, which happened to be close to his northern Sydney home base, and also because he regarded Sydney as more important than the national capital in terms of business affairs.

History shows Howard going through a rocky road in politics, as many political leaders would’ve endured.  But his first stint as Liberal leader, putting him a stone’s throw from the top job in the country, came about after a bizarre political event.  Few stories of would-be roosters avoiding becoming would-be feather dusters could match what Howard went through back in September 1985.

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