By Malcolm Mackerras

Back on Tuesday 17 February there was posted on this website an article by me titled “A tale of unusual times” . Its key sentence was: “Consequently I predict Abbott will be the least successful conservative elected prime minister since Canberra became the capital”. The article demonstrated that I had been saying and writing such a prediction since well before Abbott became prime minister. 

Rarely for my articles, that contribution to this website prompted the following question. “Can you make a prediction as to whether the Coalition under Turnbull will defeat Shorten’s Labor at the next federal election?” To that I replied: “I predict that the election will be in November 2016 and it will see the Turnbull Coalition returned”. 

Recently, over a family breakfast, I made the above comment about Abbott yet again, to which my sister asked: “What about Billy McMahon?” To that I replied: “No one ever described McMahon as an elected prime minister”. Then my twin brother asked: “What about John Gorton?” To that I replied: “Abbott was a much better prime minister than Gorton but he was, nevertheless, less successful. Gorton was prime minister for three years and two months whereas Abbott did not even make it to the two-year mark.”

Readers will not be surprised that I repeat my prediction the next federal election will be in November 2016 and it will see the Turnbull Coalition returned. Actually I go further and predict that Turnbull will win the next TWO elections, held in November 2016 and in November 2019. Both will be for the House of Representatives and half the Senate. There follows my prediction about Bill Shorten. He will never be an elected prime minister. It would not surprise me, however, if Shorten became Prime Minister in the way that John Brumby and Denis Napthine became premier of Victoria. Both Brumby and Napthine were unsuccessful as leaders of the Opposition but became premier as a result of succeeding a premier who DID SUCCEED at winning an election, Steve Bracks and Ted Baillieu, respectively.

I claim to have a pretty good knowledge of federal political history since Canberra became our capital in 1927. Of conservative governments it can be said: they win at least three general elections. That cannot be said of Labor. There have been two Labor governments to last less than three years. Jim Scullin (1929-32) was prime minister for two years, two months and sixteen days and Gough Whitlam (1972-75) was prime minister for two years, eleven months and seven days. Our most recent Labor government lasted six years. Being a pedant at heart I describe that government as “the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments”.

So history tells us that the present conservative government will win general elections in 2013, 2016 and 2019 but there is a peculiarity about it. The historical pattern is defied: so what is that pattern? Actually there are two types.

One pattern was established by Joe Lyons (1932-39) and Bob Menzies (1949-66). Those governments began with the obvious prime minister, Lyons and Menzies, and ended with a dud, Arthur Fadden and Bill McMahon respectively. The other pattern sees the obvious prime minister, Malcolm Fraser and John Howard, outstay his welcome and, in consequence, he leads the conservatives into government in a triumph and then out of government in a humiliating defeat, having won three and four general elections, respectively.

The present Coalition government reverses history. It was led into government by a dud (Abbott) who, less than two years into his term, was replaced by the obvious Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Whether Turnbull retires on his own terms, goes down to a humiliating election defeat, dies in office or is kicked out by the party room I leave to history.

The Labor pattern is different in every respect, and I shall not go into all the details. I simply repeat my opinion of our three most recent former prime ministers. Rudd was a dud, Abbott was a dud but Gillard was failed by circumstance

Where Turnbull is lucky is that the Australian people UNDERSTOOD the deficiencies of Abbott. Where Gillard was unlucky was that the Australian people did not understand Rudd. Consequently, the replacement of Rudd by Gillard is widely seen as a mistake. Actually I think both replacements were the correct decision by the governing party, Labor in 2010, Liberal in 2015. The trouble for Labor was that, although justice (in my opinion) was done, it was not SEEN to have been done. Consequently the replacement of Rudd by Gillard was seen by many to be unjust. By contrast I have no doubt that historians will be almost unanimous in the view that the replacement of Abbott was the correct decision in every respect.

Malcolm Mackerras is a visiting fellow at the Australian Catholic University’s Canberra campus.