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Lacking a script, individuals drove the evolution of prime ministerial power

John Curtin and Ben Chifley were successful in expanding the power of the Commonwealth – and thus that of the prime minister. AAP/Alan Porritt

The Australian Federation was established to address issues that seemed best resolved collectively rather than by each of the colonies acting alone (such as in defence), to co-ordinate activities that would benefit from uniformity (such as immigration and postal services), and to break down barriers to national economic development (like border tariffs between colonies).

The constitution’s purpose was to define specific powers, to be exercised at federal level, with all residual powers to remain with the states. In deference to established ideas of states’ sovereignty, federal power was intentionally circumscribed. In effect the prime minister’s power was constrained.

The issue for each prime minister described in our new book, Settling the Office: The Australian Prime Ministership from Federation to Reconstruction, was how to work effectively within those bounds. Almost all at some stage decided that the limitation of the prime minister’s remit was unequal to the challenge and tried to amend the Constitution.

Only four out of the 24 referenda they initiated were passed:

Despite these frustrations, prime ministers embraced the view that their office was “the blue ribbon of the highest possible ambition”. Each would share something of Edmund Barton’s goal to create “a nation for a continent”.

Miegunyah Press

The leadership task was to harness those twin drives, of personal ambition and national creation, to the resolution of concrete questions. How was a prime minister to identify “national” issues and to become the national voice for collective action? And how could he gain the authority to speak and act in the national interest?

The prime ministership’s changing nature

Alfred Deakin and his contemporaries invented the Australian prime ministership. But it was not settled as a platform for national leadership until John Curtin and Chifley managed to turn it into the pivot of government to which we have since become accustomed.

Its evolution from the early Federation years to the postwar nation-building years was not a matter of linear progression. There was no grand design to guide it, no “Canberra consensus” to drive it forward. The office was made up as its holders went along. They shaped what it meant to be prime minister through their personal leadership styles and their responses to the circumstances they encountered.

Precedent, procedure and public service support structures could not be leveraged to provide the prime minister with an institutional authority that could be wielded when other political powerhouses – state premiers, partyrooms and factions – flexed their muscles. They simply did not yet exist.

Neither were foreign examples, even obvious ones such as Britain or Canada, turned to in search for a script for the office.

The absence of such a script allowed for the great stylistic contrasts between Deakin, Andrew Fisher, Billy Hughes and Bruce in particular. Who leads a government matters – it always does – but in the early decades of the Australian Commonwealth it perhaps mattered most.

As prime minister, Billy Hughes personalised every battle. AAP/Alan Porritt

For the early prime ministers there was little else to fall back on but their personal skills, zest and wits. Much would depend on individual preferences: to capitalise on charisma (Deakin), to personalise every battle (Hughes), to insist on process (Bruce), to prioritise the cause (Fisher). There was little administrative support. Cabinet processes were informal and fluid.

Parliamentary majorities, delivered by a disciplined party system, were not yet assured. Some prime ministers, such as Fisher and Bruce, took an interest in building up institutional arrangements for the office. Others, particularly Hughes but also James Scullin and Joseph Lyons, ignored or abolished some of the fledgling support mechanisms their predecessors had put in place.

All had to learn the exercise of party management, cabinet discipline, proper administration and public communication as the preconditions for authority.

What the early prime ministers had in common, however, was that they lacked institutional clout. The initial federal settlement had delivered scant powers to the Commonwealth. All prime ministers from Barton to Chifley struggled to appropriate more, in protracted, sometimes intense and often frustrating clashes with the states, industry and the unions.

Bruce saw most clearly the need to develop the office as a public institution with the processes and resources to ensure control. But facing an extraneous challenge – economic decline – he would over-reach. His institution-building was subsequently eroded. The cleanest route for changing the balance of powers in favour of the Commonwealth government – by referendum – rarely delivered the desired outcomes.

Instead, prime ministers often depended upon critical moments created by unusual external events to provide them with a rationale to wage such battles. The two world wars in particular provided opportunities for increasing the power of the Commonwealth – and thus for the prime minister.

Robert Menzies didn’t have the political momentum to use the war to increase federal power. AAP

In 1914, Fisher no longer had the stamina to try; Hughes seized the moment energetically but erratically. Twenty years later, Menzies lacked political momentum to exploit the advent of war to increase federal power.

Curtin and Chifley did so more methodically and much more successfully. They took hold of the purse strings, laid the foundations of a national welfare state, and built a professional federal public service. They succeeded where their mentor Scullin had failed when he was confronted with that other great international crisis – the Depression.

Instead of being able to leverage it to strengthen the office, Menzies had been overwhelmed by the divisions that the challenge had created in his party and across the country. And he could not call on the emergency powers conferred by war.

But even a deft institution-builder like Chifley would experience the limits of prime-ministerial power when he tried to nationalise banking, even though, by 1949, the office had acquired institutional clout. His failure of judgement is a salutary reminder that while we need to understand the possibilities of the institution – and the historical contingencies in which it is enmeshed – we must never lose sight of the character of our leaders.

This is an edited extract from Settling the Office: The Australian Prime Ministership from Federation to Reconstruction by Paul Strangio, Paul ‘t Hart and James Walter (The Miegunyah Press).

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