John Howard gave his underlings a history lesson yesterday – a rundown in the party room on when Australian governments changed and why.

From the defeat of Chifley Labor in 1949 through to his own magnificent victory over Paul Keating in 1996, via McMahon’s exit in 1972, Whitlam’s loss of 1975 and the Fraser departure of 1983, the PM drew two conclusions: the governments thrown out of power “were not seen as competent or people had stopped listening to them.”

Now one part of this tale of the failure of governments, Mr Howard explained, did not apply to his team at the moment despite what the opinion polls might be showing. In the history according to Howard, “this Government is seen as a competent government.” Which leaves the unanswered question: have the people stopped listening?

Mr Howard must be hoping they haven’t but his whole thesis is open to questioning. Ben Chifley’s lot became unpopular with continued rationing and a policy of bank nationalisation but they were hardly incompetent. And was RG Menzies competent or not listened to in 1954 and 1961 when he was returned at elections with less than half the vote? How should we explain 1969, 1990 and 1998 when the party with a majority of the two party preferred vote also lost?

I can understand how Mr Howard would put the incompetent tag on the William McMahon defeat of 1972. The incompetence there was witnessed first hand by the young Sydney solicitor given his campaign experience travelling on the VIP aircraft of the only Prime Minister I have known who suffered from what Jim Killen used to say was von Munchausen ’s syndrome – he actually believed that something was true simply because he said it.

The Gough Whitlam government of 1975 also deserves the incompetent tag but it is a bit harsh on the Treasurer of 1983 to put Malcolm Fraser in the same category as the other two. Perhaps Big Mal just made the people deaf.

And as for Paul Keating, if incompetence or not listening are the real reasons for defeat, how did John Hewson manage to lose? By the time the Liberals under John Howard actually won, Labor was not nearly as bad a government as it had been three years before.

Perhaps another history summit is called for to discuss this important question.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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