So it’s the prime minister versus the ex-foreign minister — again. It’s almost 30 years since another prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, successfully fended off a challenge from Andrew Peacock, who had been his long-serving foreign minister before shifting to industrial relations after the 1980 election and then resigning in a fit of pique six months later.
The parallels with Julia Gillard verses Kevin Rudd are illuminating. Peacock did not challenge immediately; he stayed on the backbench for a year before contesting a leadership ballot. When he lost he plotted further moves, and the Fraser forces counter-plotted against his preselection, but instead of escalating the dispute was patched up: Peacock returned to the ministry in a new portfolio at the end of 1982.
No one seemed to think it was improper for the parliamentary Liberal Party to decide for itself who would be leader. Leadership speculation was not the dominant theme of political life the way it has become; it hurt the government, but it did not consume all its energy. While the government lost the subsequent election, it’s unlikely the result would have been any different had the leadership contest ended differently or had it not taken place at all.
Peacock, however, was not a former prime minister, and Fraser as leader had a degree of stature that has so far eluded Gillard. And while Peacock had many faults, he never had quite the arrogance and disdain for his colleagues that Rudd shows.
But the most obvious difference in looking back at 1981-82 is that then there were seen to be actual differences in policy or ideas at stake.
The two men disagreed most publicly over recognition of the ousted Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia (Fraser was for, Peacock against), but that was symptomatic of a general difference in approach. Fraser’s outlook was framed much more by the Cold War; as Peacock put it, he “had a weakness for listening to Harry Lee’s arguments”.
When Peacock moved to industrial relations the disputes continued: although they both opposed deregulation, Peacock’s approach was more conciliatory while Fraser was more reflexively anti-union. More generally, Peacock marketed himself as the liberal against Fraser’s conservatism; this showed itself on attitudes to social issues (he was pro-choice, while Fraser was anti) but was also a matter of tribal loyalties in the highly factionalised Victorian Liberal Party that they both came from.
While on the backbench, Peacock also tried to reinvent himself as a free marketeer opposed to Fraser’s dirigiste policies. He was only partially successful; most of his backers were sceptical about the market, and most of the free marketeers (or “dries”) reluctantly backed Fraser. But the leadership struggle at least aired some of the issues that would continue to occupy the party during its time in opposition.
None of this talk about issues seems to have any equivalent today.
Neither Rudd nor Gillard talks about policy differences or philosophical contrasts, and no one seems to expect them to. Monday’s ballot looks like being about as close to a pure personality clash as one might hope (or fear) to see.
Yet it’s not obvious that Fraser and Peacock cared any more about ideas than Gillard or Rudd do; I suspect that at heart they were just as unprincipled as their successors. What’s changed is the climate of expectations around them: the media now present politics almost exclusively as a “horse race”, where the actual business of government is just a distraction, and the politicians naturally follow suit.
It’s easy to fall into the nostalgia trap and imagine there was a golden age when things were different, but this is one case where change seems both real and detrimental. One can argue about whether media or political strategists are more to blame (and of course the two are often the same people just wearing different hats) — either way, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
Perhaps the fact the Fraser-Peacock contest had something other than personality involved made it easier for them to ultimately compromise their differences. Ideological foes can seek a middle ground, and pretend foes can pretend to, but when all you’re fighting about is who is to be top dog, there’s not much alternative to an all-or-nothing struggle.