Testing times make for great (and awful) leaders

Tim Fischer, deputy prime minister in the Howard government, thinks John Monash, the legendary Australian military commander during the First World War, deserves a promotion.

Fair enough. But Fischer has stumbled upon a bigger issue in Australian history – the mendacious jingoistic hopelessness of one of our most famous prime ministers in one of the most important times in the development of the nation.

In his new book, Maestro John Monash: Australia’s Greatest Citizen General, Fischer argues that Monash was denied the rank of Field Marshal because Billy Hughes, prime minister between 1915 and 1923, was both jealous and anti-Semitic. Monash had both German and Jewish ancestry.

A promotion is not the only honour Fischer would like for Monash. He would like the main street in Monash’s childhood home of Jerilderie to be renamed John Monash Parade. He’d like a bridge Monash helped build in Benalla to be renamed the John Monash Bridge. He’d like London’s Imperial War Museum to recognise Monash’s contribution, and some newspapers that downplayed Australian war efforts a century ago to rectify that error. Along the way he’d like some WWI battles renamed, for clarity.

(Yes, Maestro John Monash is a very policy-oriented biography.)

Fischer says the idea of promoting Monash to Field Marshal has precedent. The cause has been taken up by the Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

But the real spotlight here has to be on the bad guy in Fischer’s story – Billy Hughes.

Historians tend to be most impressed by active prime ministers. Usually those that govern during war do well on that measure. Testing times make for great leaders. Take John Curtin, who has been the subject of more hagiographic praise than any other PM. (John Hirst makes the case against Curtin’s greatness in his 2010 book Looking for Australia.)

Billy Hughes benefited in his lifetime from the patriotic enthusiasms of the First World War. Now he’s largely faded into old Labor legend as the archetypal “rat”. Otherwise he’s best remembered for his two failed referendums on conscription during the war.

But in retrospect it is hard to think of a worse Australian Prime Minister than Hughes.

Hughes’ record is dismal. His support for conscription is bad enough. (Ronald Reagan once described conscription as the “assumption that your kids belong to the state”.)

Hughes fostered a split in the Labor Party and created an alliance to hold government united by nothing except aggressive wartime patriotism. This Nationalist coalition represents the final death knell of classical liberalism as a political force in Australia.

As an administrator he was a failure. Even as sympathetic a biographer as Donald Horne had to say that Hughes was an “incompetent wartime prime minister”.

At the Versailles peace treaty he was the most extreme supporter of German reparations. He even wanted Germans to compensate Australians who had financed their purchase of war bonds by taking out mortgages. The final harsh reparation settlement contributed to the later German economic collapse and the rise of Nazism.

Just as consequential was his aggressive and passionate support of the White Australia Policy. A Hughes biographer, W Farmer Whyte, writes that “nobody had fought harder than Hughes to place Australia’s immigration laws on the statute-book”.

When Japan proposed in 1919 that the covenant of the new League of Nations should have a clause defending the principle of racial equality, Hughes was the clause’s most aggressive critic. He was worried it would threaten White Australia.

The historians Geoffrey Blainey and Margaret MacMillan have both argued there is a clear relationship between the defeat of the racial equality clause and subsequent Japanese belligerence towards the West.

Either way, there is no doubt that thanks to Hughes, Australia’s contribution to world peace at Versailles was an unmitigated disaster.

Poor old Billy McMahon is regularly pummelled as the worst prime minister in surveys (Wikipedia has an overview here). Left and right like to argue that either Robert Menzies or Gough Whitlam was the worst.

But none of these leaders’ flaws can possibly stack up next to Hughes – who was incompetent during the First World War and the biggest supporter of mistakes which led up to the Second World War.

Hughes’ incredibly poor leadership is the embarrassing counterpoint to the Anzac heroism we are remembering during the WW1 centenary.

Australians don’t have a deep political memory. We don’t debate our political past as, say, the Americans do. Our newspapers aren’t filled with comparisons between political events and their historical precedents.

But our political history matters. Hughes was an inept leader who benefited from the patriotism of wartime. He was sustained by a political class who valued his populist touch more than good government. There are some lessons there we could file away for the future.

So should John Monash be promoted to Field Marshal? Monash was a great military leader, and deserves to be judged on his merits.

But, then again … if by doing so it further exposes our worst prime minister for the failures of his time in office, it might be worth it.