David Lovell & Andrew Blyth, The Art of Coalition: The Howard Government Experience, 1996-2007 (Sydney: NewSouth, 2022).
Review by Zachary Gorman.
The Art of Coalition: The Howard Government Experience, 1996-2007 edited by David Lovell and Andrew Blyth is a timely contribution to both Australian political science and Australian political history.
Coalition relations were often strained during the Morrison Government, and some have suggested that the Nationals’ leadership contributed to the historic swing against the Liberals in long-held blue ribbon seats. Nevertheless, the junior Coalition partner was far more successful than its senior counterpart in retaining its representation at the last election, and it is going to be essential to the success of the new Opposition, of which it now makes up a far higher proportion.
There is much for present centre-right politicians to learn from the Howard Government experience of maintaining healthy Coalition relations, and this book certainly holds its title subject up as a paradigm of success to be copied. However, the title of this publication is somewhat misleading considering a huge proportion of the book is spent covering issues arising either before 1996 or after 2007.
In this fashion, the book essentially functions as an abbreviated history of the Coalition throughout its near 100-year history (indeed it is somewhat strange that this book was not planned to coincide with the centenary of the formation of the Bruce-Page Government due in 2023). This broad scope is a welcome deviation that has produced a far more interesting product than one which stuck rigidly to an eleven-year timeframe. Not only does the Howard Government’s success stand out because of the context of earlier turmoil, particularly the ‘Joh for Canberra’ incident[i], but the near permanent ‘coalition’ is an unusual and quite understudied aspect of the Australian political landscape that deserves attention.
The Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori once described the Liberals and the Nationals as being so close that they represented a ‘coalescence’ rather than a coalition, but notable breakups and bitter infighting are an integral part of the Coalition’s story. Paul Davey’s chapter covers significant blow-ups like Earle Page’s personal attack on Robert Menzies, Joseph Lyons initially governing without the Country Party after the coalition terms he offered it were rejected, and Jack McEwen’s veto of the Liberals’ Deputy Leader Billy McMahon becoming prime minister after Harold Holt’s disappearance.
What is quite remarkable is how ‘British’ the whole Coalition arrangement is: it is predominantly based on a series of conventions and precedents which have evolved over the years, and even when things are put in writing they tend to be kept secret. Scott Prasser’s chapter poses the question whether the Coalition is a ‘marriage of convenience’, but as with any successful marriage it only succeeds when there is a great deal of trust between the parties.
Like most Australian political organisations, the Coalition is shaped by the contours of the federal system and has strikingly different complexities in each state. This is most obvious in Queensland which not only produced ‘Joh for Canberra’, but which precisely because of this turmoil and division also created the Liberal National Party, a Queensland-only amalgamation of the two parties. Rob Borbidge provides a chapter detailing the merger, its justifications, and its consequences – most notable of which is that it serves to entrench the federal Coalition by making it more difficult to disentangle.[ii] Unfortunately, at just six pages the reader is left wanting more detail.
That is another defining aspect of The Art of Coalition; it is a very eclectic collection and chapters vary widely in terms of length and format. This is partly due to the book being a product of the Howard Library’s Fifth Retrospective Conference held in March 2021. It is also a result of the Howard Government being so recent that most of the participants are still around, hence the book is made up of both scholarly analysis provided by academics and the personal testimony of former ministers and political insiders. Editor Andrew Blyth, who is a former a chief of staff and advisor to the Howard Government, but who now works for UNSW Canberra, represents the blending of these two perspectives.
The book contains an illuminating interview conducted by editor David Lovell with John Howard and John Anderson on the issue of portfolio distribution. It also contains Richard Alston’s account of his time as Communications Minister and his involvement in the privatisation of Telstra, which is most fascinating for its provocative suggestion that many National Party politicians in the modern era are ideological liberals who merely join the Nationals because it is the party likely to succeed in their area. Consequently, attempts at product differentiation between the Liberals and Nationals are not necessarily matters of principle, but often intended for the latter’s ‘political survival’.
Another revealing perspective is provided by Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon, who claims that the Coalition arrangement allows the centre-right to politically ‘cheat’ by getting away with saying one thing in the bush and another to voters in the city. While Labor itself has been accused of such tactics, the comment comes across as somewhat ironic given recent election results, and there are quite a few references to the Morrison Government peppered throughout which serve to date the book.
More timeless is Linda Courtenay Botterill’s exploration of the concept of ‘countrymindedness’ and the idea that the Nationals succeed partly because Australians have a romanticised view of farmers that makes the electorate more accepting of subsidies and special conditions than would otherwise be the case. Boterill makes a solid case for the deep historical roots of a phenomenon of agrarian idealisation across cultures, and backs this up with modern polling. Despite huge levels of urbanisation, Australia’s sentimental image of itself is still very much tied up in the bush, and even the popular culture of ‘Farmer Wants a Wife’ is cited as evidence of an enduring public affection for primary producers.
The endurance of the Country/National Party is a key takeaway of The Art of Coalition. Despite demographic trends which have been working against the party for most of its existence, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. While the occasional rural independent, the success of the NSW Shooters and Fishers or the ever-present danger of redistribution can hurt its representation, outside of this the party tends to maintain a similar number of seats while the Liberals expand and contract with the electoral tide.
The Nationals are an artefact, one of the last surviving agrarian parties in the Western world, and they serve to demonstrate that for all the exposure to international trends, Australia’s political culture remains distinct. The Art of Coalition’s value lies in shining a much-needed light on this distinctiveness.
[i] ‘Joh for Canberra’ was Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s ill-fated attempt to become prime minister, later scaled back to a push to win higher Nationals representation at the expense of the Liberals, which served to split the Coalition in the lead up to the 1987 election.
[ii] While the Liberal National Party operates as a single party in State elections, its federal representatives are allowed to choose whether they sit in the Liberal or National party room (the same is also true of the Northern Territory’s Country Liberal Party). There have also been reports of attempts to create a separate Liberal National Party room, which would produce a tripartite federal Coalition.