Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 6, 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely (2012), by Mungo MacCallum

Guess which Australian Prime Minister counted his three greatest achievements as winning a Cambridge Blue, captaining the St Andrews Golf Club (the one in Scotland, not the one at Gunnamatta) and being a member of the Royal Society?  Not, you will have noticed, running our country for six years.  He’d have had to have been here in this country for that, and he wasn’t any too interested in Australia, hanging out in London for most of his adult life including large chunks of his term of office. Presumably he thought that running our little backwater was a minor achievement, perhaps analogous with managing the staff in a country house.

Give up?  Stanley Melbourne Bruce (1923-29) was his name (christened thus to acknowledge the place where his family made their impressive fortune) but (serves him right) this arrogant prat’s claim to fame is that he left the economy in ruins and was so out of touch with the electorate that he lost his own seat when they booted his government out in 1929.  (John Howard (1996-2007) is the only other PM to suffer this ignominy, in the rubble of the Kevin 07 landslide).

This and many other interesting titbits come from Mungo MacCallum’s entertaining new book, The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely, Australia’s Prime Ministers.   It is just the antidote needed for an electorate that is bored witless by what passes for political debate in this country at the moment, and a salutary reminder that, as PM Paul Keating said in the election campaign that he lost to Howard, leadership does matter.

If you’re like me and have paid mild attention to politics for most of your life, you’ll already know a fair bit about our most recent PMs, so it’s the early ones that will be the most interesting.  MacCallum lifts them out of the dry and dusty pages of our early political history with amusing anecdotes, and he analyses their contribution with a wry eye.  While I would have liked this book to include a timeline* and for each chapter heading about each PM to have included the term of office*   this is a terrific survey of our political history as well as an interesting portrait of each leader.  MacCallum has been around the Aussie political landscape so long that there’s not much each doesn’t know about it.  As he tells us, his lifespan is covered by 15 PMs, of whom he’s met 12, and been on first-name terms with 11.  This familiarity, he says, accounts for his ‘less than worshipful tone’ but, a-hem, he’s none too worshipful of the long-dead ones either…

And why should he be?  Let’s face it, Australians are not very good at tugging the forelock or doffing the cap, to politicians dead or alive.  And MacCallum seems to be fair.  He goes out of his way to identify the achievements of some whose reputation has been trashed by history, even finding a few kind words for Joseph Lyons who is basically only famous (if famous at all) for having a wife who became Australia’s first female minister. Goodness me, there’s some interesting goss about his cradle-snatching romance with her!

But at the end of the day we’ve had a few duds in the job, and MacCallum says so.  (Nothing comparable with, a-hem, political leaders in a certain very powerful country, though. Nobody who took advice from astrologers, for example.  Nobody starting unwinnable wars, or supporting torture when it suits.  Our duds have mostly stuck to general incompetence or just being derivative and dull.)

Some of our PMs were just unlucky – and the poor old Labor Party with its penchant for taking office in times of economic downturn and crises not of its making had more than its share of those.  (The ALP has also created a lot of their own problems, of course, but hey, how boring would Oz Politics be if we didn’t have Labor Party dramas to liven things up?)  One of the unluckiest was James Scullin (1929-32) who led the nation during the worst of the Depression, but he’s one of my favourites because the Commonwealth Literary Fund was his baby even though they bundled him out of office before it got off the ground.  He also – way, way back in 1931 – established the Arnhem Land Reserve in the Northern Territory, a brave landmark step towards land rights for our indigenous people.

John Curtin: A LifeI’d read David Day’s excellent biography John Curtin: A Life some years ago so I already knew a fair bit about Curtin (1941-45) Australia’s most-admired PM, who steered the country through WW2 and died in harness from overwork.  But MacCallum also draws on a biography by Lloyd Rees, and his summary of Curtin’s achievements, his selflessness and his courage is a good introduction for those not motivated to read a biography the length of Day’s. (It’s 784 pages, so you have to be keen).

 What does this lovable pooch at left have to do with MacCallum’s book?  I’ve been waiting for a ‘relevant’ opportunity to upload a picture of our dear little dog on this book blog and this is it: his name is Chifley, named after Prime Minister Ben Chifley (1945-49).  A friend had suggested that our little refugee from The Lost Dogs Home looked like Churchill, but like many Aussies I have ambivalent feelings about Churchill.  His WW2 demand for our Aussie troops had the effect of leaving Australia unprotected against the Japanese onslaught.  It was PM John Curtin who brought the troops home and who for a fortnight while they were at sea suffered agonies of fear for their safety – because Churchill wouldn’t provide an escort and the route home was the haunt of Japanese subs.  So no, while Churchill is a great hero who stood alone against the Nazis for most of the war, The Spouse and I weren’t going to name our Aussie pooch after him.

We couldn’t in all honesty name him after Curtin either.   Our stoic little patrolman is more loved than admired (because he is, alas, a pooch of Very Little Brain), so we named him Chifley instead. (Because, I hasten to add,  everybody loves him, not because his namesake had any deficit in the brains department. Far from it.)  Since we don’t know Chifley’s date of birth (except for an approximate vet-guess based on how many teeth he had), we celebrate his birthday on September 22nd,  the same as his namesake Ben’s.  Proof of enduring affection for the PM who bears his name occurs whenever during our daily walks he is introduced to older Australians, who always smile in recognition, and murmur something about what a great man Ben Chifley was.    (BTW Sapphire – aka Marie Antoinette in a past life – is only included here on this post because she will sulk if she finds out that Chifley is internationally famous and she’s not.   She is on the Right because that is her political preference since  – as befits her aristocratic pedigree – she is much opposed to Chifley’s welfare, or anyone else’s for that matter).

Chifley’s Home in Bathurst

Chifley: A LifeAnyway, Ben Chifley was another one of the better PMs. David Day has also written a fine biography Chifley: A Life but again, it’s long (720 pages) as a definitive bio tends to be, and MacCallum’s 10 pages is a handy introduction to the man who is Australia’s best-loved PM.  He came from humble beginnings, and never lost his touch with the common people.  He refused to live in The Lodge and commuted by train from his modest home in Bathurst.  (A must-visit site if you’re in the area, even if you’re not interested in politics).  Chifley began his career as an unskilled labourer and rose to this country’s highest office because of his hard work, determination, and integrity, but he was also ambitious from an early age because he saw that political power was the way to make things better for ordinary people.

But some of our PMs were, to use the Australian vernacular, drongoes.  Joseph Cook (1913-1914), for example, was a ‘drab and colourless figure’, ‘left no record of wit or flamboyance’ and presided over ‘fifteen months of spectacular non-achievement’.  He was also the first of the Labor ‘rats’ i.e he abandoned his own party over the conscription issue and helped to form Billy Hughes’ minority Nationalist government.   Hughes, of course, was the quintessential ratbag politician,  who ‘was in at the birth of six political parties, led five of them, served as a minister in four of them and ratted on three’.

One of the aspects of American politics that’s always baffled me is the public prurience about their politicians’ private lives.  They probe and prod until they find some indiscretion as if it has anything to do with the hapless candidate’s competence for public office, and they end up excluding some of their best and brightest because he had some foolish dalliance with a kiss-and-tell opportunist.  Someone like Harold Holt (1966-1967) wouldn’t have had a chance if his private life had been the subject of press scrutiny.  He had a long-standing affair and fathered a number of sons while his eventual wife was married to somebody else, but (even though the other politicians must have known about it) nobody took any notice of his playboy image because the Australian media has mostly minded its own business and kept out of so-called sex scandals.

Holt was heir apparent to Robert Menzies (1949-1966) who made my mother weep when he retired – though there were probably plenty of others quietly cheering on the other side because he was our longest-serving PM and had been unbeatable in the polls. MacCallum has much to say about Menzies, (how could he not, given his political longevity?) but this post is getting a bit long so I’ll content myself with sharing a little ditty that he quotes from ‘those centres of ferment, the universities’:

There’ll always be a Menzies
While there’s a BHP
For they have drawn their dividends
Since 1893.

There’ll always be a Menzies
For Menzies never fails
As long as nothing happens to
The Bank of New South Wales.

If we should lose our Menzies
Wherever should we be
If  Menzies means as much to you
As Menzies means to me. 

MacCallum makes the point that Menzies was lucky to preside over a long period of post-war prosperity. His championship of the White Australia Policy and support for Apartheid South Africa to remain in the Commonwealth makes his legacy more dubious than his reputation would suggest, but hey, the Australian people voted him in, time and time again.  The economy was good, things were stable, relaxed and comfortable, and the Opposition was a disorganised rabble with the most uncharismatic leader you could imagine.  I’ve never forgiven Menzies for dragging Australia into the Vietnam War and introducing conscription (for 20 year-olds too young to vote for or against it), but again, that decision was decisively endorsed by the Australian people.

That’s democracy for you.

This is a terrific book.  Highly recommended.

© Lisa Hill

*These links go to the National Archives timeline but it’s very clunky.  I can’t get it to link to a succinct timeline that just shows the PMs and when they ruled.  To get that, and not an interminable list of everything everyone ever did that’s not very fascinating, scroll down the page to ‘Search Timelines by Category’ and you should see ‘All PMs’ ticked and the radio button for Prime Ministers already selected.  Scroll down and click Go and you will get a nice timeline that shows the PMs in chronological order and a one-sentence summary of each one.  But it will do you no good to bookmark that timeline because it reverts to the long and boring one.  Bookmark where you started from i.e.

Author: Mungo MacCallum
Title: The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely, Australia’s Prime Ministers
Publisher: Black Inc, 2012
ISBN: 9781863955539
Source: Won in a Black Inc competition where we had to choose a favourite PM and say why. Nope, I’m not telling you which one I chose, but the fact that I said he was the sexiest should eliminate a few for you if you want to guess. (Noooo, definitely not Bob Hawke.)

Cross-posted at LisaHillSchoolStuff.

The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely: Australia’s Prime Ministers


  1. Your dogs are the cutest… and I love how you had to put up Sapphire’s to stop her being jealous of Chifley’s fame! :-)


    • You must be a dog person too:)


      • Yes, always been a dog person… But never owned one as an adult. I’ve never lived anywhere big enough for a start, and when you travel a lot and go away at weekends etc I don’t think it’s fair on the dog. Maybe one day when I have a big garden!


        • Well tonight we unexpectedly have *four* dogs chez T&L! A friend was suddenly taken ill and is in hospital so her two little ones are boarding with us for a little while. Fortunately all four are good friends because our two go to stay at their place when we travel, but still, I think The Spouse will have his hands full tomorrow when I’m at work and they’re all running around all over the house!


  2. […] MacCallum was a perceptive, funny, irreverent reporter of Australian politics and he’s been part of our lives ever since the Whitlam years.  He wrote for The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC; and he published in Quarterly Essay: Girt By Sea: Australia, the Refugees and the Politics of Fear (Quarterly Essay #5); and Australian Story: Kevin Rudd and the Lucky Country (Quarterly Essay #36). I’ve reviewed his droll history of Australia’s prime ministers, The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely (2012). (See my review). […]


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