Our least significant PMs

My son Daniel pointed me a Facebook post starting from the fact that Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Turnbull served almost identical periods as PM, and comparing their achievements. Of course, there is nothing to compare.  I can’t find the post now (another reason to hate the displacement of blogs by Facebook and Twitter) but I thought I’d give my own prize for Australia’s least significant PM. The main ground rules are that I’m counting only achievements as PM, and I’m not judging whether these achievements were good or bad.

And the award goes to …Joint winners: Frank Forde, PM for a week in 1945, between the death of John Curtin and his replacement by Ben Chifley, and  Malcolm Turnbull, whose achievements we’ve all seen over the past (nearly) three years


  • Billy McMahon, PM 1971-72.  A nonentity who made his way to the top by outlasting many more worthy candidates. I’ve ruled him out because he killed Australian’s nuclear power program, which took some guts at the time.
  • John McEwen, PM for three weeks after the disappearance of Harold Holt at the end of 1967. As Acting PM, his main contribution was to veto the selection of McMahon, leading to the surprise elevation of John Gorton, and keeping McMahon out until after McEwen’s retirement).

Note again that the ranking refers only to time as PM. Forde was a competent Minister for the Army during World War II, and McMahon was generally regarded as an adequate Treasurer. McEwen was a very significant figure as leader of the Country Party and Australia’s first Deputy PM.

Of course, that’s as of today. Scott Morrison shows every sign of matching his predecessor.

28 thoughts on “Our least significant PMs

  1. I despise ScoMo’s glib churchy prosperity gospel persona but unfortunately he has much more electoral appeal than Dutton. This makes it much more likely that we’ll be stuck with the Libs for another term in office, which is a miserable prospect.

  2. I don’t think ScoMo is as popular as he thinks.

    The downside is that the alp, particularly Shorten, don’t have to work for the job of government, just sit still and wait for the the other side to collapse.

  3. If most insignificant is defined in terms of destruction as well as lack of achievement, as well as mundanity, surely Tony Abbott by a light year?

  4. I alsways rated Giillard’s Building an Education Revolution as a master stroke of meaningless sloganeering posing as policy. Which part of building a few halls was revolutionary in any meaningful sense of the word?

    For some reason all sides of Australian politics confuse policy with sound bites

  5. Shouldn’t the criteria require a minimum term in office? That’s how statistical significance works doesn’t it? A minimum valid sample size? 😉

  6. Karl Rupert Marx Murdoch:

    “‘The [journalists] have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

    “One of the key aspects of this spill has been the involvement, or otherwise, of high-profile media personalities advocating against Malcolm Turnbull. On Thursday, Nine journalist Chris Uhlmann pointed a finger at News Corp and Sky News, accusing media figures of going beyond reporting to picking up the phone and lobbying.”


  7. The BER was critical to re inflating the economy post GFC. The construction industry had collapsed so this kept them busy. The building of school infrastructure was generally a good thing as it helped with their resource management.

    The Rudd govt could have spent money in other areas but schools were chosen ahead of the others.

  8. It’s easy to be dismissive of things like building school halls, but as someone who had kids at primary school when a new school hall was built (and got to witness the difference it made) I would say that it was probably the most significant good thing a federal government has done in the last decade. What kind of nation as rich as Australia can’t provide an undercover place that can fit the whole school?

    On Turnball – he was the perhaps the most disappointing PM, but given the position he put himself in he really had no chance. He might not have achieved anything much, but he was still a lot better for the country than someone like Howard or Abbott.

  9. Turnbull saved us from three years of Abbott. For that he surely deserves at least some thanks.

  10. Surely this depends on the baseline (business as usual) against which you measure a PM’s performance.

    A PM that can’t get the negative and destructive policies of his own party room implemented in full (i.e. Turnbull) is surely better than one that can.

  11. What about George Reid, Prime Minister from 18 August 1904 to 5 July 1905? He didn’t do anything.

    *McMahon was generally regarded as an adequate Treasurer.*

    This is a myth started by McMahon himself. The people who were around at the time and in a position to know said he was a terrible Treasurer.

  12. *Scott Morrison shows every sign of matching his predecessor.*

    In the sense that there will be an election in 6-9 months that Labor will probably win, then yes.

    But not in any other sense.

  13. Listening to the discussion on Saturday Extra this morning, some of the commentators suggested that the divisions in the Liberal Party have always been there and to a large extent just reflect the divisions within our society. Of course, these seem to have been exacerbated by social media and sections of the media generally. Until we, as a society, realise that climate change is an existential reality threatening us all, regardless of whether our economy is growing or not or whether we have tax cuts or not. The current “drought”, long term change in rainfall patterns, is surely a manifestation of this.

  14. What about Earle Page? (Another Country Party deputy prime minister, who kept the Lodge warm for two weeks after Joe Lyons died).

  15. Very generous crediting Turnbull with same sex marriage. If anything the credit should go to Dutton. The ABS survey that was the catalyst was hid idea.

  16. https://johnquiggin.com/2018/08/24/our-least-significant-pm/#comment-195755

    David, it’s not surprising that a Bowen produced list contain over blown, or erroneous claims.

    Further, Turnbull got far, far less people killed than Whitlam. And Whitlam keeps on giving still: in West Papua 3000 dead claimed last year alone. Which is it, killing few, or killing many that deserves a prize? Killing a few ISIS warriors and the odd Australian past and future for some American proxy war, or a growing pile of murdered dark skinned innocent millions for some other?

  17. One good thing that came out of the Turnbull Government was the Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Vulnerable Workers) Act 2017.

    The amendments provide for a fine that is 10 fold the usual fine for serious offenders, make franchisors responsible for franchisees who break workplace law, in certain circumstances, and put the onus on the bosses to refute a worker’s claim for unpaid wages when the boss has failed to provide pay slips. (The ALP advocated the last of those three amendments).

    All of the above is good for workers and bad for rogue bosses.

    I think the tighter rules on union record keeping etc that was introduced under Turnbull is probably also a good thing. Whiles unions may not enjoy tighter regulatory oversight, I think that in the long run it is because it should make the Craig Thomsons and Michael Williamsons etc less likely to plunder the members union dues and thereby discredit and shame the whole union movement.

  18. Earle Page’s Prime Ministership has to count as even less significant than Jack McEwen’s. McEwen at least succeeded in forestalling Billy McMahon’s succession to the Prime Ministership; Page tried to forestall Bob Menzies’s succession to the Prime Ministership and failed.

    Descriptions of Joe Cook’s Prime Ministership typically refer to how the government attempted little in its fifteen months, discouraged by having only a one-seat majority in the House and a large Opposition majority in the Senate, with much of its attention focussed on manoeuvring for a double dissolution; bringing this about, for the first time, was to some extent precedent-setting and perhaps the government’s main claim to significance.

    To round this comment out even-handedly by discussing candidates for consideration from each main party, the four months of Chris Watson’s Prime Ministership did see the government attempt to get one major piece of legislation enacted but unsuccessfully, being in a weak parliamentary position with supporters in each House a minority; perhaps the government’s main claim to significance is that it contributed to establishing that a Labor government was a continuing possibility.

  19. To those who responded to my coming of the BER, I was not arguing for the merits of the stimulus package, I was mocking the tendency of both sides of politics to dress their policy initiatives up with language such as “revolution”. Come on, grow up.

  20. My father always credited McMahon’s reputation as a good treasurer to a procedural hansard trick. When asked a parliamentary question on the economy, he could reel off the complicated figures instantly from memory, which looked impressive; except that he didn’t – he made the figures up, and then corrected them with advice from his department in proof hansard so that they were correct by the time that anybody checked them.

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