Death of a show pony

Andrew Peacock, twice leader of the Liberal Party of Australia and a senior minister in the government of Malcolm Fraser, died on Friday at the age of 82.

The first thing to be said about Peacock, as of virtually any other Liberal Party figure of his generation, is that whatever his faults, they pale in comparison to those of his more recent successors. Like Fraser, his rival, Peacock was no saint, but he nonetheless towers above such figures as Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton, Greg Hunt and Josh Frydenberg.

Unquestionably, Australia would be a far better country today if Peacock, and not John Howard, had been prime minister for eleven and a half years. But neither that fact, nor our natural respect for the recently departed, should prevent us from looking critically at his record and asking why so many people at the time (of whom I was one) made the opposite judgement.

My friend John Ridley, writing at the weekend in the channel nine papers, catalogues Peacock’s many virtues. Only at the end does he ask a vital question: “Why did he not make it to be prime minister? I think his own comment that he wasn’t sure he really wanted it enough was the fundamental truth.”

Lack of ambition is hardly the most serious of flaws, if it is a flaw at all. But it points to something that many identified in Peacock and in some of his supporters: a lack of seriousness about politics, a tendency to treat it more as a game than as a contest in which anything fundamental was at stake. At a time when big issues were being debated and decided, Peacock always seemed to have something of a taste for the superficial.

It didn’t help that the issues that I think he was passionate about – Ridley mentions opposition to racism as well as a number of foreign policy questions – were mostly peripheral to political debate. What mattered most in the 1970s and ’80s was economic policy, and that was something Peacock never seemed either to care very much about or to hold strong views on.

If there is one single thing that it’s important to grasp about the Liberal Party, it is this: that disputes over economics cut against, not with, the grain of its factional divisions. Peacock’s supporters ranged from free-marketeers to unreformed dirigistes; so for that matter did his opponents. Fraser’s hostility to the free market, and particularly his protectionism, pushed Peacock into a more liberal direction, but no-one was ever sure how serious he was. The free-marketeers in the party – the “dries”, as they called themselves – mostly stuck with Fraser, just as later they reluctantly backed Howard.

Nor should one think that lack of ambition, if that is what it was, implied a lack of ruthlessness. Peacock and his supporters played the game hard; his role in the removal of opposition leader Bill Snedden in 1975, when he clearly hoped to snare the job for himself, was a blot on his record, as was the attempt to remove Howard as deputy leader in 1985 (which led to the loss of his own job). Peacock’s return to the leadership in 1989 was a meticulously planned political coup, but his accomplices could not resist bragging about their deviousness on national TV afterwards.

For all his vaunted liberalism, Peacock was not above co-operating with the hard right. He pandered to critics of Asian immigration in the 1984 election campaign and he flirted with the “Joh for Canberra” movement in 1987 to help undermine Howard. Ridley mentions his own disquiet when Peacock supported George Bush Jr for president in 2000; he doesn’t say what he thought of his later support for Donald Trump.

Peacock’s failure and Howard’s success never seemed to embitter him. Whether that speaks to his general good nature or to his lack of seriousness is debatable, but either way it was a good thing for his own peace of mind. If he was tormented by regrets, he kept it well hidden.

Those who observed his career and still have to live with what the Liberal Party has become, however, have regrets in plenty. We wish we had supported Peacock more, and we wish he had been more deserving of our support. And we wish that politics was not such an awful trade, in which the bad so often triumph and the good are forced to display their least worthy features.

PS: There are plenty of other obituaries around for Peacock, but I’d especially point to this one by Ian Hancock as very perceptive.

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