The holiday season for Christmas-New Year will soon be upon us. It is in the public interest that we avoid the type of debacle that overwhelmed the Prime Minister’s holiday sojourn in Hawaii and return in 2019.
My friend, federal Labor MP Chris Bowen, sent me a book some time ago by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy entitled The Presidents Club, which offers an answer. The authors detail a classic example of a bipartisan consensus being reached in the US during a time of considerable political tension.
It was November 1960 and Senator Jack Kennedy (Democrat: Massachusetts) had just beaten Republican vice-president Richard Nixon in a presidential contest that was as close as a coat of varnish. Nixon knew the Democrats had been engaged in massive vote stealing in Cook County, Chicago, Illinois at the direction of mayor Richard J. Daley’s formidable precinct machine. In Texas, vice-president-elect Lyndon Johnson and Speaker Sam Rayburn had delivered the state in remorseless and ruthless fashion. But Nixon also knew the Republican campaign was not without blemish.
However, there was talk in the air of the election result being challenged in the courts.
Enter ambassador Joseph Kennedy Sr, who called his old friend, Republican president Herbert Hoover (1929-33) to broker a civilised discussion between the two standard-bearers, both of whom were holidaying in Florida. Kennedy Sr suggested to Hoover that his son, the president-elect, would call Nixon to establish a meeting. Hoover agreed it was a good idea and called Nixon.
Nixon was at first reluctant, but Hoover argued that a meeting between the two leading American political figures would be very much in the national interest at the height of the Cold War. Nixon agreed and then called outgoing Republican president Dwight. D. Eisenhower, who also endorsed the notion. The president-elect and vice-president, who had been friends in the US Senate, met and a generous offer emerged.
Nixon offered some enlightened guidance: “He (Nixon) did have some advice for the new president, the advice White House veterans all give: ‘Make use of Camp David. You will need it. I may criticise your policies,’ he said, ‘but of one thing I can assure you: I shall never join in any criticism of you, expressed or implied, for taking time off for relaxation. There is nothing more important than a president be physically, mentally and emotionally in the best possible shape to confront the immensely difficult decisions he has to make’.”
No one can imagine Donald Trump suggesting the Bidens should come down to Mar-a-Lago and spend a few days’ R&R. But the Bidens do have Camp David and Nixon’s words still resonate. Australians should have the same kind of bipartisan courtesy between the major parties on prime ministerial vacation time.
As a matter of fact, our politics was once characterised by such informal arrangements. For example, Bob Menzies and Ben Chifley were known to enjoy a glass or two at the end of a parliamentary day. Most tellingly, when the contents of prime minister Harold Holt’s briefcase were emptied, after he was lost at Cheviot Beach at Christmas 1967, there was a private letter from opposition leader Gough Whitlam making a number of thoughtful suggestions. They had that kind of courteous relationship.
The problem with the Morrison family holiday was that it was not openly announced and was later overwhelmed by scorching fires. In previous years, prime ministers have made no bones about taking a summer holiday. And does anyone suggest that deputy prime ministers of the calibre of Doug Anthony and Lionel Bowen did not perform with credit as acting PMs?
So consider this scenario. The Prime Minister quietly advises the Leader of the Opposition he will be taking a 10-day break over Christmas-New Year and that Barnaby Joyce will be acting Prime Minister. The Leader of the Opposition accepts this is not an issue. Indeed, Anthony Albanese would probably welcome Joyce in the acting role.
PM Scott Morrison then announces this in the courtyard outside his parliamentary office. It is all open and utterly transparent. The Australian electorate, with exceptions at the margins, nods its assent.
Regrettably, Australia does not have the equivalent of Camp David, which has served the American republic well since Eisenhower renamed it after his grandson. This was proved beyond doubt when Eisenhower visited president Kennedy at Camp David to show solidarity with the administration in the wake of the Bay of Pigs disaster.
The pressures on an Australian prime minister are real and continuous. They range from our changing geostrategic circumstances, including climate change, to emergence from the pandemic and consequent policies for economic recovery. Paul Keating once observed quietly that the requirement for a PM to have “thinking time” was of a very real importance. Thinking time, or for that matter reading and consideration, is best achieved during a period of quiet reflection.
The Australian electorate is likely to be overwhelmingly supportive of this kind of courtesy and openness. A greater degree of bipartisanship is always welcome within our politics. This kind of understanding would cause our system to be less abrasive and less divisive.
The discussion in November of 1960, initiated by Joe Kennedy, was among the more remarkable in American presidential history. Richard Nixon was praised extensively, on both sides of the political aisle, for his statesmanship.
As for Nixon himself, he was somewhat stunned by the unfolding events. As Gibbs and Duffy record, Nixon realised he had participated in what was in all probability an unprecedented series of conversations: “‘In the space of less than 10 minutes, I had talked to a former president of the United States, the present president, and the president-elect!’ And they, in turn, had all talked not just to the current vice-president, but a future president.”
Remarkable, but it worked. There is no earthly reason why such a decent approach would not work in Australia this summer.