Six Prime Ministers and a potato class action

Prime-Ministers
Prime Ministers- ScoMo feeds the fire (meme by twitter.com@GeorgeBludger)

As the dry winter fades away, ushering in a hot and bushfire-prone spring and summer, here’s some sober reflections on ‘Single-use Prime Ministers’.

I borrowed the single-use mention from a clever meme doing the rounds on social media, where, I might say in defence of the humble Kipfler, Sebago and Desiree, potatoes continue to be openly defamed. It might not be long before we see headlines where Tryhard & Associates, no win-no fee, mount a class action on behalf of Mr and Mrs Sebago and 15 other tuber families.

As we now see from former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s attempted coup, while it worked in principle, the betrayal left Mr Dutton out on a limb, with a centre-right politician seizing the leadership.

At the outset, Australia’s new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, decided the people needed to know that “we’re on your side”.

“That’s what matters. We are on your side. And we are on your side because we share beliefs and values in common, as you go about everything you do each day.”

Keep playing that one, Scott. Stay away from the line that brings down Westminster democracies; when a leader (be it Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott or Turnbull), have all been caught referring to ‘my government’.

I had a couple of messages from FOMM stalwarts last week in aggregate saying “Get a grip, Bob. The nation’s imploding and you’re talking about stamp collecting?”

I defend last week’s meandering missive as making the case that Australian governments have been lurching hard-right for a very long time now, arguably since John Howard’s 1988 stance on multiculturalism and refusing to make a treaty with the Aborigines. Hence my writing about the stamp-collecting Philip Ruddock, a hard-line Immigration minister in control of our border policies from 1996-2003.

Now here’s the thing – party factions, backroom machinations and political knifings are not what does in a sitting PM – it is narcissism.

As economist and author George Megalogenis wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times: “The prime minister is not even mentioned in the Australian Constitution, yet the office has evolved into a paradoxical position of supreme authority and permanent vulnerability.”

Megalogenis also wrote: “They have borrowed the worst of United States presidential politics, with its obsessive focus on the leader, and grafted it onto a Westminster system of parliamentary government that was designed for collaboration and compromise.”

Australia has had six Prime Ministers since 2008, the number arguably including a bit of double counting when first Julia Gillard toppled Kevin Rudd, then Rudd came back and promptly lost the next election in a landslide. Then there was Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and now Scott Morrison. This era was characterised by frantic passing of new legislation in the incumbent’s first year. Fairfax Media research tallied new acts of Parliament passed in the first year for Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd (133), Julia Gillard (132), Tony Abbott (116) and Malcolm Turnbull (104). These are mediocre numbers compared to Paul Keating (212) and Gough Whitlam (161). Surprisingly (well, I was surprised), John Howard’s first year numbers (86), are only marginally better than Ben Chifley (74).

What appears to have brought undone Prime Ministers of the past 10 years is the polarisation caused by climate change policy. It seems nigh on impossible to achieve political consensus on this most serious of issues, even if over 97% of climate scientists active in that field of research say it is a reality, aggravated and accelerated by human activities. (There are, of course, nay-sayers. Just Google ‘what percentage of scientists believe in global warming, if you have a few hours to spare.)

All six of our Prime Ministers thus far have failed or been thwarted in terms of seriously countering climate change. Some even challenging the notion that fossil fuels have had their day. I refer of course to (a) Tony Abbott’s infamous ‘coal is good for humanity’ quote, and incumbent PM Scott Morrison’s stunt, brandishing a lump of coal in Parliament.

But let’s go back 117 years, to an era when coal really did rule – when steam trains, for example, burned through eighty pounds of coal for every mile travelled (a useful factoid from Michael Portillo’s fascinating series, Great British Railway Journeys).

Australia’s leadership changed seven times in the first ten years of Federation (and 11 times between 1901 and 1922). Again, leadership changes involved ambitious men having a second (and even a third) attempt. Andrew Fisher (1909-1909, 1910-1913 and 1914-1915) proved the most persistent, governing during the early years of WWI. Fisher, I’d like to point out, introduced Australia’s first postage stamp. On January 2, 1913, the Fisher-led government issued the Commonwealth penny stamp.

It featured a controversial design – a kangaroo on a white map of Australia. Although later stamps reintroduced the King’s head, the kangaroo design remained in use for some forty years. An example of this rare stamp sold at auction in 2012 for $142,563.

But we were talking about men (and women- Ed.) and their egos and how the Prime Ministership has evolved as the Office of Omniscience. Towards the last days of Kevin Rudd’s Prime Ministership, there were reports of policy on the run, along with statements made with no consultation, and there have been similar reports about other short-term Prime Ministers. To be fair, in the first year of the Whitlam administration, the late Gough Whitlam rammed through a colossal amount of social reform legislation in a fortnight with the help of a two-man Cabinet (the duumvirate) – just Gough and his deputy, Lance Barnard.

Megalogenis observed that post-Rudd, the Labor party has made it harder to remove future Prime Ministers. Changes to internal rules now require the party leader be elected by a combined vote of the parliamentary party and grass-roots members. From this side of the fence, it is hard to see the Liberals coming up with a similar safeguard.

In no time at all, it seems, Australians will be thrust into another Federal election, with a new Prime Minister who will not have had enough time to show his mettle. On the other side, we have Labor leader Bill Shorten, and deputy leader Tanya Plibersek. Mr Shorten’s tactics thus far, apart from keeping his head down and letting the Liberal Party stew in its own juices, has been to divide and conquer, emphasising the class gulf between the left and right.

Tucked away behind the cannot-be-seen hedge, Labor’s Anthony Albanese, passed over for the Opposition leadership in 2013, declared his colours in June, in the Whitlam Oration.

Mr Albanese called upon his party to emulate the Hawke and Keating approach and “collaborate with unions, the business sector and civil society to achieve positive outcomes in the national interest”.

The Labor frontbencher also delivered a warning about the need to find common ground with voters outside the union movement.

“This is not 1950, when most Australians were members of trade unions,” Mr Albanese said. “Indeed many people from working class backgrounds are not members of unions because they were beneficiaries of Gough Whitlam’s education reforms. We cannot afford to ignore this demographic.”

Sigh, it makes my brain burn, like the feeling I got when I saw that clever meme (above) with Scott Morrison feeding a lump of coal into a (red and orange) map of Australia.

Good for humanity my arse.

Stamp of approval a one-horse race

stamp-winx-race
Australia Post celebrates Winx’s record-breaking 26th consecutive win with a commemorative stamp

You’d have to say Australia Post had a bit riding on the champion mare Winx winning her 26th consecutive race at Warwick Farm last Saturday. Let’s say at the outset that this is about stamp collecting, not horse racing (surveys show the latter subject turns FOMM readers off – or politics – that was a three horse race…Ed.)

Whether you like horse racing or not, the existence of Winx the super horse must have filtered through, as it is many a moon since any horse won this many races on the trot, which is racing parlance for an unbroken winning streak.

Celebrating the mare’s place in equine history, Australia Post released a commemorative stamp, pictured here by courtesy of AP and ‘with perforations’ as requested. Journalists received the press release from Australia Post about a minute after the race was run and won.

We plan ahead for important activities, achievements, and national events in the calendar, and had extra resources on standby to assist in producing the special stamps,” an Australia Post spokesperson said, in response to our obvious question.

So all ended well. If you are a stamp collector or philatelist as it is known in the trade, you will already have ordered your first day covers, special 26-stamp packs, a set of maxi cards and a medallion cover.

Horse stamps are not that unusual – examples include Black Caviar in 2013 and a set of four stamps issued in 1978. They featured Phar Lap, Bernborough, Peter Pan and Tulloch. The collection is notable for fine art work by Brisbane artist Brian Clinton.

Like Dusty Springfield, I was wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’ that either Malcom Turnbull or his nemesis were philatelists so I could make this politically relevant. But it seems only one (former) Federal politician, Philip Ruddock, collects stamps. This seemingly innocuous hobby at times embroiled the then Immigration Minister in controversy.

Ruddock, now Mayor of Hornsby Shire, was a member of Amnesty International. Critics found his membership of the organisation was at odds with his government’s hard-line immigration policies. In 2000, Amnesty asked Mr Ruddock not to wear his lapel badge when performing ministerial duties and not to refer to his membership when promoting policies opposed by Amnesty. AM 18/3/2000

In a profile for The Good Weekend in 2002, writer Richard Guilliatt was given a look at Ruddock’s collection, which spans three generations. Guilliatt, perhaps innocently, suggested that the high dramas of the job had spurred the stamp collecting hobby on.

“…every month letters pour into Ruddock’s Parliament House office in Canberra, imploring him to liberate the men, women and children detained behind razor wire in Australia’s desert camps for Third World asylum seekers,” he wrote. “Those letters come affixed with all manner of exotic stamps, which Ruddock gets his secretary to tear off so he can take them home to his house in the leafy northern hills of Sydney, to be packed away for sorting.

“That’s one of the good things about getting a lot of letters from Amnesty International,” Ruddock told Guilliatt.

If few politicians collect stamps, at least a dozen former Prime Ministers featured on Australian stamps in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s important to note that all received the honour after their deaths.

“Until the introduction of the Australia Post Australian Legends Awards in 1997, the only living person allowed on a stamp was the reigning monarch”, the spokeperson told FOMM.

Nevertheless, the PM’s head on a postage stamp seems clearly out of fashion now, in this era when one is never quite sure if the PM will last his or her term. But there have been enough sporting celebrities, athletes, actors, singers, writers and decorated soldiers to compensate.

In an aside for crime fiction aficionadas, the most infamous stamp collector award must surely go to Lawrence Block’s fictional hit man, Keller. John Keller is the protagonist in Block’s crime series which began with Hit Man in 1998. Keller collects pre-1940 stamps and uses down-time between ‘jobs’ to visit stamp shops and exhibitions. It’s a kind of cover for his apparent lack of legitimate income, not unlike Block’s gentleman burglar and antique bookstore owner, Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Many famous people are listed in various publications and websites as stamp collectors. The collection does not have to be distinguished to command a price. Former Beatle John Lennon’s collection of 550 stamps from his childhood was bought by the Smithsonian Institute’s National Postal Museum in 2005 for about $A74, 000.

Which brings me to the best-selling commemorative stamp of all time – the Elvis stamp released in 1993, Perhaps the delay since the rock singer’s death in 1977 was due to persistent ‘sightings’ of the late Mr Presley. Even today you will find folk who will tell you he is still alive and living under an alias, like someone in witness protection. Elvis would be 83 if still alive today.

The US Postal Service printed 500 million commemorative stamps – three times the usual print run. It was the most highly publicised stamp issue in the USPS history. The people were asked to choose between two designs (1.2 million votes), the majority preferring the stylised image of the young rocker, microphone in hand.

Stamps can be highly controversial items. For instance, the first secular Christmas stamp in the US, with its pair of white candles and a wreath with a red bow, was released in 1962.

Critics said it crossed the line between church and state. The public was also unenthused about a 1963 design – an illuminated Christmas tree in front of the White House.

Public takes dim view of Surfing Santa

The most controversial Australian stamp was also a Christmas release.  The 1977 stamp featured a humorous depiction by Adelaide artist Roger Roberts of Santa Claus riding a surfboard. Some members of the public were affronted, saying the postal service was not taking Christmas seriously. Until 1975, all Christmas stamps featured religious themes, often based on the traditional nativity story. There was no such fuss about the mix of secular and Christian stamps released in 1976.

If you thought the popularity of email would adversely affect stamp collecting, the market is as robust and profitable as ever. As an extreme example, the One-Cent Magenta from British Guiana, issued in 1856 and thought to be unique, sold at a New York auction in 2014 for a record $9.5 million.

In 2007, the Australian collection of Arthur Gray was sold through Shreves auction house in New York for more than $7 million. Among the spectacular results was the $265,000 paid for a block of four 1919 £1 brown and blue Kangaroos.

So did you collect stamps as a child? Did you, as I discovered, learn at some point in your cash-strapped adulthood that the collection was worthless?

We had a family friend who spent most of her younger years travelling to exotic climes and would write, with bundles of stamps included ‘for wee Bobby’.

I gave away stamp collecting and its fussy handling (gloves and tweezers and corners to mount the stamps rather than pasting them in the album), around about the time I realised girls were interesting.

I still have those two old albums tucked away somewhere – among Father’s Letters, I’m thinking.

Somewhat related reading: