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Academics get Andrew Peacock wrong

By Scott Prasser - posted Monday, 31 May 2021


A better example of academic misinterpretation of non-Labor politics could not be found than in Griffith University academic Paul Williams' article on the late Andrew Peacock who led the Liberal Party from 1983-85 and from 1989-90 (Courier-Mail 23 April 2021).

The overt praise for Peacock, who never achieved one major reform of worth, is amazing. Of course, for left of centre academia just being a so called ‘moderate’ like Peacock means everything, yet such praise misunderstands the complex nature of the Liberal Party and where much of the Australian electorate is.

Peacock was intelligent and charming, but he was there for a ride, not for the policies, He stood for little but his own promotion.

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Despite first joining the ministry in 1969 as Army Minister, Peacock never held a major domestic portfolio till 1980. For most of his time he held ministries of external territories (1972 only) and foreign affairs (1975-80) – places where any Australian minister can look good as the present incumbent shows.

It was not until October 1980 when Peacock became Minister for Industrial Relations in the Fraser Government that he finally held a major domestic portfolio, but this was short-lived. in April 1981 he resigned and went to the backbench. He challenged Fraser for the leadership a year later and was thoroughly beaten. Peacock only returned to the ministry in the last five months of the Fraser Administration holding the Industry and Commerce portfolio.

Peacock, unlike Howard, never articulated a reform agenda in these important domestic policy areas. He was never prepared like Howard to stand alone and lead the Liberals anywhere.

Williams neglects to mention how Peacock, this great ‘moderate’, was best mates with then Queensland National Party minister for everything, Russ Hinze, and spent a lot of time with the rich horse racing set.

Nor does Williams mention how Peacock undermined the Coalition and John Howard’s leadership with his flirtation with the mad Joh for Canberra campaign in 1987 that destroyed the Coalition and caused the subsequent federal election loss that year.

Also overlooked is Peacock’s later liaison with corporate business leader John Elliot who had become Federal President of the Liberals and who at one stage saw himself as Liberal parliamentary leader and future prime minister. When that did not work out Elliot gave his support (and staff) to the Peacock coup against Howard in 1989. Peacock was well connected alright – especially to the big end of town!

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The coup against Howard in 1989 was slickly done, but soon came undone when several of the plotters went on 4 Corners to crow about their success. That, and the failure to offer Howard a senior face-saving shadow ministry, completely undermined the legitimacy of the leadership change and deepened the schism between Howard and Peacock. Further, one of the plotters, John Moore, was reported in the media as saying that Howard should ‘fade away’.

Of course, all would have been forgiven had Peacock won the 1990 election – but he didn’t. Peacock was not helped that another of the plotters against Howard, Western Australian MP Peter Shack, who had become shadow health spokesman, and had to confess during the 1990 election campaign that the Liberal Party did not have a health policy to present to the electorate.

So, Williams thinks, based on this record with these people supporting Peacock, these mistakes, with this vacuum of policy ideas, and given the flawed 1990 election campaign that somehow Peacock would have made a great prime minister?

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About the Author

Dr Scott Prasser is author of Robert Menzies: Man or Myth and is Series Editor of Connor Court's Australian Biographical Series, and has written numerous academic articles and chapters on federal and state Liberal parties and Coalition politics.

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