Settling the Office by Paul Strangio, Paul t’ Hart and James Walter


If you have any interest in Australian politics, specifically in the development of the role of the prime minister, I recommend this book.  I’ll be very keen to read Volume 2 as well.

Settling the Office by Paul Strangio, Paul t’ Hart and James Walter

‘So what do we know about the role of prime minister, and about that office?’

There’s been intense focus on the political leadership of prime ministers within Australia over the past couple of decades, and the changes in leadership over the past decade have certainly focussed our attention.  We’ve had five prime ministers in the past ten years, while in the previous twenty years we’ve only had three.  Is this a leadership crisis?

In this book, authors Paul Strangio, Paul t’ Hart and James Walter examine the development of the role of prime minister in the period from 1901 to 1949.  Their focus is not so much on the sixteen individuals who occupied the office of prime minister during this forty-nine year period but on the history of the prime ministership.  In doing this, the authors have looked at three separate elements: first, how the role of prime minister was borrowed from the Westminster model, adapted to Australian circumstances at Federation, and then developed in practice; secondly how the role has evolved taking into account the attributes which each prime minister has brought to his occupancy of the position; and finally the circumstances (war, peace, economic prosperity or crisis) in which each prime minister held office.  A second volume is intended, to cover the period from 1949 to 2015.

The book is organised into seven chapters, entitled:

  1. The Colonial Inheritance
  2. Ringmaster of the Early Commonwealth: Alfred Deakin
  3. Prime-ministerial Polarities: Andrew Fisher and Billy Hughes
  4. Thwarted Ambition: Stanley Bruce and James Scullin
  5. Popularity versus Leadership: Joseph Lyons and Robert Menzies
  6. A Nation-building Tandem: John Curtin and Ben Chifley
  7. Settling the Prime Ministership

I found this book very interesting.  I especially enjoyed reading Chapter 5, for its more nuanced assessment of Joseph Lyons. While I’ve been aware of every Australian prime minister since Robert Menzies, I’ve never really considered how the role of prime minister has evolved since Federation.  Interestingly, while the prime minister is seen as the most important person in the Australian Parliament, the role of prime minister is not mentioned in the Australian Constitution.  I’d recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Australian Federal politics.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Melbourne University Publishing for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


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