Inside Story

One-man intelligence network

For a remarkable quarter-century, Tony Eggleton was the power behind the Liberal throne

Stephen Mills Books 1 February 2023 2388 words

“Valet, chauffeur, decoy… sounding board”: Tony Eggleton (centre) at a Liberal Party meeting in Sydney in June 1987. Anthony Weate/Newspix

Picture a country road in the bush outside Canberra. It’s 1965. A black Bentley saloon purrs to a halt by the side of the road. Bob Menzies alights, holding a can of fly spray. A younger man gets out of the back seat and the prime minister hands him the can. The young man squirts a generous burst onto the prime minister’s back. They climb back into the car and drive on.

Menzies, aged seventy, is about to open a new telescope in the Canberra hinterland. Long experience of public speaking in the open air has given him an aversion to flies, and he has hit on the deterrent of shrouding himself in insecticide.

The young man is Tony Eggleton, thirty-three. Just hired as Menzies’s press secretary, he is ambitious, conservative and diligent. If spraying the prime ministerial personage is part of the job, he’ll do it obligingly and he’ll do it thoroughly. And later that day he will type up the incident in a note for his private file.

Here is a puzzle worth unravelling. Aren’t nice guys supposed to come last in politics? Yet that obliging young man ended up as top dog in the Liberal Party organisation. “Neither belligerence nor assertiveness were part of his persona,” according to biographer Tom Frame in his new book, A Very Proper Man; yet he became a prominent player in every twist and turn of the Liberal saga over twenty-five years from Menzies to Hewson: Holt’s disappearance, Gorton’s chaos, Whitlam’s dismissal, Fraser’s supremacy, Howard’s and Peacock’s failures, the Joh-for-Canberra fizzer. He was there through eleven federal elections, including a still-unbeaten record of seven as the Liberals’ national campaign director. And he went on to work at a high level in international affairs, in the Commonwealth during the Whitlam years and in the development assistance organisation CARE International.

Along the way, Eggleton practised a lifelong discipline of typing up notes recording his immediate impressions of events he was involved in. The result, says Frame, is “thousands of documents, memoranda, letters, newspaper clippings and photographs” in thirteen boxes, as well as a “personal chronicle” written by Eggleton for his family.

This remarkable trove of contemporaneous firsthand records sees the light of day for the first time in Frame’s biography. A Very Proper Man contains no startling revelation that reshapes our understanding of Liberal politics; but its deep detail, long span and central perspective will make it a very valuable resource for future historians of Liberal politics.

Frame declares himself a friend of Eggleton, and this is a friendly biography. But while it is thorough and substantial in tracing Eggleton’s progress, I don’t think it fully succeeds in explaining his success and longevity.

Born into a middle-class family in Swindon, England, in 1932, Tony (not Anthony) Eggleton left school at fifteen to become a reporter with the local newspaper. Rapid promotion led to an invitation in 1950 to cross the globe to join the Bendigo Advertiser. Supportive parents paid his passage; the adventure became a career. He joined the ABC in Melbourne the following year; by the end of 1954 he was an “A” grade journalist responsible for morning bulletins of radio news. Then along came TV, and Eggleton was included in the ABC’s first training courses — truly, as Frame notes, a “career-enhancing opportunity.”

When the ABC’s Melbourne office began a TV news service shortly before the opening ceremony of the Melbourne Olympics, Eggleton was chief of staff. In his new role, his working life involved “identifying good news stories, assigning reporters and cameramen, supervising newsroom management and logistics, and assessing the film ‘rushes’ in the viewing room. With his office in a prominent corner of the newsroom, he was close to all the drafting, editing and production.”

And then he joined the navy, as its coordinator of public relations. Why? He had reached the top of the ladder in journalism at the age of twenty-seven; perhaps he saw a path into government, to a life among the news makers rather than the news reporters. If so it was an inspired gamble.

The navy minister was John Gorton, whom Eggleton had profiled for the Bendigo newspaper as a newly elected senator from Victoria. Gorton remembered him and liked his work — not least, perhaps, an opinion piece in which Eggleton had declared his support for Menzies’s proposed Communist Party dissolution bill. (“The local branch of the Communist Party is… an active tentacle of the Kremlin octopus… We must ensure the reds are prevented from infiltrating further.”) Gorton, the most junior minister in the government and not entitled to a staff press secretary, was hungry for profile and looking for someone experienced in the new medium of television.

Gorton overruled his department and offered Eggleton the job, and in March 1960 Eggleton moved to Canberra and into the Liberal orbit. They made a complementary pair: Eggleton initiated the now-standard practice of issuing ministerial announcements on Sundays, typically quiet news days; Gorton got increased coverage and was delighted. Eggleton also set up a navy film unit to produce professional newsreels of ships and sailors, and distribute them to TV stations. This innovation, too, has continued.

Frame, who has written extensively on Australian naval history, suggests Eggleton was perhaps too good at his job, insofar as his “effective promotion” of the navy may have obscured the problems that would manifest in a series of collisions and other fatal mishaps. These incidents culminated on the evening of 10 February 1964 when the aircraft carrier Melbourne collided with the destroyer Voyager. Eighty-two men were killed in the navy’s worst peacetime disaster.

Frame provides a terrific description of how Eggleton battled the bureaucracy to ensure “a continuing flow of accurate information” to the public, for which he received the respect of the media and, as it turned out, the prime minister. Menzies appointed him press secretary in late 1965 and allowed him to organise a live broadcast of the press conference in early 1966 at which the prime minister announced his retirement.

Eggleton was passed down, like a piece of valuable china, to the incoming prime minister Harold Holt. If Voyager was Eggleton’s trial run in crisis management, Holt’s disappearance in the surf off Portsea in December 1967 triggered his supreme test.

Thanks to his press gallery contacts, Eggleton appears to have been the first of Holt’s people to hear rumours of something amiss. He was the first to get to Portsea, travelling with Holt’s wife Zara. While the military and police conducted their fruitless search, Eggleton took control of the external story, filling the leadership vacuum and managing the maelstrom of media and public anxiety by personally conducting six televised press conferences over three days. He also communicated with the governor-general, the Liberal Party and US president Lyndon Johnson. In the process he became famous.

When the Liberal Party met in Canberra in January to elect Holt’s replacement, it was naturally Eggleton who announced to the media that the new prime minister was John Gorton. Gorton’s trainwreck prime ministership provides Frame’s most entertaining and astonishing chapter, informed by Eggleton’s contemporaneous file notes covering Gorton’s divisive and conspiratorial relationship with his staffer Ainsley Gotto, his hatred of the media, and his numerous domestic and international faux pas.

The highlight, deservedly, is the late-night drinks party at the residence of the US ambassador Bill Crook on 1 November 1968 — surely the most infamous and embarrassing incident ever in the Australia–US relationship.

Earlier that day, Crook had met with Gorton to confirm LBJ’s announced suspension of bombing of North Vietnam. The advice was tardy, annoying Gorton, who kept the ambassador waiting. That evening Gotto attended a dinner with others at Crook’s residence, and pressured Eggleton to persuade the prime minister to pay a visit to smooth things over. Gorton went to a press gallery dinner instead, and it was only late at night, well lubricated and in the company of a young journalist, Geraldine Willesee, that he agreed to do so. What could possibly go wrong?

In what now reads like soap opera, Gorton was miffed to see Gotto with another guest and Gotto was appalled to see Gorton with Willesee. Eggleton thought it was “incredible… unreal.” While music and dancing continued, Gorton at some point divulged that he wanted to withdraw Australian troops from South Vietnam but was prevented by Liberal Party policy. Crook invited Eggleton into the study for a private talk about Vietnam. Eggleton finally extracted Gorton “between 2am and 3am.”

Frame asserts that Gorton had “fallen short of every standard of acceptable behaviour,” and that when the story came out months later it was Eggleton’s personal reputation that helped save the PM. This seems fair. The Liberals were spending their inherited political capital like drunken sailors — or ex–navy ministers — and Eggleton proved himself the only adult in the room.

When Gorton was finally replaced by William McMahon in 1971, Eggleton opted to join the Commonwealth secretariat in London. He was lured back to Canberra in 1974 to help the Liberals, now in opposition, as the party’s federal director. In this role he worked very closely with Malcolm Fraser as PM, winning three elections, only to then lose four in a row to Labor’s Bob Hawke and retire in 1990.

So what does explain Eggleton’s longevity and prominence? Part of the answer is his loyalty to the cause. Hardworking, methodical, unflappable, an early riser and a non-drinker, he started out as useful and became indispensable.

Eggleton himself told a press gallery farewell dinner that as press secretary he had been “valet, chauffeur, decoy, bag carrier, sounding board and whipping boy.” He protests too much; he also brought exceptional skills in managing the news flow to suit his political masters, while also retaining the confidence of the working press. Veteran journo Alan Reid (providing Frame with his title) described him as “a very proper man.”

A further part of the answer lies with the old adage that proximity is power. Menzies disliked talking on the phone; he let Eggleton answer his calls. Gorton hated briefing the media; he let Eggleton do it for him. When Fraser campaigned, Eggleton travelled with him on the plane. Eggleton spent his career “in the room,” listening and learning and becoming, in the admiring description of another veteran scribe, Max Walsh, a “one-man intelligence network.”

Importantly, he didn’t seek to wield power or advise on policy outside his area of responsibility. He didn’t take sides and he didn’t blab. (A later Liberal press secretary, David Barnett, described Eggleton as like a built-in wardrobe — invisible and discreet.) Tact and discretion earned him the trust of those he dealt with and extended his influence.

At the same time, as he grew in experience and influence, he didn’t fail to perceive the benefits of centralised coordination of the government’s and the party’s communications. While still press secretary, he suggested the prime minister’s department create an office of public affairs and information to monitor and coordinate media units within the various departments and ministerial offices. In opposition, under Billy Snedden and later Andrew Peacock, he expanded the remit of the party office at the expense of the leader’s office.

Similarly, and more significantly and permanently, he secured appointment, under Fraser, as the Liberals’ first national campaign director, with effective (though often porous and conditional) control over the campaign activities of the nominally autonomous state divisions. Frame’s narrative is a bit light on here and could have devoted more space to the internal workings of the Liberal organisation and the personnel under Eggleton’s long regime.

As noted, this is a friendly biography. Frame’s criticisms, muted and elliptical, are largely confined to the introduction. He suggests that Eggleton should at times have “taken a stronger stand against bad behaviour” without specifying which incidents he is referring to. It seems clear that Eggleton’s tolerance of Gorton, especially his appalling behaviour at the US residence, is one of those occasions.

By today’s less forgiving standards, senior advisers become complicit if they put political or personal loyalty ahead of a higher responsibility to the nation or the government — especially if they are public servants, as Eggleton was at this stage. They have the option of calling it out, or walking away. Eggleton did neither.

Likewise, when Fraser blocked supply to the Whitlam government, Eggleton’s predecessor Tim Pascoe opposed the strategy. He even presented a memo to Fraser in October 1975 arguing that forcing an election for short-term gain would deprive Fraser of long-term moral authority. (Fraser burned the memo and never forgave Pascoe.) But Eggleton had no such qualms. In his own personal file note on 10 November 1975, he wrote that the governor-general would surely soon feel compelled to intervene; meanwhile, Liberal fundraising was ahead of target.

Such are the dilemmas and tensions inherent in the concept of political professionalism, which requires primary devotion to the client but also adherence to objective standards of conduct. It is only easy with hindsight. (For the record, I should note Eggleton’s generous consideration in giving me a lengthy interview for my doctoral research into the Liberal and Labor campaign professionals; he is indeed a very proper man.)

After he retired in 1990, feted and honoured, Eggleton worked in the aid sector with development assistance organisation CARE. Fraser, now chair of the global body, had invited him to apply to become its secretary-general. They travelled extensively and were an effective team, which suggests their close political relationship was based on solid personal sympathies.

Picture this then. A light plane touches down on a tiny airstrip somewhere in Somalia during the civil war in the early 1990s. Malcolm Fraser alights and, with him, a dapper and still obliging Eggleton. They climb aboard a convoy of jeeps, with a machine gunner for protection. Fraser, however, urgently needs to pee. There is no toilet, not even a tree. While Fraser unzipped, Eggleton was, in Frame’s words, “assigned the task of acting as a tree to afford the very tall prime minister a little dignity.” One can’t help admiring the man. •

A Very Proper Man: The Life of Tony Eggleton
By Tom Frame | Connor Court | $49.95 | 320 pages