Inside Story

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3150 words

The accidental prime minister

23 December 2015

Circumstances propelled the gregarious John Gorton into the top job, writes Norman Abjorensen in this extract from his new book. But the party termites quickly got to work

Right:

Devoid of pretensions: John Gorton speaks with troops of the 1st Australian Task Force during a visit to South Vietnam in June 1968. Australian War Memorial

Devoid of pretensions: John Gorton speaks with troops of the 1st Australian Task Force during a visit to South Vietnam in June 1968. Australian War Memorial


Craggy-faced John Gorton liked ordinary Australians, and in many ways he was one of them. Relaxed, informal and comfortable in the noisy clamour of a public bar, he was singularly devoid of pretensions. His irreverent larrikin streak, never far below the surface, won him unusual affection for a conservative political leader. For a time he was immensely popular, and much of that affection remained even after his political gloss had begun to fade. But the Gorton persona and the Gorton way of doing things did not sit well with the many of his Liberal colleagues still fixatedly mired in the Menzies years.

That combination of informality and single-mindedness, which often appeared as insensitivity to others, would cost Gorton dearly. Add to that his determination to modernise what had become an increasingly sclerotic party – a process that inevitably brought him into conflict with powerful elements – and his creative rethinking of government structures and processes that had been unchanged for more than half a century, and Gorton amassed a formidable array of enemies. Somewhat ironically, the party that purported to champion rugged individualism would not accept a rugged individualist as its leader. It couldn’t stop him so it had to destroy him, and destroy him it did – with not a little help from Gorton himself.

He was, in a sense, an accidental prime minister. As a senator, it would normally have been difficult for him to pursue the party leadership. But fate intervened when Harold Holt disappeared at Cheviot Beach less than two years into his prime ministership, and in the confusion the forces that supported Gorton mobilised quickly and effectively. In addition, had not Country Party leader John McEwen imposed a veto on the Liberal deputy leader, William McMahon, Gorton’s opportunity would most likely not have eventuated. He was in many respects an unknown quantity, and the Liberal Party took an uncharacteristic gamble in electing him. He had not been exposed to the policy rigours of a major portfolio, such as Treasury, Foreign Affairs or Defence, and he had spent his career in the comfortable obscurity of the Senate, which had yet to take on the more forensic role the reformed committee system would give it.

Gorton made it clear from the outset that his way of doing things would be different, describing his idiosyncratic view of the role of prime minister to a television interviewer just days after taking office: “He should put to the cabinet or committee what he believes ought to be done and if he believes strongly enough that it ought to be done then it must be done.”

The uncertainty abruptly created by Holt’s disappearance brought into focus conflicting currents within a Liberal Party that was conscious of its loosening grip on government. The intelligent, competent but dour Paul Hasluck, who offered himself as a candidate but did nothing to lobby his colleagues, represented a return to the solid Menzies era. Gorton, anything but dour, promised something a little more in tune with the changing times, and those Liberals in marginal seats who had come in with the electoral king tide of 1966 saw in him the best chance of holding on to their seats.

But the party was still dominated by an ageing old guard. As a prominent Liberal, writing under a pseudonym, noted in a reflection on the eventual election loss in 1972: “There could have been, should have been, an internal revolution in the Liberal Party – same name, but new ideas. But everyone was too polite to challenge their ageing members.” For a time, Gorton was the hope of impending change, with a mission (as his biographer wrote) to “lift Australia out of its Menzian past.”


Exactly when Gorton’s prime ministership started to encounter internal criticism is difficult to pinpoint with any accuracy, but an educated guess suggests his enemies began to coalesce immediately after his election. It was not because of anything he had done at that stage, although his sacking of the very-Establishment Peter Howson from the ministry aroused resentment and anger, but rather what he was and was not. Gorton was indifferent to the Liberal past and was not a tribal Liberal. For a party that had still not adjusted to the departure of Menzies two years earlier, and had certainly not accepted Holt’s strategic change of focus and minor departures from tradition and style, Gorton’s utter lack of orthodoxy and obeisance to Establishment gods and shibboleths was nothing less than anathema. As one of his close supporters in the parliamentary party, Jim Killen, described him:

Gorton certainly was different from Menzies and Holt. He was by no means a conventional conservative. Strong-minded, that strength led him into trouble with people whose sense of resolve was not great and who preferred the docile state rather than facing the realities of a changing Australia and a changing world.

The new prime minister was on a collision course. Don Aitkin, who edited Howson’s diaries, noted that within weeks of Gorton’s election the party was already starting to regret its decision. He had a tendency to talk publicly without regard to his particular audience, he committed his government to courses of action without prior consultation, he disregarded expert advice, he failed to do his homework and he held cabinet meetings infrequently. Yet he remained popular in the electorate.

An early indication of a resistance within the government came when the petulant Howson simply refused to resign when requested – “I would not cooperate with him on that matter,” he wrote in his diary – and insisted that Gorton sack him. Howson, who declined the offer of a diplomatic post and went to the backbench, recorded that Gorton “works along the lines of dictatorship,” and believed that unless he adopted a teamwork approach “the whole of the party structure will fall apart.” Not yet two months into his prime ministership, Gorton’s tenure was already being questioned. Howson, as we shall see, would do his best to undermine him over the next three years.

At a party meeting as soon as parliament resumed, Gorton stressed the need for unity. This “didn’t go over too well,” wrote Howson, “because it was remarked that there hadn’t been too much unity among the cabinet, and it would be difficult, therefore, to see it extending within the party.” Certainly Howson was doing his best to work against unity, and he was also close to McMahon, who was still smarting from the McEwen veto and his exclusion from the leadership ballot. In April, Howson called on Sir Robert Menzies, ostensibly to discuss the McEwen–McMahon rift, but inevitably discussion turned to Gorton. If there was any opposition to Gorton, Howson wrote of their conversation, “the team of [Paul] Hasluck and [Allen] Fairhall would be an ideal one to foster, and we’ve agreed that we should work quietly towards this end, should such an eventuality develop.”

There were, in the words of Gorton supporter Tom Hughes, “termites” at work within the party. As Gorton’s biographer Ian Hancock notes, Howson’s diary provides a detailed account of how they worked their way through the entire party structure.


It was only a matter of months after Gorton moved into The Lodge before the private doubts being expressed by Howson found their way into the press. The Sydney Sun reported that “many Liberals” were “gravely disturbed” by Gorton’s leadership, quoting unnamed Liberals as saying he had not lived up to the promise anticipated and generally questioning whether he was up to the job. Towards the end of the year, respected financial journalist and political commentator Maximilian Walsh wrote a widely read piece in Quadrant under the headline, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” which gave vent to the waves Gorton was making, characterising him as “a leader capable of provoking historic new directions and upheavals in all Australian parties.” The piece also made reference for the first time to what it called Gorton’s “penchant for mateship,” and his love of “good living and late nights.”

Around the same time, Gorton was involved in a late-night incident featuring drink, a risqué anecdote, a visit to the US embassy and a young female journalist, prompting not just questions about his behaviour and character in parliament, but also a one-man revolt by a Sydney backbencher, Edward St John, who publicly attacked Gorton, left the Liberal Party and even published a scathing book about his erstwhile leader. Early in the new year, on the anniversary of Gorton’s accession to the prime ministership, political correspondent Allan Barnes wrote in the Age about the growing doubts in sections of the community and the fact that Gorton’s ministers’ opinions ranged from “near hero worship, through hopelessness to every degree of doubt, to downright despair,” but all of them pondering a similar question: was he leading them to victory or destruction?

Gorton had no time for the unspoken consensus on key issues that had long constituted Liberal orthodoxy. He was a nationalist in two distinct senses: one that saw merit in raising Australia’s international status and the other that wanted to boost the powers and capacity of the federal government in relation to the states, a vision long identified with the Labor Party. Within this worldview, Gorton proceeded to increase federal support for the arts, raised doubts about the extent of foreign investment in and ownership of Australian resources, initiated moves for the independence of Papua New Guinea, and began to involve the Commonwealth in traditional state areas of environmental management. This ran counter to the states’ rights mantra so long a part of Liberal Party dogma and antagonised the party’s state branches. With Liberal governments in office in almost all states by the end of the 1960s, he found himself in conflict with a militant battalion of state premiers, all strongly backed by their party organisations.

By the time of the October 1969 election, nearly two years into his prime ministership, Gorton’s stocks had fallen significantly. The swing to Labor was almost 7 per cent, leaving the Coalition with just a seven-seat majority, down from thirty-nine. The inflated majority from Holt’s landslide win in 1966 was always going to be trimmed, but the result gave succour to Gorton’s increasingly vocal enemies. From this point on, his days looked to be numbered.

On the day after the election that indefatigable termite, Peter Howson, was busy on the phone, noting how McMahon was “examining the situation.” After talking to several others, the diarist was convinced of the need to challenge Gorton’s leadership because he had “obviously failed us over the last eighteen months, and the true image of the PM is now getting through to the electorate, rather than the phoney image that was portrayed during the leadership struggle in January 1968.” The Canberra Times, in an incisive analysis of the rebuff to the government, saw the electorate responding not so much to the changes Gorton had initiated but rather to the way in which they were handled, and the incomplete support he clearly commanded in his own ranks:

Mr Gorton won the leadership of the Liberal Party at the beginning of last year because of his strong personality: Liberals believed his image would dull Mr Whitlam’s. Within weeks doubts had begun to grow as cryptic hints of new and undebated policies and methods of government sponsored the impression that old policies were being abandoned or revised without any indication of what would take their place… It is not that the changes hinted at by Mr Gorton or leaked to the press by his colleagues were outrageous or inconceivable; the unease stemmed from the general realisation that he did not have his party, or his party machine, solidly behind him.

Speculation was rife as to whether Gorton would be challenged for the leadership. But with the McEwen veto still presumed to be in place, McMahon was ruled out, and once education and science minister Malcolm Fraser declared he wouldn’t stand, Gorton seemed to be safe. Days after the election, however, national development minister David Fairbairn told Gorton he would not serve under him, and later he announced he would stand against Gorton for the leadership. Even more ominously for Gorton, McEwen indicated his veto of McMahon no longer applied. McMahon, after meeting McEwen, immediately announced his candidacy. In giving his reasons for opposing Gorton, Fairbairn nominated the “continuing wrangle” between the federal government and the states over financial relations as the key reason for the anti-government swing.

Gorton retained the leadership, but his margin is the subject of conflicting accounts. Whatever it was, the outcome made it clear that his support base within the party was still intact, even if reduced. McMahon, still deputy leader but moved from Treasury to Foreign Affairs, was quite undaunted by his unsuccessful challenge and began making new plans for Gorton’s downfall.

In 1970, Gorton’s nationalism and centralism was articulated in a bill introduced to extend Commonwealth jurisdiction over the seabed. Although in line with the report of a Senate select committee set up in 1967, the bill further exacerbated relations with the states and brought more combatants into the anti-Gorton camp. The extent to which the campaign was being orchestrated is neatly illustrated by an incident at the Melbourne Club, where a friend of Gorton’s was handed a document with the advice that he might care to read it “and swing along with us and stop this futile crusade for Gorton.” The date on the document, 26 May 1970, is significant, for it was compiled just days after the row over the seabed legislation first erupted. Drawn up by a public relations company, it reported favourably on the work of the “rebels” and predicted another challenge to Gorton’s leadership, nominating Fraser, Billy Snedden or Fairbairn as possible alternatives, or even McEwen in a caretaker role.

But it was an unrelated matter altogether that brought the leadership issue to a head. It began with media reports of a leaked army document dealing with the phasing out of “civil action projects” in Vietnam, which appeared to run counter to the government’s policy of shifting resources into these projects as the military commitment was wound back. After confidential journalists’ briefings by Fraser, now defence minister, resulted in a number of stories suggesting that the army was sabotaging the programs, the chief of the general staff, Sir Thomas Daly, whose relations with Fraser were tense, intervened to defend the army. Gorton, who had tried to contact Fraser but was unable to reach him, assured Daly that he stood with him on the issue.

Several days later Fraser resigned, accusing Gorton of disloyalty, and specifically alleging that the prime minister had failed to scotch suggestions that Daly had accused him of disloyalty. Rising in parliament to explain his resignation, Fraser was blunt in his denunciation of Gorton: “I do not believe he is fit to hold the great office of prime minister, and I cannot serve in his government.”


The party gathered the next day, and speaker after speaker rose to attack Gorton. The chief termite, Howson, delivered the angriest words of all: “I use language which Amery addressed to Chamberlain: ‘Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God go!’” After two hours of this, Gorton’s supporters, perhaps unwisely, moved a vote of confidence, resulting in a tied result of thirty-three for and against. Contrary to popular myth, Gorton did not use a casting vote against himself, but declared: “Well, that is not a vote of confidence, so the party will have to elect a new leader.” The termites had done their work; McMahon was elected leader.

To many people, inside and outside the Liberal Party, the removal of Gorton was an act of treachery. Among them was the long-time public relations officer at the party’s federal secretariat, Edgar Holt, who later told Howson that an MP faced with a choice between loyalty to the leader and loyalty to party principles should choose loyalty to the leader.

It is difficult to escape the suspicion that Fraser’s resignation was not for the purported reason, and was instead intended to create a crisis in Gorton’s floundering leadership. Many years later, at Gorton’s funeral service in 2002, Tom Hughes reflected this view when he described Fraser’s act as a political assassination. “The judgement of history upon John Gorton will be kinder than it will be upon those who conspired to bring him down,” he added.

Was it a conspiracy? On the available evidence, it certainly was. Howson never gave up undermining Gorton and plotting his downfall – and even after Gorton’s removal he continued to work against the former PM in his own electorate in the hope of blocking any comeback. In the days after Gorton fell, his triumphalism was evident: “I’ve had, throughout this whole time, to try to keep together a team whose aim was to get rid of Gorton and to get back to the leadership that this nation deserves,” he recorded in his diary. He was in constant contact with McMahon, whose leadership ambitions had never left him. McMahon, meanwhile, had worked to foster anti-Gorton sentiment in Queensland.

And then there were the media, especially those outlets of Sir Frank Packer, notably the Sydney Daily Telegraph, the Bulletin and the Nine TV network, which were at the forefront in carrying stories hostile to Gorton. Packer was close to McMahon, and indeed openly referred to McMahon as “our man,” and it was in his interests to promote McMahon while disparaging Gorton. Tellingly, Howson noted how he had spoken to Packer’s key man in the Canberra press gallery, Alan Reid, on the day Gorton was deposed “and thanked him for all the help he had given us.”

The redoubtable Victorian premier Henry Bolte was another implacable foe, even admitting that he had been a key figure among those intent on bringing Gorton down, and his unconcealed hostility towards Gorton gave him significant influence outside Victoria. He described Gorton’s toppling as “the best thing that ever happened to the Liberal Party.” •

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Right:

Rolling plan: New Zealand agreed to take an annual 150 refugees at a meeting between prime minister John Key (above) and Australian PM Julia Gillard in February 2013. Chatham House

Rolling plan: New Zealand agreed to take an annual 150 refugees at a meeting between prime minister John Key (above) and Australian PM Julia Gillard in February 2013. Chatham House