Often when people consider the relative merits of recent Australian prime ministers – and we have had plenty, mostly middling to woeful – they almost inevitably mention at some point, when determining their unfavourites, “the worst prime minister since Billy McMahon”. It is almost as if it is simply accepted universally: McMahon is the benchmark for awfulness in prime ministers. Indeed, the academic and biographer of Jim Cairns, Paul Strangio, conducted a survey in 2013 and, yes, Billy was regarded as the worst.
Is this even remotely fair? Poor old Bill passed away over thirty years ago now, in March 1988, so he hasn’t had to witness the repeated derogatory remarks. His widow, Lady Sonia, died in 2010, so she lived to cop some of it.
Perhaps some light can be shed on the question of who are our worst prime ministers, and whether McMahon was indeed among them, now that we have at last a full book length biography of Sir William McMahon. A youngish Canberra academic, Patrick Mullins, has written Tiberius with a Telephone: The Life and Stories of William McMahon (Scribe Publications, 2018). Of course, the title comes from Gough Whitlam’s famous characterisation of his opponent’s well known penchant for telephonic lobbying, leaking and gossiping, and his own sense of regal superiority. (As if Gough could talk, but that is another story).
Until the recent biography, all we had was the treatment of McMahon in various political histories (mostly recently, John Howard’s weighty tome, The Menzies Era, covers the McMahon period in detail); the legendary journalist Alan Reid’s various accounts of national politics in the 1960s and 1970s, principally The Power Struggle and The Gorton Experiment; and books on prime ministers, in particular, Michelle Grattan’s edited book Australian Prime Ministers. The chapter on McMahon therein was written by the Canberra lobbyist and author Peter Sekuless. Another of this genre was Colin Hughes’ Mr Prime Minister. Another in the Alan Reid genre was Ray Aitchison’s From Bob to Bungles to Billy. The historians among us will find the late Rob Chalmers’ Inside Canberra newsletters of great interest in following the events of the McMahon period.
Peter Howson, one-time minister under several Liberal prime ministers in the long Coalition post-war reign, wrote up his political diaries as The Life of Politics, another useful source on McMahon. (Howson, of course, was responsible for the immortal self-description of his newly created role as (Australia’s very first) Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts – “the little bastard (McMahon) has given me trees, boongs and poofters”).
The National Archives Prime Ministers website is a good source of information on prime ministerial biodata. The Treasury also has provided a very handy short view of McMahon’s rather successful period as Treasurer from 1966 to 1969, under both Harold Holt and John Gorton. There is also an excellent bibliography. It notes that McMahon was the first Treasurer to hold an economics degree. Whether this is a good thing is another matter, but no doubt the Treasury thought so. Yes, there are a number of sources on McMahon’s political life. But this first (very) full-length biography by Mullins is nonetheless most welcome.
So, what constitutes a “good” or “bad” prime minister? And where does McMahon fit?
One’s views of “best ever” anythings, whether cricketers, footballers or prime ministers, will be highly subjective, and the parlour game highly complex. There is, for example, the bias towards one’s own preferred side of politics. Not many Labor supporters would place John Winston Howard at the top, for example. Those same Labor supporters would, no doubt, revere Whitlam as not just the best-ever prime minister but indeed a demigod. For Coalition supporters, Whitlam might well be the worst.
Ideological blinkers are but one problem. Again, how to judge? Clearly technical competence is important, and many might be able to agree on this measure. Popularity during office? Provided it is popularity for the right reasons, this might be considered relevant. Many universities (alas) now award points (promotion, renewal of contracts, tenure) to academics who are popular with their students. As Charles Murray has noted, easy markers tend to do well here. Popularity, then, might not tell us much.
Bob Hawke is an interesting case. He was popular, but also a technically superb prime minister, as measured by skilful management (aided as he was by a high quality cabinet, perhaps the best in Australia’s history), chairmanship of cabinet, and his support for lasting and beneficial reforms. Hawke was cut down by a very good treasurer – who was allowed to be a good treasurer by his PM – who went on to be a dreadful prime minister: divisive, obsessed with a narrow range of causes, he tacked well to the left of the Australian electorate, as he was to discover in 1996 following a dramatic decline in his popularity outside the chattering classes.
Is longevity an indicator of greatness or shortness of tenure an indicator of the opposite? Hence Menzies is often regarded by those on the right as the best prime minister.
Winning a lot of elections demonstrates great retail politics skills over time, and retiring on top at a time of your own choosing also suggests a control of process to be admired and counted among the criteria. But Menzies had incredible luck, and rode that luck for a long time. There was the hopeless ALP leadership before Whitlam. There was the Split and the DLP’s continued gifting of preferences to the Coalition on the back of that Split. There were the generally benign economic conditions of the “long post-war boom” which largely coincided with Menzies’ period in office. There was the general acceptance by most of the population of social values that are now causes of great division in the community. And government did generally much less in the Fifties and Sixties than it does now. This is itself a good thing, of course, but it also meant that governing was easier.
Menzies was good. But he hardly ever needed to get out of third gear. He very nearly came a cropper in 1961, too. On the other hand, it might be argued that governing was “easy” then because Menzies made it look easy. This might be a fair call.
But is it fair, in including longevity among the criteria of greatness, to discount those cut down too early? Tony Abbott’s ruthless execution by the execrable Malcolm Turnbull and his fellow Wets in his first term makes any assessment of Abbott’s merits relative to other prime ministers next to impossible. What if Howard had been overthrown after the 1998 election, which he all but lost over the GST, or even before the ’98 election? Abbott did nothing to deserve summary and early execution, except suffer a bunch of poll losses. Popularity for the wrong reasons might be a poor indicator of greatness, just as unpopularity for the right reasons may suggest you are indeed following the right course. Kevin Rudd was brought down prematurely too, and he was still relatively popular, at least with Labor people who didn’t actually know him. Or have to work with him.
The Sixties also threw up three prime ministers who, following Ming’s lengthy tenure, had very short terms in office and were cut down in very, very different circumstances. Holt was defeated by the mighty surf of Cheviot Beach in Victoria. Gorton hit the wall in his own party when he failed to re-contest the leadership following an ill-advised call by a party-room supporter for a vote of confidence during tough political times. McMahon jumped in, having been denied a year or so earlier, to face a resurgent Labor and a leader in Whitlam much more suited to the voting generation of the age of sexual and cultural revolutions. McMahon was on an electoral hiding to nothing, Labor having made huge gains against Gorton in 1969 with a 7% swing, and with only a further small swing required to win office at the end of 1972. And a small swing was all that the Whitlam “juggernaut” actually achieved against the supposedly hopeless McMahon. If getting turfed out in a huge swing is an indicator of poor prime ministership, then Gorton almost did, and Rudd, Howard, Whitlam, Fraser and Keating all qualify as well. And McMahon didn’t! Howard is lauded as a great prime minister, despite his ignominious exit in the Labor landslide of 2007. Longevity, we can conclude, may well be highly irrelevant when judging prime ministers, as might popularity.
What of achievements in office? Overcoming biases based on ideology or of personal attachment to particular “achievements”, the key criteria should be that government decisions attain their intended outcomes without unintended consequences, that they gain popular support or at least recognition, that they do good for many people, that they are accepted as beneficial by the broad spectrum of the community, and that they endure and are not overturned by successors.
Self-important politicians often say that when you change the government, you change the country. This is an exaggeration. It is at least plausible to argue that culture trumps parliamentary politics in the degree to which “countries get changed”. But what if a prime minister did “change” the country and for the better? Well, this criterion is biased towards actual decisions.
Prime ministers who don’t change much, or even make decisions of great and lasting consequence, might contribute to national prosperity (broadly defined) in other ways. They might unite people in times of disaster. They might enhance the national position by simply avoiding policy blunders. To quote John Stone, “don’t just do something … stand there”. Or to quote Sir Humphrey, engage in “masterly inactivity”. Given the multiple, costly and sadly embedded policy disasters of the last decade, some of great negative and long-term consequence – and there is no need even to mention Whitlam – of doing not much in office might make you a truly great prime minister.
All of this might simply show that picking great-or-otherwise prime ministers is as fraught as picking best- and worst-ever cricketers, tennis players or race horses. But it is fun, despite the difficulties in agreeing on criteria.
If it is so hard, and we cannot actually agree on what makes a good or poor prime minister, why are so many convinced that McMahon is the worst, or at least among the worst? This would seem, on the evidence of the above discussion, grossly unfair.
What does the research, from Mullins’ recent book, as well as from other sources, tell us? McMahon was regarded as very hard working; this is universally agreed. Others, perhaps Gorton in particular as McMahon’s chief rival for the leadership, had less industriousness but more personality and therefore “cut through”. McMahon was supported by the public service. He reinstated the legendary John Bunting as head of the Prime Minister’s Department after Gorton dumped him in favour of Sir Lenox Hewitt.
McMahon when Treasurer seems to have been highly regarded by Treasury (setting aside John Stone’s later vitriolic assessment, seemingly at least partly based on what he regarded as McMahon’s culpability in overworking a valued colleague who subsequently died young). McMahon faithfully supported the Treasury line in Cabinet. He was diligent and competent as a long-serving minister in several portfolios. John Howard has him as a prototype Dry, in particular in his support for free trade and against protection. In this, he also won the plaudits of the financial press. At a time when Liberal ministers were a fairly non-ideological lot without the truly bitter divisions of today (other than everyone being opposed to Communism), it might be said that McMahon was demonstrating at least some understanding of the liberal principles on which the Liberal Party had been established, plus a willingness to pursue these principles in developing policy. The party back then didn’t really have to be a “broad church”.
McMahon was said to have been, like Gorton and Whitlam, no social conservative. But given that the sexual and broader cultural revolutions were still gaining their feet, such a position on McMahon’s part was of very little consequence, and so he should not be marked down by today’s conservatives on this.
McMahon was utterly dudded by Country Party leader Jack McEwen after Holt died and saw Gorton rise to the leadership instead. McEwen refused to serve under a McMahon leadership and threatened the very existence of the Coalition. (If only the brutality of McEwen’s play had been repeated by Barnaby Joyce in 2015, how much Turnbullian wreckage and mischief might have been avoided). McMahon very wisely acted with extreme grace after this astonishing blow to his career engineered by the junior Coalition partner.
If McMahon could be said to be politicking furiously after Holt’s disappearance, then he was no different from all the others involved at the time – McEwen, of course, Gorton, leadership contender Paul Hasluck, and, somewhat incredibly, Governor-General Richard Casey. They all ganged up on McMahon, and he quietly departed scratched himself from the leadership stakes for the good of the party. Yes, he probably had no choice, but if Billy was Tiberius, then Caesar, Brutus, Cassius and the rest were all there as well, up to their ears in unseemly manoeuvrings as poor old Harold Holt gave himself up to the Southern Ocean and his family grieved. (Alan Reid’s The Power Struggle is a good source on the machinations within the Liberal Party after Holt’s drowning. And yes Reid was seen by most as being in the McMahon camp. Certainly he was no fan of Gorton).
The accounts that I have read also show Gorton to have been a very ordinary prime minister, at least on the grounds of technical competence and presiding over genuine Cabinet government. Gorton routinely ignored Cabinet protocol and hung ministers out to dry, including McMahon. Gorton indeed did it “his way”, and paid the price through the “bungles” to which the journalist Ray Aitchison referred, whatever McMahon’s subsequent power plays and alleged shenanigans.
Given the sheer bloodlust for power and sheer bastardry we have subsequently witnessed in the eras of Howard/Peacock,
Hawke/Keating, Rudd/Gillard/Rudd and Turnbull/Abbott, marking McMahon down for ambition, leaks, gossip and briefing against colleagues looks like a gentle perambulation in the park by comparison. Menzies himself once referred to McMahon as “an untrustworthy little scamp”. Seemingly not a fan, then, though there is perhaps a touch of affection there too. McMahon’s untrustworthiness didn’t stop Menzies from appointing him to several ministries, far more senior than Ming gave Gorton, nor Holt from making McMahon Treasurer
Despite all this, McMahon was loathed by a number of his contemporaries, at least strongly disliked by others. The ongoing enmity with McEwen is well known and has been well covered by many of the authors cited, including Mullins in his biography. McEwen was prime minister for only a few weeks, a rugged old Country Party warhorse from rural Victoria, close confidant of Menzies, and arch protectionist and therefore enemy of the emerging Dries (led by the Modest Farmer, Bert Kelly). By the time of 1969’s post-election leadership challenge, an astonishing event in itself, McEwen had dropped his opposition to a McMahon tilt at the leadership. And, post-McEwen, Doug Anthony had no inclination to prevent McMahon becoming prime minister after Gorton’s bungle and loss of the leadership. This is despite Anthony not being a great fan of McMahon. Then there was Paul Hasluck, who Gorton bought off with the Governor-Generalship. He was a rival of McMahon’s and so enmity was perhaps to be expected. Malcolm Fraser loathed Gorton more than McMahon, but that was, not unexpectedly, all about Malcolm.
Did this enmity make McMahon the worst of our prime ministers? Or even a bad one? As enmity goes, there was much more anti-Gorton sentiment, as I understand it, and this lasted (according to John Howard) well into the 1970s. McMahon was a loner, and certainly disliked. “Not to be trusted”, according to McEwen. Again, he is hardly Robinson Crusoe; he was a politician after all. Ambitious, yes. And, your point is? A stalker of power? See under Turnbull, and ask Peter King, Brendan Nelson and Tony Abbott about that.
Against the opposition to McMahon inside the Liberal Party there was strong and continuing support from the media, at least from the media controlled by Sir Frank Packer. There was strong support, too, from business, from the public service (as indicated) and from the NSW Party. So no, the narrative that Billy was universally and peculiarly disliked has no basis.
Perhaps another criterion for judging the relative merits of prime ministers might be “performance against expectations”. Certainly Abbott was judged (very harshly) against these. Fraser was judged correctly against these. Whitlam probably exceeded expectations, but in all the wrong ways. Ditto Turnbull in spades. On the other hand, we probably had low expectations of Howard. He absolutely blitzed the nation’s expectations — hit it out of the park, in fact. In 1971, absolutely no one had high expectations of McMahon. There was, almost, no one else to step up after Gorton’s implosion. So no, Billy didn’t let the nation down as prime minister.
The defeat by Whitlam in December 1972 has provided much of the narrative of McMahon as a loser. I have already noted that the defeat was not massive. John Howard, who spent much of the campaign as an adviser and, indeed, election night with McMahon, has suggested that Doug Anthony for one thought, after the earlier budget, that the Coalition might even have beaten Labor. At that point the polls were very tight. McMahon was gracious in defeat, displaying none of the graceless, prat-like behaviour of Malcolm the Second in 2016, for example. The policy pitch had been listless and its presentation lifeless, but 1972 was very early in the evolution of campaign launches towards the razzamattazz of later elections, and which marked Whitlam’s launch.
McMahon had sacked a few ministers and not re-appointed a couple that maybe he should have after his accidental takeover of 1971 (one was Tom Hughes, soon to be the subject of a biography by Ian Hancock, and the other was Jim Killen). He withdrew Australian combat troops from Vietnam, a momentous and correct decision. He missed the Nixon/Whitlam pitch to China which presaged a major foreign policy mood switch. No disgrace there. Merely bad luck.
Deteriorating economic conditions, tame by the standards of today’s routine policy blunders, did not help in 1972, along with an expansionary (Billy Snedden) budget in 1972. But McMahon overall made few policy errors of significance or which caused long lasting damage to the body politic or the nation. There was no climate nonsense. No NBN. No pink batts or school halls. No Gonski madness. No safe schools. No homosexual marriage. No energy capitulation. No renewable energy targets. No sell outs to China. No massive budget blowouts. No ludicrous massification of higher “education”. And so on. No, as measured by blunders per PM, McMahon was no great sinner.
So, how does the overall scorecard look for Billy? Was he the worst?
The short answer is – no way! As for longevity in office, well at least he was defeated at the polls. He was/is/will be matched by Gorton himself (avoidably at the time but inevitably), Holt (unavoidably), Abbott (sadly), Morrison (probably) and Shorten (hopefully). Shocking electoral defeat, indicating popularity at the end of office? McMahon did much, much better than Gorton (who didn’t lose in 1969, of course, but, as noted, suffered a far bigger swing than Billy), Whitlam, Fraser, Keating, Howard and Gillard/Rudd. Governed within Cabinet competently? McMahon might have leaked from Cabinet, but Gorton simply and routinely ignored Cabinet. Regarded by colleagues as ghastly? Yes, including during his frustrating “wilderness” years after his defeat in 1972, but he was not in Rudd’s league in terms of peer loathing. Did McMahon achieve anything much as prime minister? History has been unkind, as Mullins and others have noted, and his tenure was too brief to make a proper impact assessment. But he did some proper things (economically), some timely things (anticipating some of Whitlam’s much lauded initiatives, such as the Cities Commission, initiating the Poverty Inquiry and considering the vote for eighteen-year-olds) and some outstanding things (pulling troops from Vietnam).
But, much to his credit and for which the nation can be thankful, as prime minister he did far fewer disastrous things than pretty much any of his successors “achieved”. Whitlam, we can thank for many things – free tertiary education for a time, politicised ministerial offices and, in effect, the beginnings of the corporatisation of national parliamentary politics, hyper inflation and unemployment, big and growing government, the beginnings of political correctness, the beginnings of multiculturalism, simply for starters. Fraser gave us the SBS and full blown multi-culti, as well as appalling man management in Cabinet, endless crises among ministers, disappointed expectations in relation to big government, embedding wets in Cabinet (see under Ian Macphee), appointing talentless mates (Tony Street), and perhaps the worst campaign slogan of them all – “we are not waiting for the world”, in 1983. Malcolm Fraser, perhaps (with Tony Abbott), Australia’s best ever Opposition Leader, is a serious contender for the most disappointing PM. Hawke gave the nation respite, and governed exceedingly well. Keating gave the nation Mabo, full blown political correctness, hideous behaviour towards opponents, borne of unwarranted arrogance, debased standards in parliament, and the recession we had to have. He has few, if any lasting monuments to his tenure. Howard provided another respite from dreadful governance, but, as I have noted elsewhere, his tenure was far from unblemished. The best do awful things, as Churchill himself demonstrated. Rudd gave us wall to wall awfulness; his ghastly policies would require two separate articles, at the very least. I cannot think of his reign without feeling the need to take a shower. Gillard gave us a half billion dollar Royal Commission into the Catholic Church that had to justify itself with a big scalp. And boy, did it get one. She gave us misogyny, Gonski, NDIS, turbo charged, subsidised, unaffordable child care, bigger government, union thuggery linked to the seedier bits of her past life, and faux feminism. Her positive achievements were nil. Abbott? Cut down while showing immense promise and undying class. Turnbull? Let us not go there. His deliberate attempt to destroy a political party is to past prime ministers as, channelling Pope Leo XIII, modernism to all previous heresies.
Like all considerations of the worth of politicians, this assessment is biased, no doubt, reflective of my own ideological preferences, and partial at best. But it more than establishes beyond reasonable doubt the case that poor old Billy was by no means our worst-ever prime minister. Not our greatest prime minister, certainly. But not the worst either.
McMahon was damaged by his own awkward personal style, and his poor communication skills. He was, obviously to all at the time, no great orator. More of a backroom operator, truth to tell. His style deficits only increased with age, and by the time he was PM he was well into his sixties. The massive contrasts with the debonair, tall, elegant, charismatic Whitlam did Billy no favours. (The barbs that flowed in relation to some of McMahon’s physical characteristics — as at right — reflect poorly on those involved at the time, and indeed anticipated attacks on “Little Johnny Howard” from a later generation of miserable, alienated leftists. Worse, and without wishing to apply today’s more politically correct attitudes to disabilities that obtain today, McMahon’s foes then and since have failed to acknowledge the impact his marked deafness would have had on his personal style and political/social skills, even his capacity to accept and engender trust. This point would not have been lost on Howard).
Does Mullins himself have a view on my own central question? Not really, and certainly not overtly. Mullins does not exude warmth to Billy across his tome. But he is fair, if at times harsh. His research reflects truly what he has heard and has read. At times I did feel that his positive points about McMahon were not more fully developed. Perhaps, then, a reluctant biographer. Hagiography it ain’t! And Mullins’ purpose is not my own. His is to provide a full and informative account of the life of one of our more important politicians.
Sir William McMahon did not simply bow out of politics after his electoral defeat and stepping down from the leadership of the Liberal Party. He followed the path of Churchill, and seemingly, now, of Tony Abbott, to continue to serve in whatever capacity future leaders desired. Like Abbott, he was passed over by future leaders. In an interesting aside, John Howard opined in 1977 that Fraser might well have chosen McMahon, and not him, as Treasurer after Phil Lynch’s retirement. No way that was going to happen.
So McMahon persisted, finally to retire as the member for Lowe in 1982. His much delayed retirement no doubt irked Malcolm Fraser, so there is another good thing in his favour. Some said his persistence in the Parliament was actually designed to irk Fraser.
His subsequent unsuccessful attempts to have his memoirs published was itself another saga, and one that is covered by Mullins in his book. Yes, Billy was indeed an awful autobiographer and decidedly not a friend of biographers or publishers. That McMahon never was able to complete a satisfactory manuscript covering his life, despite the dogged efforts of many, is a great shame. His one-time press secretary and long-time friend of Quadrant, Peter Kelly, once noted: “Because he led the Government to defeat, he was never given the full credit for the policies that he implemented.” Former ministerial colleague David Fairbairn echoed these sentiments at McMahon’s memorial service, to his credit.
So, with the valuable, indeed monumental efforts of Patrick Mullins’ nearly 800 page doorstop of a book, we now have a far fuller, and immensely balanced, portrait of one who, for this reviewer, is much maligned, and unfairly so, in relation to both his peers and to other leaders of the nation. For this we are in Mullins’ debt. Perhaps we owe Mullins the biggest thank you for making us all think again about what makes a good or a poor prime minister, something which has buckets of contemporary relevance.
One final sadness. Mullins has said that the book was completed without the cooperation of the McMahon family. A great pity. Whatever the reason for this, along with Billy’s own bungled publishing efforts in the 1980s, it is another missed opportunity to set the record fully straight.