Features Australia

Gorton vs McMahon: the secret memo

The bitter rivary between two Prime Ministers exposed - over penning stories in the press and cabinet solidarity

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

Former Prime Minister John Grey Gorton walked into the office of his successor, Billy McMahon, on the afternoon of 12 August 1971. Both men knew that a showdown between them had been looming for some time.

A secret note made by McMahon detailing his conversation with Gorton has been discovered in McMahon’s extensive personal papers kept in the National Library of Australia.

Never before published, the aide memoire reveals that after Gorton accepted his sacking, he asked about his entitlements and was offered an overseas diplomatic posting to ease the pain of political punishment.

Five months earlier, in March 1971, a party room vote of no-confidence in Gorton’s leadership was held – and the numbers were tied. Surprisingly, Gorton cast a ballot against himself, effectively ending his prime ministership. McMahon, who had long craved the prime ministership, finally claimed it. Gorton was elected Deputy Liberal Leader and became Defence Minister. The show of unity, however, would soon be shattered.

The downfall of Gorton was a battle between two political foes that also enveloped two media moguls: Rupert Murdoch and Frank Packer.

In February 1971, the Australian published reports by journalist Alan Ramsey about a dispute between Defence Minister Malcolm Fraser and the army over civic aid in Vietnam. Gorton told Lieutenant-General Thomas Daly that the army had his support, undermining Fraser.

Ramsey asked Gorton if Daly had accused Fraser of disloyalty. Gorton did not deny it; he refused to comment. Fraser then accused Gorton of disloyalty, resigned from cabinet and told Parliament Gorton was “not fit to hold the great office of prime minister”. This speech was the catalyst for Gorton’s demise.

Gorton, who became Prime Minister in January 1968, replacing the interim John McEwen, was initially very popular. Yet for several years, elements of the Liberal Party had grown increasingly impatient with his ill-discipline and maverick ways. Conservative state premiers were hostile to his agenda. In 1969, the government narrowly avoided being defeated by a resurgent Labor Party led by Gough Whitlam. Gorton survived a leadership challenge by McMahon and David Fairbairn.

The Packer media empire used its television, newspapers and magazines to undermine Gorton and promote McMahon as an alternative prime minister. By March 1971, newspapers outside of the Packer stable were also urging Gorton to resign. When the party room vote of no-confidence in Gorton’s leadership was tied 33-all, he felt he could not continue. He cast a vote as chairman (which was in breach of the rules) against himself. Gorton then defeated Fraser and Fairbairn in a ballot for the deputy leadership.

The sacking of Gorton as Defence Minister five months later was set in train when journalist Alan Reid’s The Gorton Experiment was published in August. Reid wrote for Packer’s Bulletin magazine.The book sparked a political firestorm. With dramatic prose and littered with revelations about secret meetings and unpublished documents, The Gorton Experiment was riveting insider journalism.

“A bastard by birth, gregarious by habit, distrustful by nature, wilful by temperament, Gorton was prime minister by accident,” was how Reid (known as the Red Fox) set the tone on the first page.

“A chain smoker of cigarettes, fond of convivial drinking and the relaxing juvenility of pointless parties, conspicuous for informality but inconspicuous for discretion, Gorton had for an Australian prime minister a novel approach to his office, both as an individual and officially.”

“The Gorton experiment, of a prime minister being himself, of behaving as he felt like behaving, of running a government as ‘I want to run it’ … of trusting nobody who disagreed with him and of being eternally suspicious, and of appealing over the heads of colleagues and opponents to the masses through the medium of TV, had, temporarily, run its course.”

Gorton was eager to defend himself. The Herald & Weekly Times asked Gorton to review Reid’s book. He asked for $250. The publisher deemed it to be too large a sum. A delay ensued. Eventually, Fairfax agreed to split the payment with H&WT.

But as Ian Hancock writes in John Gorton: He Did it His Way (2002), a deal had been arranged via agent Harry M. Miller directly with Murdoch’s News Ltd. Murdoch agreed to pay Gorton $60,000 for a series of six articles in the Sunday Australian. An additional $15,000 would be paid for two more, if requested.

In the first article, titled “I Did It My Way,” Gorton took aim at Reid, returning fire with a character assessment of his accuser.

“He is a slightly-built, balding man with little darting eyes and an expression of perpetual cynicism,” Gorton wrote. “When talking to one he tends to stand slightly turned away, peeping under a drooping eyelid from the corner of one eye. There is a knowing, downward twist to his lips as he speaks from the corner of his mouth. One expects momentarily to be nudged in the ribs with a confidential elbow and given a hot tip for the 3.30 at Randwick.”

Gorton responded to Reid’s description of him as a bastard by birth writing that Reid had achieved bastard “status through his own efforts” rather than by virtue of his birth. Gorton criticised fellow cabinet ministers for being “uncertain of their own opinions”, rebuffed the idea he was not consultative, dismissed the claim he was involved in a plot against Harold Holt’s leadership and argued he was the victim of a “sustained campaign” to eject him from office.

The Sunday Australian promoted its scoop with gusto. “GORTON: I’m a victim of ‘campaign’,” screamed the headline on 8 August, 1971. “Many political observers consider the book, The Gorton Experiment, a part of a continuing campaign to denigrate him, and to make the prime minister, Mr McMahon, secure against any threat from his party deputy,” explained a front page story.

McMahon decided to sack Gorton before a second article was published. He consulted his colleagues and judged that he could dispatch Gorton without sparking a threat to his own leadership. Notes of McMahon’s conversations with colleagues are in his files. There are also many messages from callers. Frank Packer frequently called McMahon. “Sir Frank Packer would like you to call him,” says a typical note from staff.

On 12 August, McMahon summoned Gorton for a meeting in his Parliament House office. McMahon began, according to his aide memoire, by saying that he had “given careful consideration” to Gorton’s decision to write a series of newspaper articles.

“I believe the (first) article infringes the basic rules of cabinet government and cabinet unity and solidarity,” McMahon said. “It involves several controversial issues involving other ministers, some of whom would like to reply. They will not be permitted to do so. In one part, it touches the integrity of other ministers who cannot reply.”

McMahon said if ministers were allowed to ruminate on cabinet business in public it “could destroy the cabinet”. It would become “unworkable”. He drew his remarks to a conclusion: “The damage is done. I cannot think of a middle course. So I now ask you for your resignation.”

Gorton, although aware of his fate, declined to offer his resignation at first. “I am surprised that you do not think I have the right to defend myself,” he said.McMahon pressed his point about solidarity. “Others now in the cabinet and ministry, and former cabinet ministers, have different views to you and this was not the way to go about presenting your views.” Gorton said his intention was not to “damage” the government.

“I don’t want this to blow up into a controversy – the sooner it ends the better it will be for the party and for the government,” McMahon said.

Gorton requested a letter from McMahon formally asking him to resign, to which he would reply. The letters – “My dear John” and “My dear prime minister” – were released the following day.

McMahon recalled that Gorton asked about his “entitlements” as a former prime minister. “I said they would be the same as for Sir Robert Menzies and for Sir John McEwen.” After securing Gorton’s resignation, McMahon then “raised the question of a diplomatic appointment”. Gorton rebuffed the idea. “He said he was not interested.”

Gorton continued to defend his prime ministership in further articles in the Sunday Australian. He lashed colleagues, rebutted Reid’s accusations and criticised “crusty old Sir Frank (Packer)” for supporting McMahon.

A week after Gorton’s sacking, he received a telegram from Packer seeking to heal the rift between them.

“In the lake clear and clean and exhilarating why don’t you join me,” Packer’s telegram said. But Gorton was in no mood for reconciliation. “Hard to believe description of lake accurate under circumstances described,” he replied.

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