Success In Failure

29 April 2019
Success In Failure - Featured image

An excellent biography finally provides an opportunity to fairly evaluate Billy McMahon’s legacy, argues IPA Senior Fellow Richard Allsop.

An argument can be made for Saturday, 2 December, 1972, being the highpoint of Billy McMahon’s Prime Ministership.

That may seem a strange thing to say about the day McMahon led the Coalition to defeat after 23 years in government, but there are a couple of reasons why this is arguably the case.

The Coalition Government already was in poor shape when McMahon became Prime Minister in March 1971, and the chances of electoral success against a newly credible Labor Opposition under Gough Whitlam always were remote.

The reasonably narrow margin of McMahon’s defeat is thus in some ways more surprising than the defeat. McMahon restricted the swing to the ALP to 2.5 per cent, a more modest figure than when any other government has lost power federally since World War II. In 1972, the Liberals even managed to win four seats from Labor, producing a final margin of just nine seats in Whitlam’s favour, underlining that this change of government was not a landslide.

The other way in which election day 1972 represented one of McMahon’s better days as Prime Minister was the manner of his concession that night. The quiet dignity with which McMahon accepted defeat was exemplary, as he gave a speech which Whitlam later described as “a brief, brave television appearance of memorable charm and grace”.

The fact one can mount an argument for electoral defeat being the highpoint of McMahon’s time in the highest office underscores the point there were not too many successes in his Prime Ministership. Furthermore, history does not recall McMahon presiding over a tired government that slipped to a respectable defeat after an unprecedentedly long period in power. Posterity’s judgement is much harsher. McMahon has become the by-word for failure in Australian politics, often derided as the nation’s worst-ever Prime Minister. There has been a surge of this commentary in recent years, as McMahon’s memory has been invoked by those seeking a negative point of reference to denigrate one of the passing parade of contemporary Prime Ministers.

Now, to add a little further insult, when a biography of McMahon is finally published the title, Tiberius with a Telephone, is derived from a mocking line delivered by Whitlam. That is not to say the title is unfair, because the evidence is overwhelming that McMahon was constantly on the telephone talking to colleagues and the press, putting his own, often inaccurate, gloss on events. However, it should not be inferred from the title that this biography is a hatchet-job. In fact, Canberrabased academic Patrick Mullins tries hard to be fair to McMahon, for instance, demolishing some of the canards about McMahon’s relationship with his wife Sonia.

McMahon came to the Prime Ministership following a ballot at which his predecessor John Gorton voted himself out of office, after the initial vote was tied. However, McMahon’s prospects in the job were cruelled when Gorton accepted a nomination for deputy leader. After a few months, Gorton was removed from this role, but his ongoing presence was always a problem and a lightning rod for other McMahon critics.

Circumstances seem to constantly conspire against McMahon. He criticised Whitlam’s approach to China, only to have President Richard Nixon announce that the United States’ position was changing in a similar way. Equally poorly-timed was Frank Packer selling the Sydney Daily Telegraph in mid-1972. Packer, and his most prominent journalist Alan Reid, had provided unstinting support to McMahon throughout his political career, but this would not continue through to the 1972 election. To compound McMahon’s disappointment, the paper was sold to Rupert Murdoch, who always had disliked McMahon and strongly supported Labor in the campaign.

William and Sonia McMahon with their children, visit Prime Minister Gough Whitlam at The Lodge in 1975

This is not to say McMahon did not contribute to his own failure as Prime Minister. He struggled to decide what direction he would take on a whole range of issues, whether long-running problems, such as the Vietnam War, or new events such as the erection of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front of Parliament House. His government handed down a reasonably responsible Budget in 1971, but a big-spending one in 1972, the latter increasing expenditure by 11.6 per cent, with the largesse including a promise to remove the means-test on pensions within three years.

This budget somewhat spoiled the best defence of McMahon, which is that in an era when expansion of the size of government and protectionism were flavour of the month, he was economically literate and an early proponent of the nascent revival of free trade.

As a relatively new MP, McMahon had articulated some coherent thoughts on liberalism. Delivering a paper to the Australian Institute of Political Science in 1953, he argued for “the need to preserve the ‘essential civil freedoms’ of speech and worship, assembly and association, of choice of occupation, of management of income and property”. McMahon’s 20-year ministerial career provided examples of his sticking to these philosophical beliefs. When, after the Coalition’s narrow escape at the 1961 Federal Election, Prime Minister Menzies proceeded to adopt many of the populist polices the ALP had taken to the poll, McMahon was the one minister to complain in Cabinet “that we can’t keep implementing Labor policies that we condemned at the election”.

Country Party leader John McEwen’s veto of McMahon as a candidate for Liberal leadership after Harold Holt’s disappearance, was in large part due to McMahon being the one senior Cabinet minister to regularly oppose McEwen’s protection-for-everyone mantra. A perfect example of their differences was subsequently provided by hot water bottles. The manufacturer of hot water bottles, Ansell, whose product sales were being impacted by the growing popularity of electric blankets, referred their situation to the Tariff Board, which to its credit decided there were no grounds to prop up an inefficient local manufacturer. Trade Minister McEwen rejected his own board’s findings, prompting McMahon to suggest that maybe the government “should be calming down on tariffs”.

Sonia McMahon with first lady Pat Nixon, White House, 1971

McMahon also at times displayed adept and courageous political judgement. For instance, during the Suez Crisis in 1956, he was one of only two Cabinet supporters of External Affairs Minister Richard Casey’s realistic assessment of how the crisis would play out, with the United States Government eventually ruling out the use of force to get the Suez back off Egyptian President Nasser. The rest of his colleagues went along with Menzies’ adherence to the British Government’s more bellicose position.

Yet, adopting minority policy positions was only an element of what made McMahon unpopular with many colleagues. He had a great capacity to annoy them in a myriad of ways, most notably by his perennial leaking to the newspapers. McMahon knew he was disliked, but ascribed it to his being a harder worker who often knew more about matters in colleagues’ portfolios than they did. Mullins comments that McMahon’s “inability to recognise how and why people disliked him was a conspicuous failing”.

Tiberius with a Telephone considers a number of factors in McMahon’s early life which may have contributed to his flawed personality. One intriguing suggestion which Mullins explores is that McMahon is an example of the Phaeton Complex, a concept developed by British historian Lucille Iremonger, who noted that two-thirds of British Prime Ministers lost a parent in childhood or early adolescence. McMahon’s mother died from tuberculosis when he was just nine, and he had a distant relationship with his father, who in turn died when McMahon was 18.

Some revealing anecdotes from McMahon’s youth capture aspects of his developing character, such as his tenacious and ultimately successful pursuit of a place in the Sydney Grammar rowing eight, a position he was never likely to achieve from natural ability.

McMahon’s adult life before becoming the member for Lowe at the age of 41 in 1949 is not covered in great detail in this biography, but Mullins provides a graphic insight into what he was like as a grumpy old man. Between each chronological chapter of the biography, Mullins inserts interludes which describe McMahon’s efforts in the 1980s to turn his own interminably long drafts of his memoirs into a workable book. The pathos of the situation becomes truly bizarre when we learn McMahon sought out left-wing journalist Phillip Adams for assistance. In turn, Adams gave the manuscript to Labor MP Barry Jones for advice. Jones read it, concluded it was “dreadful”, then lost it. The memoirs were never published.

The appearance of a biography has taken 30 years since McMahon’s death. Mullins wrote without access to the vast archive of McMahon’s papers, or the cooperation of his family. He has done an excellent job, providing enough arguments both ways for readers to make up their own minds whether McMahon was, or was not, Australia’s worst Prime Minister.

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