It was his way that did it

Tony Smith, The University of Sydney

Ian Hancock, Sir John Gorton: He Did It His Way Hodder Headline Australia, 2002 (446 pp.) ISBN 0-73361-439-6 (hardback) RRP $50.00.

Biographers researching and writing the lives of Australia’s 25 Prime Ministers could safely assume that they were dealing with interesting material. In the case of John Grey Gorton, the nineteenth national Head of Government, Ian Hancock found a character whose life was remarkable for its individuality rather than because of its conformity to conventional attainments. Gorton believed that political office should be used to pursue ideals and this meant taking risks, failing sometimes, and making enemies. Gorton was a nationalist and an adventurous spirit who insisted on behaving naturally. He did not suffer fools gladly. When he concluded that the Liberal-Country Party Government could not survive under his leadership these attitudes led Gorton to vote himself from office.

This is an official biography. At the date of publication, Gorton was one of five surviving ex-Prime Ministers (Gorton 1968–71, Gough Whitlam 1972–5, Malcolm Fraser 1975–83, Bob Hawke 1983–91, Paul Keating 1991–6), but nothing about the book suggests that Hancock felt constrained by the subject looking over his work. It is a balanced account; not sanitised and certainly not hagiographic. Hancock defends Gorton against some criticisms, pointing out for example that when senior colleagues Paul Hasluck and Garfield Barwick expressed doubts about Gorton’s ministerial abilities to Prime Minister Robert Menzies, their comments were hardly objective and unbiased. Elsewhere, however, Hancock concludes that some accounts have been too kind. He notes, for example, that the judge in a civil action over Gorton’s fruit co-operative brought by Jean Campbell, his late father’s de facto wife who claimed an interest in the business, took a very benign view of some of the then newly elected Senator’s business practices.

Hancock notes the influence of luck and opportunity, rather than waxing lyrical about Gorton’s abilities. Interestingly, some of the perspectives that downplay Gorton’s successes came from conversations with Gorton himself. Critics constantly referred to Gorton as stubborn, but he seems to have been remarkably self-effacing. Gorton is a person of some charm, regarded with respect and affection even by ideological opponents, so Hancock has maintained his objectivity admirably to produce an account that might well be described as ‘warts and all’.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the chapter on Gorton’s birth and childhood. In 1911, birth records were not maintained strictly, and it is possible that Gorton’s certificate was marked ‘John Alga Gordon’. Gorton’s father John Rose Gorton was living with Alice Sinn, the future Prime Minister’s mother, but elsewhere had a wife who refused to divorce him. Gorton was the second child of John Rose and Alice. His elder sister lived with John Rose Gorton’s wife. Alice, whose photograph shows a strikingly handsome woman, died of tuberculosis at 32 when Gorton was only nine. Much of his childhood then involved absence from his father at boarding schools including Sydney’s Shore and Geelong Grammar.

All biographers must consider whether the mature tree grew as the twig was bent. Perhaps the necessity to be emotionally independent in childhood inculcated in Gorton a determination to get on with life and a reluctance to dwell on setbacks. According to many reports, Gorton had scant concern for his own physical safety. This led him into dangerous situations including several crash landings as an Air Force pilot, but helped him to survive them as well. His childhood experiences may have influenced his thinking on family law and given him a down to earth attitude to matters such as abortion (Gorton rejected ‘compulsory pregnancy’), drug law reform, funding for Catholic schools, and republicanism. His origins might also have played some part in his rejection by the establishment, particularly the Melbourne Club, and in his bitter relationship with Malcolm Fraser, the son of a wealthy Western Districts grazing family.

Hancock notes the influence of luck and opportunity, rather than waxing lyrical about Gorton’s abilities.

Gorton certainly kept a sense of proportion about such matters. After Gorton removed himself from the Prime Ministership journalist Alan Reid in The Gorton Experiment described him as a ‘bastard’ by birth. In his response in a newspaper article, Gorton said that while he had that status thrust upon him by his parents, many people believed that Reid had earned the title by accepting the riding instructions of Sir Frank Packer.

The story of Gorton’s abdication is typical of his unpredictable approach. When the party suffered reversals in the 1969 general election, his Government was beset by discontent, both among backbenchers and within Cabinet. The Liberal Party of the day was undergoing rapid change in personnel and, following the stable years under Menzies, some experienced Members clearly thought that they deserved senior positions. Gorton, however, promoted younger members like Andrew Peacock and Don Chipp. Those thereby alienated became so bent on white-anting the Government that they became known as the ‘termites’.

Gorton’s most severe critics were his overt challengers, David Fairbairn and Peter Howson. However, Gorton realized that William McMahon—who eventually succeeded him—was the biggest threat to his leadership. With the wisdom of hindsight, several observers have suggested that Gorton should have eliminated McMahon from Cabinet. There were ample grounds: McMahon was a well-known leaker of matters of Cabinet confidentiality. However, McMahon had the support of the Sydney media, which already regarded the Victorian influence in the Government with suspicion.

Plotters in the parliamentary wing were urged on by some State Premiers and Liberal branches. Gorton had alarmed the federalist party by taking actions that smacked of Labor-style centralism. He aggravated State concerns over finance, a perennial issue in the federal relationship and moved to seize control over the continental shelf and seabeds. The legislation was stalled in 1970 but the Labor Government re-introduced it in 1973. While the Liberal Opposition did not oppose the bill, it moved an amendment condemning Labor’s failure to consult the States. Gorton stated plainly that he would not support the amendment and had the satisfaction of seeing it defeated easily.

Fears about Gorton’s centralist tendencies were increased by what was seen as an autocratic style. The U.S. Secretary of State described him as a ‘lone wolf’ and internal party critics accused him of acting as a ‘one man band’. When he moved quickly to ensure that ownership of the M.L.C. insurance company did not fall into foreign hands, he was accused of bypassing Cabinet and presenting his colleagues with a fait accompli.

Gorton had alarmed the federalist party by taking actions that smacked of Labor-style centralism.

Such criticisms of a Liberal leader are surprising. The Party generally allows its parliamentary wing to formulate policy and grants the leader considerable autonomy, contrasting this approach with the control of Labor parliamentarians by ‘faceless’ party officials and the Labor leader’s status as a first among equals. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion, then, that the Liberal discontent arose less from Gorton’s style than from other factors that distinguished him from Menzies and Holt. Likely explanations include personal animosity and concern about the directions Gorton was taking.

Gorton himself believed that a leader’s wishes should be followed and he openly admired strong leadership. When Fraser became leader in 1974, Gorton expressed his general disapproval: he regarded Fraser as extremely right wing, and besides, by then, their relationship had deteriorated beyond repair. But he conceded that Fraser would be a strong leader.

Hancock clarifies the muddled situation that provided the catalyst for Gorton’s demise. While Fraser was Minister for Defence (1969–71), Australia had separate ministries for the Army, Navy, and Airforce. As Australia began withdrawing its forces from Vietnam, it adopted a policy of ‘Vietnamisation’ that included ‘civic action’ projects such as small-scale infrastructure works. Whether it was a result of poor communication or of over-reaction on Fraser’s part, the Defence Minister created the impression that the Army was undermining the policy. Some journalists certainly reported as much.

Gorton, as would be expected of any leader, sought to become better informed and spoke directly to military personnel and the media. Alan Ramsey wrote a story implying that given a chance in an interview, Gorton had declined to squash the rumour that there was a major rift between Fraser and the Army. Fraser resigned, accusing Gorton of disloyalty to a Minister and supported his action with accusations in the House about a dictatorial style that refused to accept advice. Fraser shocked Gorton by claiming to be particularly disturbed when in response to growing civil unrest in Papua New Guinea, Gorton had mobilized the Pacific Islands Regiment.

Gorton might well have countered Fraser successfully in Parliament, but when he described his interview with Ramsey, the journalist shouted ‘You liar’ from the gallery. The next day, 67 Liberals met in the party room. Gorton’s supporters were so confident that they had the numbers that they made two crucial errors. They did not bother to recall a member who was absent ill and they moved confidence in Gorton instead of forcing his opponents to declare their hand. The voting came in at 33 each and one informal. At this point Gorton declared that he was using his casting vote to oust himself. It was later discovered that he had no such vote under party rules.

The spectacular end to Gorton’s tenure balanced its bizarre beginning. He had become Prime Minister when the incumbent Harold Holt disappeared while swimming in the sea just before Christmas 1967. The Country Party ruled out serving under McMahon because of long-held animosity, and Gorton defeated Paul Hasluck in the final ballot. Gorton then moved from the Senate to Holt’s seat of Higgins.

The spectacular end to Gorton’s tenure balanced its bizarre beginning.

Hancock gives a sound analysis of the reasons for Gorton’s demise. While his opponents spoke of him destroying himself and being temperamentally unsuited, the real problems concerned the political context. Gorton was barely prepared for high office by the portfolio responsibilities that he had been given and he had no period as deputy or as opposition leader in which to gain experience. The Liberal Party had difficulties adjusting to changes in the world, Australian society, and its own diminishing grip on power. Another individual would have handled the situation differently, but that does not mean ‘better’. It just means that different mistakes would have been made.

It is a strength of Hancock’s approach that in 400 pages he speculates so seldom about what might have been. Perhaps things might have been different had Gorton sacked McMahon sooner or called an election in 1968 when his popularity was high and there was civil unrest in the streets over the Vietnam War. Perhaps if John Gorton had not been John Gorton that might have helped too. Books too can be criticized for what they might have included, but while some readers might like more detail about some aspects of Gorton’s story, this work is extremely well balanced and maintains its pace effectively. There are very few occasions when the reader wants to skip ahead or when more information seems warranted.

Generally Hancock resists the temptation to engage in psychoanalytical retro-explanations. He lets Gorton’s memories, which seem modest and realistic, and the recollections of others speak for themselves. Interestingly, while Gorton served with distinction as a prefect at Geelong his reference was hardly glowing. Personal acquaintances looking back on Gorton’s career expressed similar frustrations about traits that prevented him achieving to the extent of his obviously great potential.

One pleasing aspect of the book is that Hancock deals sensibly with rumours about Gorton’s personal behaviour, and particularly those concerning his relationships with women. Three women—a journalist, his secretary and his first wife—feature prominently in Gorton’s story. His escorting of young journalist Geraldine Willesee to a late night meeting at the United States Embassy fuelled rumours and instigated a campaign by Warringah M.P. Edward St John to remove him. It is impossible to calculate the damage this caused Gorton in the eyes of colleagues. It does not seem to have affected his popularity with the public, but it did ensure that media scrutiny was henceforth much more intense.

Hancock gives a balanced comment about Gorton’s secretary Ainsley Gotto. He argues that Gotto almost certainly had some influence on her boss, but that many of Gorton’s senior colleagues over-estimated it and were resentful. As a Minister for Education and for the Navy Gorton was widely respected by public servants for being prepared to roll up his sleeves and take advice down the line. In almost every case his appointments were astute, such as those of Lenox Hewitt (Secretary, Prime Minister’s Department) and Tony Eggleton (initially the Navy’s public relations officer).

Hancock lets Gorton’s memories and the recollections of others speak for themselves.

While studying at Oxford (1932–35), Gorton took holidays in Spain where he developed disdain for fascism. There he met American Betty Brown and they married soon after. They falsified her date of birth to satisfy the law and because Gorton did not have his college’s permission they spent their wedding night apart. Despite this inauspicious beginning they were together for half a century. Hancock tells simply the story of how Betty kept the orchard going while John was at war, but it was clearly no small achievement.

There is only one line among the thousands that has too little supporting evidence. Hancock says that ‘Gorton did fall short of becoming a great Prime Minister’ (p. 401). A biographer who knows more about the subject than any other living person can be expected to venture such assessments. Hancock’s thorough research and objective analysis may justify his offering this opinion, but it is disappointing that he gives no criteria for measuring Gorton’s performance. This is a minor problem, however, in a work that skillfully combines a chronological account of the public life, interest in the private Gorton, and in-depth analysis of critical issues.

After ‘losing’ the leadership, Gorton remained Deputy Leader and got the Defence portfolio vacated by Fraser. When Gorton replied to Reid’s book, however, McMahon accused him of breaching Cabinet solidarity and sacked him. Gorton contested the 1972 and 1974 elections but left the party to contest unsuccessfully the Senate for the Australian Capital Territory in 1975. As a backbencher and in post-parliamentary broadcasts, Gorton expressed opinions that were clear and strong, even if they provide some curious contrasts. On issues such as homosexual law reform Gorton was a model ‘small-l’ liberal, but as an assimilationist he held politically incorrect views on the Mabo case and Aboriginal land rights. Hancock points out that Gorton’s most basic motivation was nationalism, and the final words of the book are ‘a great Australian’.

Gorton puzzled many commentators who found him to be an enigma. Senior Melbourne Age correspondent Alan Barnes told Hancock that he felt like shouting from the gallery ‘Will the real John Gorton please stand up?’ Hancock, while rejecting the media’s desire for oversimplification, shows that some contemporaries failed to examine Gorton closely and objectively. The reader will find it instructive to ponder June Mendoza’s portrait of Gorton supplied as one of many excellent photographs. Here is a hint of the larrikin streak that put the twinkle in Gorton’s eye. Had the British press known Gorton’s inner thoughts during a royal visit in 1970, they might not have over-reacted when Paul Keating dared to touch Her Majesty twenty years later. Gorton, as a guest on the royal yacht was watching various people being tossed playfully overboard. The Prime Minister ‘glanced at the Queen who was sitting next to him, paused, and thought better of it’ (p. 255).

Readers with an academic interest will follow up works listed in the useful bibliography. The book is well documented and based on numerous interviews with parliamentarians, journalists, and public servants. The inclusion as an appendix of Gorton’s first political speech at Mystic Park on 3 April 1946 shows that ‘his way’ aimed towards high ideals. Hancock’s plotting of the journey shows the reader a great deal about this complex character. Perhaps an even more important achievement is that the book lays bare the political context that set the boundaries on Gorton’s achievements. Few figures in our short national political history have been large enough to stretch and challenge those boundaries rather than tread safely within them. Ian Hancock’s biography should ensure that history numbers John Gorton among those few.

Tony Smith is Associate Lecturer in Government and International Relations in the School of Economics and Political Science, The University of Sydney.

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