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Gorton, Sir John Grey (1911–2002)

by John Farquharson

John Gorton "had an attractive, knock-about egalitarianism which resonated powerfully with a great many Australians."

That is the view of someone from the other side of politics - Bill Hayden, who made the comment during his term as Governor-General. Mr Hayden admitted to having had, and retaining, a "considerable affection for Gorton," a sentiment which seems to have endured down the years and is probably still shared by a fair proportion of the Australian people. It was certainly a sentiment shared by Canberra people for a man who lived in their midst, as any other resident, in his suburban home in Hamlin Crescent, Narrabundah. They were apt to run into him at the Fyshwick markets, see him around the Manuka shops or encounter him out walking with his dog. He was a familiar, friendly, informal figure, as well as being a ready resource for journalists wanting a comment on a political development or some other issue of the day.

For John Grey Gorton, 19th Prime Minister of Australia, who died on 19 May 2002 in St. Vincent's Hospital, Sydney, with his ardent nationalism and "ordinary bloke" image, seems likely to be cast in the folk-hero tradition as he has become regarded more as a man just slightly ahead of his time, rather than the maverick many of his opponents and critics saw him as during his turbulent prime ministership.

But that was not the general perception of him when he himself dropped the axe which cut off his prime ministerial head on that fateful day of 9 March 1971.

For with the Liberal Party divided 33-all on a vote of confidence in his leadership, after Malcolm Fraser had made his power play to oust him as Prime Minister, Gorton exercised his casting vote against himself and paved the way for Billy McMahon to achieve his long-held ambition and become Prime Minister, while Malcolm Fraser waited for another day.

But there is no doubt that by rejecting Gorton when it did, the Liberal Party ushered in 20 years or so of leadership instability for itself, with the exception of Fraser's five years as Prime Minister. In this context, a further remark that formed part of Mr Hayden's assessment of Gorton, takes on added significance, "If the Liberal Party had realised how popular he was with so many mainstream Australians in electorates the Liberals needed to hold and, in other cases, wanted to win, they may have hesitated about precipitating his political end."

Such an appraisal conjures up one of the great imponderables of Australian politics — what course events may have taken had the "Gorton experiment," as veteran political correspondent the late Alan Reid dubbed it, not been cut short by Gorton's own hand. One of the most intriguing aspects of that question is whether Gough Whitlam would have won office for Labor in 1972 had Gorton remained Prime Minister. For Malcolm Fraser, among others, has painted Gorton as a precursor to Whitlam. Certainly Gorton's policies and approach, together with his readiness to challenge many Liberal traditions, cast him in a much broader and more flexible mould that any of his Liberal predecessors.

Initially, Gorton undoubtedly brought a breath of fresh air into the counsels of government. And it was just that quality that led certain elements within the Liberal Party to look to him when an opportunity presented itself. Some soundings in this direction had already been taken by three comparatively junior Liberals — Senator Malcolm Scott, Government Whip in the Senate, Dudley Erwin, Chief Government Whip, and Malcolm Fraser, Minister for the Army.

Though he was Government Leader in the Senate, to which he had been elected in 1949, and had held a number of portfolios under Menzies and then Holt, Gorton would probably have remained a minor political figure but for that tragic accident on 17 December 1967 when the Prime Minister, Harold Holt, disappeared, presumed drowned, in the boisterous Portsea surf. With a new leader needed, Malcolm Scott, Dudley Erwin and Malcolm Fraser, had their chance to launch their campaign to put Gorton into the top job. They saw Gorton as a "with-it" Prime Minister — typically Australian, fond of grog and a party — in short "one of the boys" who was not afraid to question accepted ways of getting things done. They believed that such an image would have a much more durable and broader electoral appeal than (Sir) Paul Hasluck, who was regarded as the most obvious and logical successor to Holt, certainly in terms of seniority.

The audacious campaign of the "young-Turk" triumvirate worked and Gorton was precipitated into the Prime Ministership — the first serving senator to be elected to the position. But he had to transfer to the House of Representatives, a move which he effected by standing for Holt's seat of Higgins, and winning it with a record majority.

Though not exactly young, the new Prime Minister, gregarious by habit, wilful by temperament and an orchardist by occupation, brought with him a sense of a generational change. Gorton wanted his party to show more concern for issues of social justice and equal educational opportunities — sensing the electoral appeal that proposals of this sort were winning for the rehabilitated Labor Party under Whitlam. But Gorton was not always subtle in the way he went about things, upsetting the conservative "old-guard" of Liberals who were not convinced of the need for such great changes. Moreover, his strident nationalism and questioning of foreign investment was at variance with the mood in the country's power-broking circles at the time. Many of his colleagues were drawn to him because they saw the political advantages of his "ordinary bloke" style, while others were not ready for his way of doing things.

There was, too, much that was paradoxical about Gorton. He had a mixed family background and what Menzies described as "an unfortunate upbringing." He was illegitimate by birth and had to contend with difficult family circumstances in his tender years, including the death of his mother when he was aged seven. But he was the product of two of the country's prestigious schools — Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) and Geelong Grammar School — and a Master of Arts of Oxford University, where he majored in history, economics and political science. He was a member of the elite Melbourne Club. On the other hand, he was a down-to-earth countryman on his orchard at Mystic Park, in the Kerang district of Victoria, which he had taken over on his father's death. It was there that he first became involved in politics, serving as a Kerang Shire councillor and then as Shire President. And at that time, when it counted for something in public life, Gorton was an ex-serviceman with a distinguished war record as an RAAF fighter pilot. The war had cost Gorton his good looks, his facing having to be rebuilt after coming into collision with the instrument panel of his bullet-damaged aircraft. His craggy and crumpled face owed much to the plastic surgeon's skill. Though he appreciated the traditional significance and practical value of a certain degree of formal ceremony, he disliked unnecessary pomp and fussiness, being more at home in a pub with the Mystic Park locals gathered around him than in a palace. And once he was in office, the Liberal Party soon discovered that its new parliamentary leader had no intention of accepting the shibboleths of the past. Despite the electoral attractiveness of his refreshing individualism, his colleagues soon found that with him at the helm, life was not comfortable. And within a few months of his election, there arose the question of the new Prime Minister's personal style.

He got into trouble for taking a 19-year-old journalist, Geraldine Willesee, daughter of Labor Senator Don Willesee, to the American Embassy for a drink in the early hours of the morning after a Press Gallery dinner. The American Ambassador had suggested he drop by to discuss aspects of America's involvement, in Vietnam: but it was alleged that during the visit Gorton paid more attention to Miss Willesee than to the Ambassador. Another point of criticism from within his own party ranks was the power said to have been wielded by his personal secretary, Ainsley Gotto, who had joined his staff after being secretary to Dudley Erwin. There was also speculation about the precise nature of the personal relationship between the PM and his attractive and vivacious staffer, as well as allegations that he had made a pass at Liza Minelli, the American singing star, in her dressing room at Chequers nightclub in Sydney. Both the Willesee and Minelli instances were to lead to the crusade of Edward St John, QC, the austere Liberal Member for Warringah, against him. Though he survived this, it was not forgotten when the ledger of his so-called "misdeeds" was made up later, after he had fallen out with Dudley Erwin and Malcolm Fraser.

Qualms were not only surfacing in the Liberal Party over his personal life, but also over various policy stances. He tended to operate outside normal Cabinet procedures, and was accused of one-man government; though in fact he leant a good deal on the Secretary of the Prime Minister's Department, Sir Lenox Hewitt. Then there were his centralist proclivities in a party of hardline States-righters, which led to clashes with entrenched Premiers such as Sir Henry Bolte and Bob Askin of NSW, at the height of their powers. Where defence was concerned, Gorton believed in "fortress Australia", whereas forward defence had long been a pillar of the Coalition's approach to national and international security. This vacillation over defence issues put him offside with the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). Gorton did not give the same weight to relations with the DLP as his predecessors despite its pivotal role in keeping Coalition governments in power since the ALP split of 1955.

On top of that, although it retained office, the Coalition under Gorton lost ground in the 1969 elections, having its majority cut from 38 to seven. The Gorton experiment had not succeeded completely, but nor had it failed. Though he won the subsequent leadership challenge mounted by David Fairbairn and McMahon — reportedly only narrowly — Gorton had to face a troubled electoral aftermath as rumblings against him continued. Against this background Gorton made an effort to school himself into the mould of a more conventional politician and by February 1971 was seemingly unassailable in his leadership after having crushed a series of rebellions in the ranks. But he underestimated the power of the forces operating against him outside the Parliamentary Liberal Party and a month later, by 10 March, Gorton was no longer Prime Minister.

Had he not been so unpredictable and wilful, more a compromising politician rather than a confrontationist who went out to get things done his way, he might have been second only to Menzies as one of the Liberal Party's greatest sons. As it was, he probably overplayed the larrikin image and would not accept the discipline and exercise the patience necessary, nor adjust his private lifestyle, to win over his colleagues and others when forces within his own party — both parliamentary and organisational — began to be ranged against him.

Though Australians expected certain decorum and responsibility in their Prime Ministers, their tolerance of Gorton suggests that they saw in him a politician who was prepared to do it differently and with a genuine sensitivity to peoples' problems. For instance, he helped to facilitate settlement of the Bougainville copper land dispute of 1969, by meeting the Bougainvillean leaders (Paul Lapun and Raphael Bele) listening to their arguments and finally agreeing that they could deal directly with the company, instead of through the PNG Administration, and negotiate the best terms they could. He arranged for an independent lawyer and an accountant to help them.

At another level there was Gorton's warm spontaneity and his readiness to take the unexpected but winning course. Alan Trengrove, in his informal biography of Gorton, tells the story of the woman with the small daughter who approached Tony Eggleton (Gorton's press secretary) in King's Hall wanting to know if it would be long before Gorton left his office. Her daughter had picked some wildflowers and wanted to give them to him as he went home. When Eggleton mentioned this to Gorton he wanted to know why the little girl was not already in his office. Soon mother and daughter were ushered in for the flowers to be presented and for photographs to be taken with the girl's box camera.

After he voted himself out of his prime ministerial job, Gorton beat all the odds by contesting and easily winning the deputy leadership. He served in the McMahon Ministry as Defence Minister but was out five months later over controversy surrounding publication of a series of newspaper articles, "I Did it My Way". In the 1975 elections Gorton stood as an independent Senate candidate in the ACT, but was not elected and he never again sought office.

Though she never sought the limelight, Gorton's American-born wife Bettina, of Maine, whom he married in 1935, was quietly supportive throughout his political career. She died in 1983 aged 68. They had two sons and a daughter. In July 1993 Gorton, then aged 81, remarried. His bride, whom he had known for 25 years, was Nancy Home, widow of Commander Ian Macgregor who died in the 1964 Voyager collision.

Certainly, no prime minister has created such controversy in such a brief term of office (about three years) as John Gorton. Nor has any had his private lifestyle and political leadership so scrutinised and assessed — mostly unfavourably at the time — by commentators and opponents. Perhaps the time has come for a reappraisal of the man who, obliquely mocking Menzies, declared, "I'm Australian to the boot heels."

Original publication

  • Obituaries Australia, by John Farquharson, 2002

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Gorton, Sir John Grey (1911–2002)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 26 October 2016.

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