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Sir Gordon Freeth (1914–2001)

by John Farquharson

Gordon Freeth had the misfortune to be dogged by one of those ironies of politics. He was remembered not so much for what he did or accomplished as a minister and member of the Menzies, Holt and Gorton governments, but for a remark regarded at the time as a political clanger.

As Minister for External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs) in 1969 he made a parliamentary statement in which he said Australia should not be concerned unduly about the presence of Russian ships and submarines in the Indian Ocean. Then he went on to propose that Australia should consider talking about the situation with the Russians who had indicated they would welcome talks with any of the countries concerned about a peaceful settlement of problems in the area.

With the backing of the departmental head of External Affairs, Jim Plimsoll, Freeth took the view that there was no harm in finding out what the Russians wanted, rather than forever holding them at arms length. But he added the proviso that Australia did not need to go along with what the Russians had in mind. He submitted a draft of the statement to Prime Minister John Gorton, who made a few minor changes, but left the Indian Ocean references untouched. However, at a Cabinet meeting after the statement had been delivered, the Leader of the Country Party (now National Party), John ‘Blackjack’ McEwen, said, ‘What’s this I hear about us going soft on communism?’

The upshot was that in the then prevailing cold-war climate, Freeth came under attack from his own side of politics, the DLP (Democratic Labor Party), and pro-Left elements of the Labor Party, who accused him of ‘trying to be a Chinese communist instead of a Russian communist’. Though Gorton vigorously defended the statement, Freeth was left having to persuade everyone that he hadn’t suddenly turned pro-communist. The controversy incited a certain degree of disaffection in his Forrest electorate with the DLP and the League of Rights campaigning against him. Though this played a part, particularly through loss of DLP preferences, in his subsequent defeat at the October 1969 Federal election, it was not the major cause. According to former Liberal Senator Peter Sim, who campaigned for Freeth, he lost because farmers in the electorate, who were going through a rural recession, ‘thought they’d teach him a bit of a lesson’.

This was another quirk of politics coming into play. All the work he had put into the electorate, his solid, though perhaps not spectacular, ministerial record over five portfolios, was put aside. He later admitted to an interviewer that he had blundered over the Indian Ocean statement in not clearing it with McEwen and in not foreseeing the interpretation that might be put upon it. Nevertheless, Freeth found there was a life after politics, when he was appointed Australian Ambassador to Japan in 1970 until 1973, and then High Commissioner in London from 1977 to 1980. Not bad for a struggling pre-war country solicitor.

Gordon Freeth, who died from a stroke, aged 87, on November 27 in a Perth hospital, where he was being treated after a heart attack, was born in Angaston, South Australia, on August 6, 1914. He attended Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) before moving to Guildford Grammar, in Western Australia. His clergyman father, who was Assistant Bishop of Perth from 1957 to 1963, had been headmaster of Guildford, after earlier heading the Shore preparatory school and being chaplain at The King’s School, Parramatta.

He graduated in law from the University of Western Australia in 1938, the year he rowed in the winning Australian four at the Sydney Empire Games. During the next year he married and set up as a barrister and solicitor at Katanning, WA. In 1942, Sir Gordon became a pilot with the RAAF and, according to wartime associates, a good one, flying Beauforts in New Guinea. When demobilised in 1945, he held the rank of Flight Lieutenant. Back in Katanning, he was prominent in local affairs, before joining the influx of Liberals into Federal Parliament in 1949 as Member for Forrest, a seat that never gave him any trouble until the 1969 poll.

It took him longer to get into the Ministry than to win the personal favour of Sir Robert (then Mr Menzies). For nine years the highest he rose was to the chair of the Commonwealth Immigration Advisory Council. But in December 1958, he broke into the lower rungs of the Ministry as Minister for the Interior and Works. He was highly thought of in his department (then responsible for administering the National Capital), though not as popular with Canberrans. In those days it was an article of political faith that Interior Ministers should reside in Canberra. Sir Gordon took a flat in the city and, though he had left his wife and family in Perth, declared it his principal residence while he held the portfolio. As minister in charge of the ministerial car fleet, he was entitled to an official car at all times. However, he chose to follow Sir Paul Hasluck’s example and acquired a small run-about that he used for shopping and all non-official activities. A sidelight of this was that all ACT cars then had to undergo a mandatory pre-registration mechanical check. Knowing the minister’s car when it came through, staff at the testing station took delight in finding any fault they could. The result was the car seldom got through on the first check.

When Sir Gordon took up the Interior portfolio, it was regarded as a ‘hot potato’ as his two predecessors, Sir Wilfrid Kent Hughes and Sir Allen Fairhall, had had comparatively short tenures before being moved on by Prime Minister Menzies. However, Freeth, who also became Minister Assisting the Attorney-General in 1961, held it until 1963 when he became Minister for Shipping and Transport. He continued in that portfolio in the Holt Ministry until appointed Minister for Air and Minister Assisting the Treasurer in 1968. He took over from Hasluck at External Affairs in February 1969, having acted on six occasions in the portfolio during the previous year.

In many respects, 1969 was a hectic year for External Affairs. Apart from visiting six Asian countries and the United States and engaging in bilateral consultations with each of them, he went to the UN General Assembly, chaired a meeting of the Five Powers concerned with the defence of Singapore and Malaysia and represented Australia at an ANZUS Council meeting. As well as parliamentary duties there were routine departmental matters to deal with, including some re-organisational proposals he had put to Plimsoll.

He was fiercely partisan in Parliament, but had all the Anglican virtues of hard work and fair play in his private dealings and strength in his public stances. Abroad he was thoughtful for his staff and impressive when meeting people, for both his physical stature and general demeanour. His frank cards-on-the-table approach also went down well. A keen rather than a good debater, he came into open conflict at times with McEwen and Liberal colleague Edward St John. Something of a physical fitness fanatic, he could do 10 press-ups on his fingertips. Apart from rowing, in which he excelled, he had a zeal for boxing (light-weight division), squash, running, swimming and golf, which he was still playing until a few years ago.

Freeth was created a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) in the New Year honours of 1978. While his political career was not spectacular, he made a fair contribution in all the portfolios he held, particularly at Interior and Air. He was unfortunate in that his time at External Affairs, which offered scope for him to make perhaps his greatest contribution, was cut short through the vagaries of the polls.

His wife, Joan, who was a great support throughout his career, but particularly in his overseas postings, died in 1997.  Twin daughters, a son and their families survive him.

Sir Gordon Freeth, born Angaston, South Australia, August 6, 1914; died Perth November 27, 2001.

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John Farquharson, 'Freeth, Sir Gordon (1914–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 April 2024.

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