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Sir William (Billy) McMahon (1908–1988)

by Jack Waterford

from Canberra Times

Australia has had few politicians who were as essentially competent, technically able, and doggedly persistent as Sir William McMahon, the former Australian Prime Minister who died yesterday. The qualities took him to the top.

Once there, however, the person who spent most of his life preparing for the moment knew scarcely what to do. He could manage—manage well—but did not have an agenda for government apart from just soldiering on. The party which put him there was losing touch and looking for new directions. Just 21 months after his accession, his party lost office for the first time in 23 years.

In those terms, Sir William must be counted a failure. Yet that is not entirely fair. He inherited, from Sir John Gorton, a party in even worse shape than he left it, and his loss in 1972 was not in a landslide that everyone now wrongly remembers. He and his party very nearly hung on. He was a steady and generally successful Minister of the Crown for 21 years — far longer than anyone else in his, or any later, political generation and, if his manner more than occasionally provoked a smile, his views always commanded respect.

Sir William was an orphan, but a substantial heir, soon after his birth in 1908. He spent much of his childhood being shuttled from one relative to another but, if he lacked close family, he certainly had family connections, particularly in the conservative political establishment. His uncle, Sir Samuel Warder, was Lord Mayor of Sydney and a vice-president of the United Australia Party.

He attended Sydney Grammar, then studied law at Sydney University, where he acquired a "playboy" reputation as a free spender, natty dresser and racehorse owner.

He joined the top establishment legal firm of Allen, Allen and Hemsly, and progressed during 12 years to a junior partnership, numbering among his clients both the Commonwealth Bank and the Bank of New South Wales.

In terms of his later political career, what he gained most from this period was a wide field of contacts in business, finance, accountancy and law. At the end of World War II — his deafness had made him unfit for active service and he had served in a staff officer position — he took a degree in economics, and travelled extensively throughout the United States where, he later said, he devoted much of his time to a study of communism and socialism.

The post-war period was a time of considerable political ferment in Australia. Labor wished to build on its political gains of the war and had ambitious plans for reconstruction, particularly in the banking industry.

Sir Robert Menzies was building a new conservative coalition. It used stock slogans such as "free enterprise" and "family", but its particular attractiveness was perhaps mostly the freedom — from rationing, continuing wartime controls and from bureaucracy — it offered, the economy could be revitalised in a way fundamentally different from the Labor path, according to the newly formed Liberal Party.

Sir William had a role in a key issue of the time, as a solicitor for the banks in the bank-nationalisation cases. Not only did the banks defeat in the courts attempts to nationalise them but they mobilised a political campaign which played a major part in the later Liberal victory in 1949.

Sir William was one of the new young men swept into power at that election. He had won preselection for Lowe — a seat he was to hold for 33 years, though less safely in the later ones as its boundaries, in the inner western Sydney suburbs, became caught up with demographic change. The seat fell to Labor when he retired. The men who came in dubbed themselves the Forty-niners; their influence over Australian politics for the next 23 years was to be profound; Sir William, on his retirement, was the last one left.

Sir William went early into the ministry — in July, 1951, as Minister for the Navy and Air, but his rise was steady and unspectacular. He next held Social Services, and later, almost as a Menzies joke against the Country Party, Primary Industry — for Sir William's only contact with agriculture was in seeing racehorses at Randwick. In fact he was remarkably successful in the portfolio. In 1958, he became Minister for Labour and National Service.

Until 1966 it is difficult to identify Sir William with any particular initiative or action, though he was a loyal and steady member of the Menzies Government. Some would remember him for being the person who introduced the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation legislation in 1956, but that was in fact strictly as a surrogate. His chief value to the Government was in his contacts with the financial and business establishment, particularly in Sydney; he long ran the party's most successful intelligence service: one which, on the economy, was as reliable as Treasury's.

When Sir Robert Menzies retired in 1966, Sir William defeated Sir Paul Hasluck for Deputy Leadership of the party and was appointed Treasurer. For the first time he was in the political front line.

His skills, his training, and his personality both fitted and handicapped him in his new role. Sir William was firstly a backroom man: a dealer, a conspirator, a lobbyist; he was never as impressive in the open, however much he was respected for his mastery of his portfolio.

He found himself in the sights of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Country Party Leader, Sir John McEwen. Part of the conflict was institutional — the struggle between Treasury and Trade for control of economic policy — some became quite personal. Sir William was seen by Sir John as having links with a rural pressure group which was embarrassing the Country Party, and with leaking material hostile to Sir John.

When Harold Holt drowned in 1967, Sir William would have been the front-runner for the Prime Ministership had not Sir John publicly blackballed him, saying that the Country Party would not work in coalition with him.

For Sir William, it was a considerable humiliation. But again he showed his capacity in the back room by politicking for Sir John Gorton among his supporters, many of whom would otherwise have voted for Sir Paul Hasluck, and, in the process, retaining Treasury and his Deputy Leadership.

Sir William was a good Treasurer, albeit during a period of international and domestic economic calm, steady growth and low inflation. Not only did he know his field, but his own contacts meant that he was not utterly reliant upon his department for advice.

As Gorton became more confident in power, however, he shifted Sir William, against his will, to Foreign (then External) Affairs — the office that Sir William later claimed to have filled most successfully.

Sir William had little to do with the lead-up to the fall of Gorton. But as the Gorton style of government imploded, he was the obvious beneficiary, and when Gorton, faced with a tied vote of confidence from his own party, stood down, McMahon was the logical successor. The Country Party blackball had been removed, and Sir William, with a reputation of successful, if unspectacular, administration, seemed a good conservative's choice to remove the image of erratic government which had developed under Gorton.

As Prime Minister, Sir William was not a success — though he was far from the failure he was so often later thought. Had the Gorton Government faced the electors at the time Sir William came to power, it would almost certainly have been devastated. Sir William won back a lot of ground, though not quite enough: Whitlam's election in 1972 was a very close thing.

It was not Sir William's abilities which let him down — for his Government was every bit as steady and unspectacular as he had implicitly promised. But the man was never really a leader, and particularly at a time when the party he led was tired and lacking in ideas. He lacked charisma and personal charm. Faced with a Leader of the Opposition in Mr Whitlam who had both, he often looked clumsy, foolish, dull and, particularly, uninspiring.

Sir William had a particular respect for the power of the Press. Virtually every political journalist of the time, every editor, and all of the media proprietors, were used to being telephoned by the Prime Minister, who would argue with their interpretations, push his own views and, not uncommonly, leak material damaging to his opponents. This rarely helped him; indeed it added to his reputation as a "politician" — a back-room dealer and conspirator. The Whitlam "Tiberius with a telephone" jibe especially stung.

The party of McMahon stood for sound administration, but had lost its way. It no longer had a vision of Australia, or, if it did, it differed little from that of the Forty-niners in 1949.

Labor narrowly won office in 1972 in part, at least, because it could offer more concrete ideals.

Out of office, Sir William also was out of the leadership. He stayed in Parliament for another nine years, watching, mostly with alarm, as his party changed its philosophies and looked for new ideas. For much of this, he projected the image of party elder statesman — much more critical of the excesses, or deviances, of his own side, than of the failings of his direct political opponents. Rather like a Ted Heath in the British Thatcher Government.

When the Liberals returned to power in 1975, there was no room for Sir William or his ideas. He still had his contacts with business, and, as ever, bubbled with ideas and plots but no-one was really listening.

He was knighted in 1977, and resigned from Parliament in early 1982, again criticising the Government and causing it a by-election it was to lose.

Sir William married his wife, Sonia, in 1965 and had three children, Melinda, Julian and Deborah.

Original publication

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Citation details

Jack Waterford, 'McMahon, Sir William (Billy) (1908–1988)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 July 2024.

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