Sunday, February 8, 2015

Five Minutes of History: John Gorton

I mentioned last week that the sharks were circling Tony Abbott. As conjecture increases about a possible leadership spill next Tuesday, Tony Abbott’s position as Our Leader becomes more tenuous. It’s all a numbers game, increasingly so since the days of JFK’s election. Nonetheless dumping an existing Prime Minister used to be something that was quite rare and extreme; now it seems to be more commonplace: Rudd, Gillard, Abbott.

I am reminded, however, of the time that John Gorton, then Prime Minister, was challenged for the leadership.

The man:

Gorton was a cartoonist’s delight, with his misshapen face and distinctive appearance. Not everyone was aware of how he came to look like that.

John Grey Gorton was the son of Alice Sinn and an orchardist John Rose Gorton. John Snr had split from his wife and had commenced living with Alice, with John Jnr being born in 1911 outside marriage.

John Gorton with mother Alice Sinn

Alice died of tuberculosis when John Jnr was aged 9. Thereafter he was cared for by John Snr’s estranged wife and John Snr’s sister, attending Sydney Church of England Grammar School (where he was a classmate of Errol Flynn) and Geelong Grammar. He then studied in England and obtained his pilot qualification, marrying American Bettina Brown in 1935 (the only Prime Ministerial wife who has been a citizen of another country).  They settled in Australia, taking over his father’s orchard farm.

With the outbreak of WW2, Gorton enlisted in the RAAF and was posted to Malaya. 

John Gorton prior to leaving for war service in 1941

As a result of engine failure he was forced to make an emergency landing during which one of the wheels of the Hurricane he was piloting clipped an embankment, causing the plane to flip. Gorton was not properly restrained and went face first into the gun sight and windscreen, smashing both cheeks and mutilating his nose. He also sustained arm injuries. Gorton was so badly injured that his belongings were taken back to Singapore in the belief that he would not survive. The boat on which he was travelling to Batavia was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and he spent a day on a life raft with little water. Eventually returned to Australia, where he was able to get proper medical treatment, it was found that one of his arm wounds had turned septic.

Before his war service ended he was involved in two further plane crashes. In 1942, he was forced to land due to an incorrectly set fuel cock. Both Gorton and his aircraft were recovered several days later after spending time in the bush. In 1943 his Kittyhawk's engine failed on take off, causing the aircraft to flip at the end of the strip. Gorton was unhurt. He was discharged from service in 1944 and underwent further facial surgery but his facial features could not be fully repaired.

The Prime Minister:

Gorton was elected to the Senate as a Liberal in 1950. From 1958 onward he served in various positions under Prime Ministers Robert Menzies and Harold Holt, including Minister for the Navy from 1958–63, Minister for Works, Minister for the Interior and Minister for Education as well as Leader of the Government in the Senate. 

On 17 December 1967 Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared whilst swimming. His body was never found. The likely replacement was William McMahon but John McEwen, the leader of the National party (then known as the Country Party), which always formed a coalition with the Liberals, declared that he and his party would never serve under McMahon. A reason was never provided, although McEwen said on one occasion that he did not trust him.

John “Black Jack” McEwen

Championed by the Minister for the Army, Malcolm Fraser, Gorton became PM, the only Senator in Australia's history to be Prime Minister and the only Prime Minister to have ever served in the Senate. In accordance with Westminster tradition that the PM should come from the Lower House, he resigned his Senate seat and contested the by-election for Holt’s seat, romping it in with 68% of the vote. He could not vote, being still enrolled in his original seat.

As PM, Gorton distanced Australia from traditional ties with Britain but continued Australia’s involvement in the war in Vietnam at a time when such involvement was becoming increasingly unpopular. 

Gorton with Australian troops in Nui Dat, Vietnam, 1968

Other factors also saw his popularity fall: 
  • He was a poor media performer and public speaker. 
  • The media portrayed him as a fool and incompetent. 
  • The abilities of his opposite number, Gough Whitlam, highlighted his shoirtcomings. 
  • Attention was focused by the media on his fondness for alcohol and women. 
  • Resentment built up within the party on his reliance on his inner circle of advisers, particularly his association with his personal secretary Ainsley Gotto. She had become his PA at age 21. 

Ainsley Gotto and John Gorton

At a cricket match

(Gorton relied on Gotto for political advice. When Minister for the Air Dudley Erwin was omitted from the Ministry following a reshuffle in 1969, Erwin was asked the reason by media representatives. He famously replied “It wiggles, it's shapely and its name is Ainsley Gotto.”)

In the 1969 election, the 45 seat majority was cut to 7 as a result of a 7% swing against the Government.

The leadership challenge:

Gorton was challenged for the leadership by McMahon following the election but it was unsuccessful, the McEwen veto remaining in place. In January 1971 Black Jack retired. His successor, Doug Anthony, declared that the McEwen veto no longer applied.

As the Liberal Party slipped further behind in the polls, Gorton’s earlier supporter, Malcolm Fraser, resigned as Minister for Defence and declared in parliament that Gorton was "not fit to hold the great office of Prime Minister."

Gorton called a Liberal caucus meeting to settle the matter. A motion of confidence in his leadership was tied, 33/33. Under Liberal caucus rules of the time, a tied vote meant the motion was lost, and hence Gorton could have remained as party leader and Prime Minister. Declining to be the head of a party so divided, he cast his chairman’s casting vote against himself, stating “That is not a vote of confidence, so the party will have to elect a new leader."

McMahon was elected leader, and thereby Prime Minister, in the ballot which followed.

Australian television marked the end of Gorton's stormy premiership with a newsreel montage appropriately accompanied by Sinatra's anthem My Way.

In a surprise move, Gorton contested and won the position of Deputy Leader, forcing McMahon to make him Defence Minister. This farcical situation ended within five months when McMahon sacked him for disloyalty.


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Gorton retained his seat in the 1972 "It's time" election that saw Whitlam swept to power.

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In 1973, Gorton moved a motion in Parliament calling for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in Australia. The motion was successful following a conscience vote.

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William McMahon was booted in the 1972 election, his time in office being often eclipsed by the legs of his wife, Sonia. She was 32 when they wed, he was 57. 

International headlines resulted in 1971 when she wore a revealing dress to a White House reception:

(Btw, actor Julian McMahon is the son of William and Sonia)

* * * * * * * *
Malcolm Fraser, who was told in 1983 by Paul Keating that "You look like an Easter Island statue with an arse full of razor blades", became PM when Kerr dismissed the Whitlam government.

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When Fraser became Liberal leader in 1975, Gorton resigned from the party, sat as an independent, and openly campaigned against Fraser, whom he detested. He denounced the dismissal of the Whitlam government by Sir John Kerr, and unsuccessfully stood for an Australian Capital Territory Senate seat at the 1975 election.

* * * * * * * *
Gorton retired to Canberra, where he kept out of the political limelight. However, in March 1983, he congratulated Bob Hawke "for rolling that bastard Fraser" at that year's election. 

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Bettina Gorton died aged about 67 on 2 October 1983, and in 1993 Gorton married Nancy Home. He quietly rejoined the Liberal Party in the 1990s. John Hewson credited himself with "returning Gorton to the fold."

In his old age Gorton was rehabilitated by the Liberals; his 90th birthday party was attended by Prime Minister John Howard. 

Gorton never forgave Fraser; as late as 2002 he told his biographer Ian Hancock that he still could not tolerate being in the same room as Fraser.

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John Gorton died at the age of 90 in Sydney in May 2002.

John and Bettina Gorton at The Lodge

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