The Right Honourable Sir John Gorton GCMG, AC, CH

This is a brief biography of Sir John Gorton and comments about his life.

Gorton

  • Prime Minister from 10 January 1968 to 10 March 1971.
  • Born September 9, 1911 at Melbourne, Victoria.
  • Educated Headford Preparatory School of Sydney Church of England Grammar (‘Shore’) School; Geelong Grammar School; Oxford University.
  • RAAF fighter pilot 1940-44. Severely wounded in place crash.
  • Member Kerang shire Council 1946-52, President 1949-50.
  • Joined the Country Party, but switched to Liberal Party.
  • Defeated for election to Victorian Legislative Council June 1949. Elected to the Senate December 1949. Re-elected 1951, 1953, 1958, 1964.
  • Minister for the Navy (1958-63), Minister Assisting the Minister for External Affairs (March 1960-December 1963), Minister-in-charge of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (February 1962-December 1963), Minister for the Interior (December 1963-March 1964), Minister for Works (December 1963-February 1967), Minister-in-charge of Commonwealth Activities in Education and Research under the Prime Minister (December 1963-December 1966), Minister for Education and Science (December 1966-February 1968), Leader of Government in the Senate (October 1967-February 1968).
  • Elected leader of the Liberal Party January 9, 1968, appointed Prime Minister January 10, 1968. Resigned from the Senate on January 31, 1968, to contest by-election for Higgins on February 24, 1968. Re-elected to Higgins 1969, 1972, 1974.
  • Lost 18 seats at October 25, 1969 general election.
  • Leadership ballot on March 10, 1971, resulting from resignation of Defence Minister Malcolm Fraser, tied 33-33. Gorton opted to vote himself out of the leadership, but was elected deputy leader and became Minister for Defence until August 12, 1971, when he resigned following publication of newspaper articles titled “I Did It My Way”.
  • Served as shadow minister for Urban and Regional Development, Environment and Conservation following election of Whitlam government in December 1972.
  • Resigned from Liberal Party November 1975, following coalition’s blocking of Supply. Stood unsuccessfully as independent Senate candidate in ACT at December 13, 1975 election.
  • Died May 19, 2002 at Sydney, New South Wales.


A selection of comments on John Gorton, Prime Minister of Australia 1968-71:

Speakers in the House of Representatives Condolence Motion (May 27)

  • Prime Minister John Howard:
  • Opposition Leader Simon Crean:
    and text
  • Nationals Leader John Anderson:
  • Deputy Opposition Leader Jenny Macklin:
  • Immigration Minister MP Philip Ruddock:
  • ALP MP Bob McMullan:

Statement from the Prime Minister, John Howard

HowardMay 20, 2002 – The death of Sir John Gorton, Australia’s nineteenth Prime Minister, marks the passing of a proud Australian nationalist and a very distinguished Australian.

John Grey Gorton was born on 9 September 1911 and educated at Geelong Grammar School and Oxford University.

After bravely serving his nation in the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II, he served in Local Government in Victoria and was then elected to the Senate as a Liberal Senator for Victoria in 1949. He remained a Senator until 1968 when he was elected to the federal House of Representatives seat of Higgins, a seat he held for the Liberal Party until his retirement from Parliament in 1975.

He held a number of important ministerial portfolios in the Menzies and Holt Governments. He was the longest serving Minister for the Navy (1958-1963), a fact he proudly reflected on in his later years. Additionally, he assisted the Minister for Foreign Affairs from 1960-1963, was Minister in charge of the CSIRO from 1962-1968, Minister for Works (1963-67), Minister for the Interior (1963-64), Leader of the Government in the Senate (1967-68), Minister for Education and Science (1966-68)(the first federal Minister for Education), and later Minister for Defence in 1971.

John Gorton was commissioned Prime Minister of Australia on 10 January 1968 after he was elected Leader of the Parliamentary Liberal Party following the disappearance of Harold Holt in December 1967. He held that office until 1971.

Sir John’s most conspicuous contribution to the life of the nation as Prime Minister was his determined advancement of the Australian national interest. In particular, he sought to raise the consciousness of all Australians to value what it meant to be an Australian.

He himself was Australian to his bootstraps. A laconic figure, Sir John was his own man who secured for himself the affection and goodwill of the Australian people. He was respected by people from all sides of politics.

As a politician, he exhibited great personal loyalty as well as a deep conviction for the views he held. His firm sense of social justice stemmed from his earliest years as a school student during the Depression and was maintained throughout his life.

Sir John will be remembered for his important contribution to education where he advocated the fair treatment of both government and independent schools and maintained a strong commitment to the quality of Australian universities. He initiated a series of grants for science blocks and vigorously promoted and expanded the Commonwealth Secondary Scholarship Scheme.

His dedication to Australian nationalism also extended to the cultural identification of this country. The Gorton Government provided the first Commonwealth assistance to the Australian film industry, established the National Film and Television Training School and the Australian Council for the Arts.

The circumstances of his departure as Prime Minister have now become part of our political folklore.

He was made a Privy Counsellor in 1968, a Companion of Honour in 1971, a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1977, and a Companion of the Order of Australia in Australia’s bicentennial year, 1988.

I was pleased that an important Government building in Canberra was re-named in his honour in 1999 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his election to Parliament. It was also my privilege to pay to tribute to Sir John at his 90th birthday celebrations in September last year and to launch an important political biography only a few months ago.

As Leader of the Liberal Party I was delighted that at the 1999 meeting of the Federal Council of the Party, Sir John was honoured with a tribute for his outstanding contribution to the Liberal Party, which underscored the Party’s gratitude for the significant role he played.

I last saw Sir John when I visited him in hospital earlier this month.

Together with my wife Janette and on behalf of the Government and people of Australia, I extend our sincere condolences to his wife Nancy, Lady Gorton, and to his family.

The Commonwealth Government has of course offered the family a State Funeral. Details will be announced later.

Through his passing Australia has lost a patriot of incredible fibre and courage.


Statement from the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Crean

CreanMay 20, 2002 – On behalf of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party I today express my deepest condolences on the death overnight of a great Australian, the Rt. Hon. Sir John Grey Gorton GCMG, AC.

Sir John was a man who loved his country deeply, and served the nation magnificently in peace and war.

He fought with great bravery in the defence of his nation in Britain, Malaya and Papua New Guinea, suffering terrible injuries.

He then served Australia in Federal Parliament for 26 years, culminating in his elevation to Prime Minister in 1968 following the disappearance of Harold Holt.

As Prime Minister, Sir John was undoubtedly a man ahead of his time in many areas, and who sought to make both his party, and the nation, more in tune with the times.

A fierce nationalist, he sought to carve out a more independent foreign policy, protect Australian ownership of industry and was the first Prime Minister to recognise the importance of protecting the Great Barrier Reef and promoting Australian arts and culture.

His death overnight, just days after the passing of the last ANZAC, robs the nation of a man whose devotion to Australia was unquestioned.

I extend my deepest sympathies to Sir John’s widow and his three children from his first marriage to Bettina.


He Led, But They Did Not Follow Him

by Bruce Juddery [Canberra Times]

May 21, 2002 – Gorton’s own downfall came with startling swiftness, only weeks after McEwen retired in January 1971. Tensions had been mounting for some time between Malcolm Fraser, Defence Minister, and Army Minister Andrew Peacock. On March 1, in a private conversation, the Defence Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Thomas Daly, assured him of his full support in any conflict with the senior minister. Embellished, the story leaked three days later. On March 8 an infuriated Fraser, protesting Gorton’s “significant disloyalty”, resigned. A day later, after a row in the party room, Fraser denounced his Prime Minister in the Parliament. Gorton’s rebuttal was interrupted by the journalist who had broken the story, Alan Ramsey, then of the Australian, shouting “You liar”, from the Press Gallery.

The Liberal Party room convened a second time that day, and again the next day. A vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister was moved. The result was tied at 33-all. Gorton, knowing several of his enemies had threatened to cross the floor of Parliament, exercised his casting vote against himself.

Back in Canberra the denouement had a ludicrous footnote: with McMahon safely elected to the leadership, Gorton stood for the deputy’s position, won it – and was appointed to Fraser’s vacated portfolio. It could not work, of course. Gorton wrote a series of newspaper articles and in August the too-independent deputy was dispensed with.


At 90, Gorton still larger than life

By Geoff Easdown [Herald-Sun]

September 7, 2001 – Australia’s oldest former prime minister, Sir John Gorton, has a problem of what to do about glamorous women.

The leader who once drew headlines for his preference for female company faces on this occasion a tricky matter of protocol.

Joining him to celebrate his 90th birthday bash in Sydney tonight will be model Kate Fischer.

She has thrown the seating arrangements into chaos because, as an insider confessed, everyone who is anyone wants to sit with Kate, who will attend with her mum and John Howard confidant, Pru Goward.

The problem is that Sir John’s long-time friend and former secretary, Ainsley Gotto, had arranged to seat the 250 guests according to their political standing and faction.

Ms Gotto — married these days to Sydney lawyer Nicholas Carson — arranged the birthday bash for her former boss with help from a variety of political veterans.

Hosting the evening will be Sydney Queen’s Counsel and former Liberal attorney-general Tom Hughes, Whitlam government minister Clyde Cameron and former National Party leader Doug Anthony.

Sir John turns 90 on Sunday and will become the third Australian leader to reach his 90s.

William Morris (Billy) Hughes, prime minister from 1915 to 1923, died in 1953 a month after his 90th birthday.

Stand-in PM Frank Forde, who held office for seven days in 1945 after the death of John Curtin, was 93 when he died in 1983.

Mr Cameron told the Herald Sun only an individual such as John Gorton could prompt cross-party support to celebrate a birthday.

“The Liberals did the wrong thing in getting rid of him in ’71,” he said.

“John Gorton was the only Liberal of that era who was likely to have defeated Whitlam.”

Since retiring from politics after three decades in Canberra, Mr Cameron has recorded the Gorton memoirs as well as other projects for the National Library in Canberra.

Sealed from public access until 2009, the official transcripts of the Gorton tapes are said to give a new perspective of Sir John’s years in office, from 1968 until he fell on his sword in 1971.

Mr Cameron said Sir John spoke freely during their interviews, confessing to things that happened to him while in office that might embarrass others if they were now made public.

“He said to me that when people reminisce about the past, they are cheating history if they hold back,” Mr Cameron said. “He fired straight from the gun barrel whenever I asked a question. And, I did the same.

“He was never ashamed of anything he did but answered my questions about how people voted and how they had acted.”

Tom Hughes harbours deep affection for his friend and former colleague and told how they had continued to meet.

He said Sir John was still with it and well able to discuss current issues.

It was a view also expressed by Sir John’s biographer, Canberra historian and academic Ian Hancock, whose manuscript will be published next year.

“I found his memory of detail and names of people stand out,” said Mr Hancock, who told how his opinion of Sir John and his time in office had changed while researching his life and papers.

He said Sir John had not been a leader who stroked egos and fell foul of an ultra-conservative back bench, the business community — particularly those in Sydney — and the Melbourne Club.

“Most of the Liberal Party conservatives didn’t like the sort of person he was,” Mr Hancock said.

“He was just a different sort of person. He didn’t care about things that mattered to them, he was just himself.

“The Gorton view was that the Senate could not and, should not, make or unmake governments. The Senate should not vote on supply.”

Mr Hancock said it was these beliefs, coupled with Sir John’s continuing dislike for Malcolm Fraser, that coloured his decision to give his vote after the dismissal of the Whitlam government to Labor.

“He always took the view that the Senate should not have the kind of authority it chose to exercise in 1975,” he said.

“People who come to know more about John Gorton will see that he was not that different from any one of us. He was not a SNAG or spin doctor. He just thought, said it, and got on with it.

“He enjoyed life, loved a party, preferred talking to women more than men and liked to drink and smoked too much.”


Larrikin PM went, often, into the night

by Alan Ramsey [Sydney Morning Herald]

March 13, 2002 – When John Gorton turned 90 last September and a bipartisan group of his old colleagues organised a celebration dinner at the Westin Hotel in the old Sydney GPO, what impressed most was not just that Gorton, after a life crammed with everything, was somehow still perpendicular. It was his speech, a good-humoured sense of occasion Gorton wrote himself and which he read to his dinner guests with lovely pace and without glasses or hint of a stumble.

Doug Anthony, his old Country (National) Party coalition ally, used the occasion to publicly slag a dead Billy McMahon, something, to my knowledge, Anthony courageously avoided doing while McMahon was alive. Gorton in his speech did no such thing with any one of his many protagonists over the years, political and press, even though he had far more reason to settle old scores.

This man, I thought, unquestionably Australia’s most unconventional prime minister in recent memory, intended going gently into the night.

Not quite. Gorton’s authorised biography is released next week. Its author, Ian Hancock, an academic with Canberra’s ANU, had total access to Gorton’s private papers and to the man himself. Political friends and foes alike over the past half century also were plumbed. The outcome recounted is often extraordinary. We always knew Gorton was wholly his own man as well as the most Australian of political figures. We never knew the half of it, despite the gossip that forever embraced him as prime minister.

As for unconventional, try this: “By temperament and conviction, Gorton believed a prime minister should be able to lead a ‘normal’ life,” Hancock writes in his book, John Gorton: He Did It His Way. “He should not be so married to the position he forgot how to live.” Forgetting “how to live” was something Gorton never did. For instance, he would “ring the Country Party’s Peter Nixon on a Saturday night, climb a back wall and go off with him to a party”, Nixon told Hancock. And this he did as prime minister.

“Climb a back wall?” At the Lodge?

The expression is figurative. Hancock means Gorton would often quietly slip away at night, unseen, from the prime minister’s official Canberra residence, in pursuit of a party or anything else that took his fancy. And clearly other “things” took his fancy. Gorton candidly admits to Hancock to “drinking too much and to having ‘two or three’ extramarital relationships, at least one of which was conducted during his prime ministership”.

Prime ministers who stray can be as wayward as anyone else, but I’m not aware of one who ever admitted out loud, while still among us, to having done so. Gorton’s candour is as unconventional as was his prime ministership. Hancock writes: “On his own reckoning, the extramarital affairs were no more than that. They were not serious and in no way threatened his marriage. [His first wife] Betty [who died of inoperable cancer in October, 1983], it seems, tolerated them because John’s liking for attractive women did not diminish their attachment to each other.”

These are just a toe in the water of the Gorton style and personality. He was a strong if larrikin figure in a divided Liberal Party that never understood him and which feared the political change he represented after the certainty of the Menzies era. And Gorton never compromised with those party dissidents forever working to tear him down almost from the very day he became prime minister after Harold Holt drowned, in December 1967.

Frank Packer, Kerry’s father, whose media interests he used shamelessly to manipulate opinion against Gorton in support of McMahon, sent the former prime minister a telegram the day Gorton ultimately was forced out of McMahon’s ministry in August, 1971. It read: “In the lake clear and clean and exhilarating why don’t you join me regards. Frank Packer.” Gorton replied: “Hard to believe description of lake accurate under the circumstances described. John Gorton.”

Gorton was no less forgiving of Malcolm Fraser who he felt “stabbed” him in the back in the events that ended Gorton’s prime ministership in March, 1971 – exactly 31 years ago last Sunday. Hancock discloses that when Labor subsequently won the 1983 election that ended Fraser’s political career, Gorton rang to congratulate Bob Hawke “for rolling that bastard”.

Yet last September, after Liberal, National and Labor colleagues, along with some aging journalists, celebrated Gorton’s 90th birthday, Ingrid Murphy, widow of former Whitlam Labor minister and High Court judge, Lionel Murphy, wrote to Gorton how good it had been that people had come to the dinner “from far and near just to recapture the good old days when people in politics were civilised and fun to be with”.

The good old days remains as much a fantasy as civilised politics is an oxymoron.


The PM Who Did It His Way Always Wrong

by Stephen Holt [Canberra Times]

March 22, 2002 – It took Gorton nine years to crack the ministry. He became an effective and hard-working Navy Minister, something that Canberra was not used to seeing.

Gorton’s desire to rise higher became more obvious after he succeeded as Education Minister. He then built up a profile as Government Leader in the Senate. But his becoming prime minister in 1968 was the result of a series of accidents and blunders, not careful plotting. Over a few midsummer weeks Harold Holt went missing, John McEwan blackballed Holt’s “despised and distrusted” deputy, Billy McMahon, and Gorton’s main rival, Paul Hasluck, made a disastrous media appearance. A vacuum was created which allowed Gorton to become party leader.

Gorton, typically, chose the wrong time to become prime minister. The Vietnam War, a vote winner for the Coalition in 1966, was about to begin its protracted wind-down. There was less traction to be derived from fears about national security. There was now a greater, though not total, focus on domestic issues, then as now Labor’s strong suit.

The ebullient Gorton jumped in at the deep end. Gough Whitlam, as Opposition Leader, was the first serious opponent he had ever faced. Whitlam, a swot, had a systematic policy-reform agenda. A spate of initiatives by Gorton in the areas of foreign investment, support for the arts, environmental protection and social welfare seemed, in comparison, hasty and unplanned.

A headlong pursuit of his views (including, crucially, on federal-state relations) resulted in Gorton’s making some deadly enemies including conservative state premiers, senior federal public servants and worried Liberals. An invigorated media, having boosted his elevation to party leadership, turned on him and began to peddle hostile rumours and innuendo. He failed to convert popularity into votes.


A Bloke Thing

By Max Walsh [The Bulletin]

April 3, 2002 – Gorton’s cardinal error was his approach to the states. This played itself out on a number of levels. Most damagingly in terms of his party leadership was Gorton’s autocratic approach to ­federal sovereignty of offshore areas. But it was over financial relations where the most damage was caused. Hancock focuses on the confrontations between Gorton, Victorian premier Henry Bolte and NSW premier Robert Askin. As a journalist who covered these, I can tell you they not only make for eye-glazing reporting but their political impact, per se, was nil. However, what Labor’s Gough Whitlam understood, and Gorton didn’t, was that there were gut issues involved in the rundown in state services resulting from Canberra’s tight-fistedness. I remember Gorton ridiculing Whitlam for talking about the lack of sewerage in the capitals.

In the end, Gorton was brought down by his failure to command sufficient confidence in his own party room. Most of the reasons for this devolved from the elements listed above. His supporters who have grown in numbers, nostalgia and forgiveness with the passage of time would have it that a lovable larrikin was struck down by a coalition of embittered failures, careerists, states-righters and wowsers. Hancock’s affectionate biography will nurture the myth.

For me, the bottom line is that despite Gorton’s period of office coinciding with the peak years of the age of affluence – which should have made him unassailable – voters in the House of Representatives election in 1969 and the Senate election a year later swung against him in record numbers.

Gorton was not without virtues. Within a narrow definition, he was a good bloke. But he was a lousy PM and the punters knew it.


A Political Gladiator Of His Era

by Tony Eggleton, Gorton’s Press Secretary [Financial Review]

May 21, 2002 – As prime minister, we again saw the John Gorton that will always be in my memory: charming, determined, bold, unconventional, imprudent and totally committed to doing things his own way. He never looked for the compromise solutions. He did what he wanted to do in the way he wanted to do it.

Vietnam still loomed large and, in this regard, he did not propose to follow in the footsteps of Harold Holt. He wanted to wind back our military involvement in Vietnam, and never sought to maintain Harold Holt’s close personal relationships with Lyndon Johnson. He was concerned about what he saw as Australia’s best interests and, if that did not altogether please the White House, then so be it.

At home, John Gorton was coming to terms with a range of domestic issues. But his unconventional approach did not fit comfortably with many traditional Liberals, and especially some of the key figures in the states.

There were confrontations, and angst throughout many sections of the Liberal Party organisation. John’s actions were often regarded as unseemly and inappropriate for a prime minister. But he was undeterred.

His wife, Bettina, was a great strength throughout his political career. I sometimes felt she was more ambitious for his success than the prime minister himself.

John Gorton was unconventional and unpredictable, and relationships with the media deteriorated considerably during the term of his prime ministership. Some Press Gallery journalists found themselves on “black lists”.

Throughout this time, John Gorton maintained a number of individual friendships among newsmen and was often prepared to give background briefings and interviews to newsmen on an individual basis (maybe one too many!)

Working for John Gorton as prime minister was often a challenge.

Many people saw him as being ahead of his time. He was certainly a fearless trend setter.

Looking back now, I see him as something of a political gladiator of his era – bold, uncompromising, sometimes impetuous but never daunted.


He Did It His Way

by Ian Hancock [Biography, p(xiii)]

Clearly, every individual can be described as ‘complex’. The complexity of this man, however, his seeming and actual inconsistencies, his apparent and real unpredictability, make him more difficult to understand than most. Toughened by an earlier life (which included two near-death experiences as a fighter pilot), proudly and aggressively Australian, someone who always enjoyed a drink, loved a party, and preferred the company of woman (because he realised that they were more intelligent and more interesting than men), he is at once a typical white Australian male and nothing like one at all. A distant yet benevolent father, a warm and generous grandfather, he can be charming and considerate and yet sometimes rude and insensitive. Far brighter than most of his contemporaries in politics, he was inquisitive and attracted to new ideas, an unassuming and well-read intellectual behind the exterior of the lovable larrikin. But the most striking characteristic of his life was his determination to do it his way. It was this trait which inspired the deepest affection and loyalty and sometimes wonderment among his followers, and which caused the exasperation and bitter enmity among those who eventually brought him down.


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