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John Gorton, Australian, Former Liberal Prime Minister, Dies, 90

John Grey Gorton, Australia’s nineteenth Prime Minister from 1968-71, has died, at age 90.

GortonRenowned as a ‘larrikin’, Gorton became the first prime minister to assume the nation’s leadership from the Senate. A centralist who alienated coalition State Premiers, Gorton’s private life was often in the headlines, but he will be remembered for his economic nationalism, support of Australia’s fledgling film industry, and for the spectacular manner of his departure from the prime ministership.

A World War II pilot, Gorton’s face was disfigured in combat. His ‘craggy’ features later became part of his appeal. Gorton came to public prominence during the ‘VIP Planes Affair’ when he tabled travel records in the Senate and rescued the government from a lingering crisis.

He became prime minister in January 1968, after Harold Holt disappeared in the Portsea surf. The Country Party leader, John McEwen, vetoed the election of William McMahon as prime minister, paving the way for Gorton to defeat the establishment candidate, Paul Hasluck. He moved to the House of Representatives as the new member for Holt’s electorate of Higgins, now held by Peter Costello.

There is much mythology about Gorton’s period of leadership, based mainly on his liberalism and nationalism, but he was politically inept. Gorton led his government to near-defeat in the 1969 election, securing a minority of the popular preferred vote, and was challenged in March 1971 by his Defence Minister, Malcolm Fraser, who accused him of having a “manic determination” to get his own way, and of being unfit to be prime minister. In a party-room ballot, the vote was tied. Gorton, exercising a casting vote to which he was not entitled, voted himself out of office.

In a comical example of political decline, Gorton was then elected deputy leader to William McMahon, a partnership that lasted only a few months. McMahon sacked Gorton after the publication of a series of newspaper articles headlined ‘I Did It My Way’.

Gorton left the Liberal Party in 1975 after his nemesis, Malcolm Fraser, became leader. He spoke out against the coalition’s blocking of Supply that led to the dismissal of the Whitlam government.

He unsuccessfully contested a Senate seat in the ACT as an independent in the 1975 election. He reportedly voted Labor in preference to the Fraser-led coalition. Shunned by the Liberal Party for many years, he was rehabilitated in recent times. An official biography by Ian Hancock was published two months ago.

Audio of 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:


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Malcolm Farnsworth
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