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John Gorton Memorial Service; Howard Speaks, Hughes Excoriates Fraser

Last updated on December 14, 2023

This is audio from the memorial service held for the former Prime Minister, Sir John Gorton.

Gorton died on May 19, 2002, at the age of 90.

The first clip features Prime Minister John Howard.

The second clip is from barrister Tom Hughes, who served as Gorton’s Attorney-General from 1969 until 1971. It contains an excoriating attack on former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, the man who resigned as Gorton’s Defence Minister in March 1971, precipitating Gorton’s downfall.

The Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Alan Ramsey, wrote about the memorial service on June 5, 2002. He describes how Whitlam tapped Fraser on the shoulder after Hughes had finished and said: “Let not your heart be troubled, comrade.” The full article is shown below.

  • Listen to Howard (2m)
  • Listen to Hughes (19m)
  • Listen to the complete memorial service (59m)

Text of article by Alan Ramsey in the Sydney Morning Herald. The original article is available here.

Whitlam shows Hughes the futility of maintaining the rage

Whitlam’s compassion for an old political foe – and one who’d done him in so spectacularly – was class of the highest order, writes Alan Ramsey.

Tom Hughes has become hugely wealthy from a lifetime of dismantling people in front of others. Five days ago his charmless, graceless eloquence in memory of John Gorton, his political mentor and friend of thirtysomething years, was served up to Malcolm Fraser for free. How bitter the words for stewing all those years.

And how ironic that Hughes, a Catholic, should use a Protestant pulpit so grossly in defence of his dead friend to humiliate their once Liberal colleague before a church full of people. So courageous, too.

Yet there was one remarkable instant of redemption.

In the congregation of St Andrew’s Cathedral for Gorton’s memorial service were three former prime ministers, not just one. Fraser and his wife, Tamie, were flanked by Margaret and Gough Whitlam and Blanche and Bob Hawke. And at some point after Hughes had finished his “eulogy”, Gough Whitlam reached an arm around Tamie Fraser and, tapping her husband on the shoulder, was heard to say, gently but distinctly: “Let not your heart be troubled, comrade.”

That it was a line borrowed from earlier in the service is beside the point. Whitlam’s compassion for an old political foe – and one who’d done him in so spectacularly – was class of the highest order. So, too, Fraser’s dignity in sitting there, Hughes’s captive listener, the congregation’s several hundred eyes boring into him, as Hughes intoned: “I realise what I’m about to say is said in the distinguished presence of a former parliamentary colleague. [But] I have to speak the truth, and I will.”

And he did, as Hughes saw it.

Yet why he felt the “truth” about his old friend was not enough, but should include, too, the necessity for the “truth” about a man he posed as one of Gorton’s “political assassins” 31 years after the event, only Hughes would know. Funeral rites are supposedly about resolution. Hughes ensured this one included revenge. There is no more enduring bitterness than political bitterness.

Hughes, like Ainsley Gotto and Jim Killen, has been a loyal keeper of the Gorton flame for 33 years. He came into politics in December 1963 and was there six years while the making of five Coalition ministries passed him by, the last three years of which he was a member of what was irreverently known as the Mushroom Club, a group of Liberal backbenchers, mostly Gorton supporters, who enjoyed a good dinner and a convivial drink, until Gorton’s third ministry, in November 1969, made Hughes attorney-general. He survived just 15 months.

When Gorton’s prime ministership ended in the turbulent events of March 1971, Hughes’s ministerial career ended, too, not because he wasn’t any good but because he was politically dispensable as a Gorton ally.

McMahon dumped Hughes, along with Killen, who’d been navy minister, and Dame Annabelle Rankin, a junior minister from Queensland who burst into tears when McMahon told her she was out and, as a result, McMahon sent her to New Zealand as high commissioner. All Hughes and Killen got was relegation to the backbench.

A year later, after the satisfaction of comfortably defeating a preselection challenge for his safe Liberal seat of Berowra, Hughes announced enough was enough and that he’d be leaving politics at the subsequent election, the one in December 1972 that would make Whitlam prime minister for an equally turbulent three years. And leave Parliament Hughes did, to make a fortune as a barrister, mostly in libel law.

Thus all these years later you can understand if curmudgeonly people like me were to suggest that when Hughes stood at last Friday’s memorial service and felt it incumbent to publicly square the ledger by dumping on one of the purported “assassins” of Gorton’s prime ministership, he also squared the ledger for the “assassination” of his own political career, too.

Was Fraser disloyal to Gorton?

It was a very long time ago and most people these days know little of what happened and care even less. But if you take the time to read the public record, in detail, of Gorton’s last months as prime minister and of the bizarre events of March 1971 that brought him down, any fair assessment would judge Gorton as having acted at least as disloyally to Fraser as Hughes and others assert Fraser was to Gorton.

Whatever, consider Whitlam’s magnanimity last Friday rather than Hughes’s bitterness. It is far more rewarding of the human spirit.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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