A Day Without A Prime Minister

Fifty-five years ago today, December 18, 1967, Australia experienced a singular event. For the only time since Federation in 1901, a whole day passed without a prime minister in office.

The day before, December 17, prime minister Harold Holt disappeared in the sea off Cheviot Beach, in Portsea, Victoria. On December 18, a search for his body was continuing, but little hope was held for its recovery. It was not until December 19 that Holt’s successor, John McEwen, was sworn in as prime minister.

John McEwen

Dec 18, 1967: Country Party leader John McEwen, ahead of his appointment as prime minister the next day.

Constitutional convention requires that there must always be a prime minister to advise the Governor-General. Two previous prime ministerial deaths in office were followed by same day or next day appointments of a new prime minister.

Prime ministerial resignations following retirement, party leadership challenges or electoral defeat always take place at the precise moment the new prime minister is sworn in. In this way, continuity prevails.

In 1967, Christmas was only a week away. Parliament had adjourned for the year. Politicians had left Canberra. Holt disappeared on a Sunday. Speedy appointment of a new PM was difficult.

An important complication arose because there was no such office as Deputy Prime Minister at that time. Who was the deputy to the prime minister? The deputy leader of the Liberal Party? The leader of the junior coalition party?

Ultimately, the decision about who to appoint had to be made by the Governor-General. Lord Casey, formerly Richard Casey, was a former long-time Liberal Party politician. He served as Treasurer for three and a half years under Lyons in the 1930s. In 1940, he was Minister to the United States, effectively ambassador. In 1944, he was appointed Governor of Bengal. In 1949, he returned to the Commonwealth Parliament as the Liberal member for La Trobe, a new seat in Melbourne’s outer east. Until 1960, he held portfolios in the Menzies government, including ten years as Minister for External Affairs, now called Foreign Affairs. In 1965, Menzies appointed him Governor-General.

Casey’s decision on Holt’s successor was informed by his understanding of politics, the Liberal Party and the coalition relationship. He had served alongside all the key players in the Liberal-Country Party coalition government since 1949.

Two days after Holt’s disappearance, on December 19, the Country Party leader, John McEwen, was sworn in as Australia’s 18th prime minister.

McEwen

Dec 19, 1967: John McEwen is sworn in as PM by G-G Lord Casey.

McEwen’s appointment by Casey was in accordance with the precedent established in 1939, following the death of PM Joseph Lyons on April 7. The Country Party leader, Earle Page, was appointed prime minister the same day. As the leader of the junior coalition partner, he was deemed appropriate as a temporary stand-in.

Page held office over 20 days, from April 7 until April 26, 1939. He relinquished office to the newly-elected leader of the United Australia Party, Robert Menzies.

When Labor prime minister John Curtin died in office in 1945, the choice of replacement was much easier. The deputy leader of the ALP, Frank Forde, was sworn in the next day. He served as PM over 8 days from July 6 until July 13, when he relinquished the prime ministership to the new ALP leader, Ben Chifley.

McEwen held office over 23 days as prime minister from December 19, 1967 until January 10, 1968, when he relinquished the post to the new Liberal Party leader, Senator John Gorton. Gorton subsequently won the by-election for Holt’s Melbourne electorate of Higgins and moved to the lower house. He is the only senator to have ever served as prime minister.

In 1968, the position of Deputy Prime Minister was officially created. John McEwen was the first person to hold the title, even though it had been used unofficially for many years.

Upon taking office in 1967, McEwen paid tribute to Holt. The official statement is shown below:

McEwen statement on Holt


45 Years Ago Today: Man Lands On Moon

It is 45 years ago today since Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

The Lunar Module landed on the moon’s surface at 20:18 UTC. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface six hours later at 02:56 UTC on July 21.

Richard Nixon was six months into his first term as President of the United States. It was three days after Mary Jo Kopechne died on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, in a car driven by Senator Edward Kennedy. [Read more…]


John Gorton Memorial Service; Howard Speaks, Hughes Excoriates Fraser

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. [Read more…]


John Gorton: Condolence Speech by Simon Crean

This is the text of the speech by the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Crean, on the Condolence Motion for the late Sir John Gorton in the House of Representatives.

  • Listen to Crean’s speech (6m)

Speech by Opposition Leader Simon Crean on the Condolence Motion for Sir John Gorton.

GortonI support the motion moved by the Prime Minister and on behalf of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party I want to express our deep condolences on the death of Sir John Gorton. He was a great Australian.

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

Sir John did not have the benefit of a close family upbringing. In fact his background made him tough, it made him independent and it also made him determined to enjoy life. He did it his way. [Read more…]