Hillary Bray has speculated that some of these words delivered by Tom Hughes QC at John Grey Gorton’s funeral were actually penned by the former PM himself. We can’t be sure but the words themselves are worth a read in full.
Holt’s untimely death was politically convulsive: the leadership of the Parliamentary Liberal Party was thrown open in utterly unforeseen circumstances.
John Gorton strode onto the scene. He soon became the outstanding candidate. By the skilful use of television he projected candour and magnetism; he demonstrated a real potential for electoral success. He displayed to the public an unusual mixture of personal characteristics: a combination of distinct intellectual capacity (without posture as an intellectual) and knockabout qualities that inspire affection among ordinary Australians. He was a unique mixture: both larrikin and gentleman.
What was the background of this man before national politics? First, an unconventional childhood; second a good education at Shore, Geelong Grammar and Brasenose College Oxford. Third, bravery in war service as a fighter pilot. Fourth, a vocation in country life and local government. His Mystic Park speech in 1946 disclosed a depth of clear thought about what our national aspirations should be.
The leadership campaign was short and intensive. Because he had spent his eighteen years of Parliamentary life in the Senate, he was a somewhat unknown quantity amongst colleagues who were denizens of the House of Representatives. But what you saw was what you got. A majority liked what they saw. I was one of them. His campaign gave promise that much needed fresh air would blow through the corridors of power. And blow it did; the promise was fulfilled.
Gorton’s ministerial record had been impressive; but until Holt promoted him to Cabinet as Minister for Education in 1966, he had held no senior portfolio: this after an unusually long hibernation, for a man of his capacity, in the backbenches of the Senate. Perhaps Menzies, who was skilled in the handling of boat-rockers, showed prescience in offering Gorton the ambassadorship to the United States, a job that he had the good sense to refuse, because there he would have been a misfit.
After his appointment as Prime Minister, Gorton demonstrated a determination to be an agent of change in the machinery of government. He appointed Lenox Hewitt as his permanent head a man of incontestable talent but not accepted (or desirous of being accepted) within a small, clubby band of very senior mandarins. Hewitt’s appointment disturbed settled hierarchical notions. He appointed as his Principal Private Secretary a young woman who had proved her competence while working in the high atmospheric pressure of the Government Whip’s office. This appointment caused a fluttering in the dovecotes of gossip – the handmaiden of malicious falsehood. There was quite a lot of that in Gorton’s time. “Fancy appointing a woman, and a young one at that”, the old guard muttered. Perhaps the concept of equality of employment opportunity meant nothing to them. But this was a generation ago. The gossips did not recognise the entitlement of a Prime Minister to choose people, whom he regarded as able and trustworthy, to occupy sensitive positions where loyalty and rapport were required. Moreover, he appointed to the Ministry, in charge of Social Services and Aboriginal Affairs, Bill Wentworth, who had been a backbencher for 28 years but was an original thinker. His talents had never appealed to Menzies or Holt, largely because of his absolute disbelief in the virtues of tact. He turned out to be a good choice.
It soon became apparent that the new Prime Minister wanted to put his own individual stamp on the conduct of Australia’s defence and of foreign relations. He was fully justified. Times were changing. There were seismic shifts in the geopolitical balance; the war in Vietnam was not going well. The UK was working towards military detachment from South East Asia. There were strains between us and our United States ally caused by inadequate consultation on important issues. The circumstances called for a thorough re-appraisal of the forward defence policy pursued for the past 20 years. Gorton saw this need more clearly than others. He was understandably in favour of scaling down our military commitment in Vietnam.
None of these initiatives occasioned (as they should not have) any significant disquiet; none of them kindled rebellion in the ranks of the coalition parties. But trouble loomed in another quarter, particularly after the election of 1969. Gorton’s critics blamed him for that result – a government majority of 40 reduced to only 7. But there were explanatory factors: an Opposition revived under vigorous leadership, up and running fast; growing disenchantment with the war in Vietnam. It was hardly surprising that many people returned to Labor and that the electoral scales came closer to balance.
Gorton was not deterred by that reverse: he was back in government and that was that. He was no trimmer; to compromise on issues he regarded as essential was no part of his nature.
His conduct was actuated by his firm belief in the paramountcy of the national interest as opposed to the individual, local interests of the States. To him buzz-words like “states rights” and “centralism” had no sensible meaning; to him the respective rights of the national government and the governments of the several States were set out in the Commonwealth Constitution; it was a proper function of his government to explore, in the national interest, the limits of Commonwealth constitutional power and then act within them. Hence the decision after the 1969 election to legislate for national sovereignty over the territorial sea and control over the continental shelf. This decision was not his alone; he was the initiator; but it was the decision of Cabinet, coupled with an important and very sensible qualification: if the Commonwealth, by due legal process, established its position, the States would be treated generously in the distribution of revenues from permitted off-shore development. He was firmly committed against risking the environment of the Great Barrier Reef by mining.
Gorton’s position on off-shore matters was an example of his firmly held view that Australia had to be treated as a single national entity for the purposes of economic management. Thus it was that he resisted, to the chagrin and fury of State Premiers, any proposal to return to the States any power to levy income tax.
Gorton’s position on those two issues; territorial sea and income tax, primarily the former, proved to be his undoing. State Premiers, whose views about national interest were blinkered, raised a hullabaloo of complaint. They enlisted allies in the Parliamentary Liberal Party.
Finally, in the ides of March 1971, there was another political assassination. Matters came to a head when Malcolm Fraser resigned, in my view quite unnecessarily, over an issue of Gorton’s supposed disloyalty to him in dealing with a journalist, making much of Gorton’s allegedly authoritarian processes of decision making; the complaint was that he would not listen to Ministers. A central point in the attack was that Gorton, in July 1970, was bent upon a call-out of the PIR in aid of the civil power in PNG without the prior authorisation of Cabinet. The fact was, however, that Malcolm Fraser and I had worked together to persuade Gorton against a call-out unless Cabinet authorised it. Gorton had listened to us; a Cabinet meeting was held. Only then was the PIR called out. I discussed these events with Malcolm Fraser the day after his resignation speech made in the House on 9 March 1971; he agreed with my recollection of them. The fact of the call-out was a well-kept secret in a world of few secrets. It did not become publicly known until Malcolm Fraser revealed it in that speech. Gorton had intended no disloyalty; in the course of his speech in reply, he paid a generous tribute to Malcolm’s work as Minister.
Peter Howson, one of the principal actors in the plot to bring Gorton down, has recently pronounced in a newspaper article that “the first test of any political leader is whether the party judges them a likely electoral success”. That may be setting the bar rather low; but if he is right, the decision of half the Parliamentary Liberal Party to dump and replace John Gorton may be seen in historical perspective as resembling the downhill stampede to the precipice, described in the New Testament, of the proverbial gadarene swine.
I must say something about John Gorton the private man. He had two great marriages; he drew strength from his family ties; his children and grandchildren meant much to him; he was a great friend; he recognised me when we held hands within a day of his death.
A great Australian has passed from our midst; a patriot under whom I was proud to serve. May the lamps he lit to guide our path never go out. The moving and perceptive speeches I heard in the House last Monday when it was discussing the Prime Minister’s condolence motion told me that those lamps are still burning.
The judgment of history upon John Gorton will be kinder than upon those who conspired to bring him down.
May he rest in peace.