William McMahon

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The Right Honourable
Sir William McMahon
GCMGCH
WilliamMcMahonAHeadshot.gif
20th Prime Minister of Australia
Elections: 1972
In office
10 March 1971 – 5 December 1972
Monarch Elizabeth II
Governor General Sir Paul Hasluck
Deputy Doug Anthony
Preceded by John Gorton
Succeeded by Gough Whitlam
4th Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia
In office
22 March 1971 – 20 December 1972
Deputy John Gorton
Billy Snedden
Preceded by John Gorton
Succeeded by Billy Snedden
Minister for Foreign Affairs
In office
12 November 1969 – 22 March 1971
Prime Minister John Gorton
William McMahon
Preceded by Gordon Freeth
Succeeded by Leslie Bury
Treasurer of Australia
In office
26 November 1966 – 25 October 1969
Prime Minister Harold Holt
John McEwen
John Gorton
Preceded by Harold Holt
Succeeded by Les Bury
Minister for Navy
In office
17 July 1951 – 9 July 1954
Prime Minister Robert Menzies
Preceded by Philip McBride
Succeeded by Josiah Francis
Minister for Air
In office
17 July 1951 – 9 July 1954
Prime Minister Robert Menzies
Preceded by Philip McBride
Succeeded by Athol Townley
Member of the Australian Parliament for Lowe
In office
10 December 1949 – 13 March 1982
Preceded by New seat
Succeeded by Michael Maher
Personal details
Born (1908-02-23)23 February 1908
Sydney, Australia
Died 31 March 1988(1988-03-31) (aged 80)
Sydney, Australia
Political party Liberal
Spouse(s) Sonia McMahon
(m. 1965–1988)
Children Melinda
Julian
Deborah
Alma mater University of Sydney

Sir William "Billy" McMahon, GCMGCH (23 February 1908 – 31 March 1988), was an Australian Liberal politician and the 20th Prime Minister of Australia. He was the longest continuously serving government minister in Australian history (21 years and 6 months) and held the longest tenure as Prime Minister without leading his party to victory at an election.

Early life[edit]

William McMahon was born in Sydney, the son of Mary Ann(née Walder) and William McMahon, a lawyer. His uncle (his mother's brother) was Samuel Robert Walder, Lord Mayor of Sydney.[1] McMahon's mother died when he was 9 and his father when he was 18.[2] He was educated at Sydney Grammar School and at the University of Sydney, where he graduated in law. He practised in Sydney with Allen, Allen & Hemsley (now Allens Arthur Robinson), the oldest law firm in Australia. In 1940 he joined the Army, but because of a hearing loss, he was confined to staff work. After World War II, he travelled in Europe and completed an economics degree at the University of Sydney.[3]

Politics[edit]

William McMahon in 1950

William McMahon was elected to the House of Representatives for the Sydney seat of Lowe in 1949, one of the flood of new Liberal MPs known as the "forty-niners". He was capable and ambitious, and in 1951 Prime Minister Robert Menzies made him Minister for Air and Minister for the Navy. McMahon would serve in Cabinet in one capacity or another for the next 21 years.

At various times under Menzies, he served as Social Services, Primary Industry and Labour and National Service, and he was also Vice-President of the Executive Council. In 1966, when Harold Holt became Prime Minister, McMahon succeeded him as Treasurer and as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party.

Despite his steady advance, McMahon remained unpopular with his colleagues. He was highly capable, but seen as too ambitious and a schemer. He had never married, and there were frequent rumours throughout his life that he was homosexual.[4] In 1965, aged 57, he married Sonia Rachel Hopkins, who was then aged 32. They had three children: Melinda, Julian (who would find fame in his own right as a model and an actor), and Deborah.

When Holt drowned in December 1967, McMahon was assumed to be his probable successor. However, John McEwen, interim Prime Minister and leader of the Country Party, announced that he and his party would not serve in a government led by McMahon. McEwen did not state his reasons publicly, but privately he told McMahon he did not trust him. There was also McEwen's personal dislike of McMahon due to his perceived homosexuality. McEwen, an arch-protectionist, also correctly suspected that McMahon favoured policies of free trade and deregulation.

Lady McMahon (left) with Blue Mountains Mayor Dash. Billy McMahon can be seen in the background.

McMahon therefore withdrew, and Senator John Gorton won the party room ballot for party leader and Prime Minister. McMahon became Foreign Minister and waited for his chance at a comeback. The Coalition was nearly defeated at the 1969 election. After the election, McMahon challenged Gorton for the leadership, but failed in part because of McEwen's continued opposition.

In January 1971, McEwen retired as Country Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister. His successor, Doug Anthony, discontinued the veto against McMahon. In March 1971 the Defence Minister, Malcolm Fraser, resigned from Cabinet and denounced Gorton, who then announced a leadership spill. The party room vote on a motion of no confidence was initially tied, which meant the motion was lost. Nevertheless, Gorton voluntarily declared that a tie vote meant he no longer had the confidence of the party, and relinquished the leadership. McMahon was then elected leader (and Prime Minister), and Gorton was elected deputy Liberal leader.

Prime minister[edit]

William McMahon (centre) with Prince Tokugawa of the Japanese imperial family in the Australian embassy in Japan in 1952

Following continued plotting from Gorton's supporters, in 1971, McMahon found occasion to sack Gorton for perceived disloyalty; Billy Snedden was chosen as the new deputy Liberal leader.

McMahon found himself dealing with a resurgent Labor Party under Gough Whitlam. Labor had come within four seats of winning government in 1969, and since then had positioned itself as a credible government-in-waiting. Over the next year-and-a-half, McMahon was unable to get the better of Whitlam. McMahon was no match in parliamentary debates for Whitlam, a witty and powerful orator. He frequently found himself on the defensive as Whitlam attacked the increasingly unpopular Vietnam war and advocated radical new policies such as universal health insurance. His voice and appearance also came across rather badly on television. In a typical instance, McMahon attacked Whitlam for his demands that Australia recognise the People's Republic of China, only to have to back down when President Nixon announced his visit to China. He was not helped by rising inflation, which hurt his reputation as a sound economic manager.

In June 1971 McMahon cancelled Gorton's planned nuclear power program, which had included a reactor capable of generating weapons-grade plutonium. He considered it inconsistent with the goals of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed under Gorton in 1970, and later ratified under Whitlam in 1973.[5]

By the start of 1972, Labor had established a clear lead in the polls, and the Coalition was increasingly seen as tired and unfocused after 23 years in power. McMahon waited for as long as he could, but finally called an election for 2 December. The Coalition was swept from power on an eight-seat swing. Late on election night, with the result beyond doubt, McMahon conceded defeat, ending the longest unbroken run in government in Australian history.

McMahon had been a minister continuously for 21 years and 6 months, a record in the Australian Government that has never been threatened. Only Sir George Pearce and Sir John McEwen had longer overall ministerial service, but their terms were not continuous.

Later life[edit]

McMahon served in the Shadow Cabinet under his successor Billy Snedden, but was dropped after the 1974 election. He retained his seat in Parliament in the 1975, 1977 and 1980 elections. He became Joint Father of the House of Representatives with Clyde Cameron in 1977, and sole Father in 1980 when Cameron retired. On the retirement of Senator Justin O'Byrne in 1981, he became Father of the Parliament. He resigned from Parliament in 1982.

McMahon died of cancer in Sydney on 31 March 1988 at 80.[6] His widow Lady (Sonia) McMahon died aged 77 on 2 April 2010.[7]

Honours[edit]

Bust of Sir Billy McMahon by sculptor Victor Greenhalgh located in the Prime Minister's Avenue in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens

McMahon was appointed a Privy Counsellor in 1966, a Companion of Honour in the New Year's Day Honours of 1972[8] and a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George in the Queen's Birthday Honours of 1977.[9]

Following the 2009 redistribution of New South Wales federal elecorates, the Division of Prospect was renamed the Division of McMahon starting at the 2010 federal election.[10]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Twelfth man? – Don Whitington – Google Books. Books.google.ca. Retrieved 15 August 2012. 
  2. ^ "Before office – William McMahon – Australia's PMs – Australia's Prime Ministers". Primeministers.naa.gov.au. Retrieved 15 August 2012. 
  3. ^ 'John Hawkins'. "'William McMahon: the first Treasurer with an economics degree'". Retrieved 5 October 2012. 
  4. ^ e.g. "As a bachelor navy minister he was notorious for co-opting handsome young sailors in tight-fitting bell-bottom trousers to caddy for him at golf". Charlton, Peter. Australia's Prime Ministers in Birth Of Our Nation Special Supplement, The Courier-Mail, 2001; "former senior public servants recall McMahon when PM in the early 1970s would rove the men's dressing rooms at the old squash courts in Manuka. Wearing not a stitch, he was in the habit of approaching other men and virtually demanding they engage in long, often meaningless conversations.... The only newspaper report was a picture of McMahon with a black eye, which he said occurred in a game when he was hit by an opponent's racquet." Wright, Tony. The Dishonorable Member in The Bulletin 9 July 2005. The book, The Everlasting Secret Family, was loosely based on him. See also: Mitchell, Susan Stand By Your Man, Random House, October 2007 and Lady McMahon's response to Mitchell in The Australian Women's Weekly, November 2007.
  5. ^ Christian Kerr. "Nation given N-bomb warning". Retrieved 8 November 2012. 
  6. ^ Hawkins, John (2012). "William McMahon". Treasury. Retrieved 10 September 2013. 
  7. ^ Hornery, Andrew; Browne, Rachel; Whyte, Sarah (4 April 2010). "Sonia McMahon dies aged 77". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 25 April 2010. 
  8. ^ "It's an Honour – CH". Itsanhonour.gov.au. 1 January 1972. Retrieved 25 April 2010. 
  9. ^ "It's an Honour – GCMG". Itsanhonour.gov.au. 12 June 1977. Retrieved 25 April 2010. 
  10. ^ "Augmented Electoral Commission decides boundaries and names for Federal Electoral Divisions in NSW". Aec.gov.au. 23 October 2009. Retrieved 25 April 2010. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Parliament of Australia
New division Member for Lowe
1949–82
Succeeded by
Michael Maher
Preceded by
Kim Beazley, Sr.
Clyde Cameron
Father of the House of Representatives
1980–82
Succeeded by
Malcolm Fraser
Billy Snedden
Sir James Killen
Political offices
Preceded by
Philip McBride
Minister for Air
1951–54
Succeeded by
Athol Townley
Minister for the Navy
1951–54
Succeeded by
Josiah Francis
Preceded by
Athol Townley
Minister for Social Services
1954–56
Succeeded by
Hugh Roberton
Preceded by
John McEwen
Minister for Commerce and Agriculture
1956–58
Succeeded by
Charles Adermann
Preceded by
Harold Holt
Minister for Labour and National Service
1958–66
Succeeded by
Les Bury
Preceded by
Bill Spooner
Vice-President of the Executive Council
1964–66
Succeeded by
Alan Hulme
Preceded by
Harold Holt
Treasurer of Australia
1966–69
Succeeded by
Les Bury
Preceded by
Gordon Freeth
Minister for External Affairs/
Minister for Foreign Affairs

1969–71
Preceded by
John Gorton
Prime Minister of Australia
1971–72
Succeeded by
Gough Whitlam
Party political offices
Preceded by
Harold Holt
Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia
1966–71
Succeeded by
John Gorton
Preceded by
John Gorton
Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia
1971–72
Succeeded by
Billy Snedden