John McEwen

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For other people with the same name, see John McEwen (disambiguation).
The Right Honourable
Sir John McEwen
Sir John McEwen.jpg
18th Prime Minister of Australia
In office
19 December 1967 – 10 January 1968
Monarch Elizabeth II
Governor-General Lord Casey
Deputy John Gorton
Preceded by Harold Holt
Succeeded by John Gorton
1st Deputy Prime Minister of Australia
In office
10 January 1968 – 5 February 1971
Prime Minister John Gorton
Preceded by Position Officially Established
Succeeded by Doug Anthony
Leader of the Country Party
In office
26 March 1958 – 5 February 1971
Deputy Charles Davidson
Charles Adermann
Doug Anthony
Preceded by Arthur Fadden
Succeeded by Doug Anthony
Deputy Leader of the Country Party
In office
12 March 1941 – 26 March 1958
Leader Arthur Fadden
Preceded by Arthur Fadden
Succeeded by Charles Davidson
Member of the Australian Parliament for Indi
In office
23 October 1937 – 10 December 1949
Preceded by William Hutchinson
Succeeded by William Bostock
Member of the Australian Parliament for Murray
In office
10 December 1949 – 20 March 1971
Preceded by seat created
Succeeded by Bruce Lloyd
Personal details
Born (1900-03-29)29 March 1900
Chiltern, Victoria, British Empire
Died 20 November 1980(1980-11-20) (aged 80)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Political party Country Party
Spouse(s) Dame Anne Mills McEwen (née McLeod)
(m. 1921–1967; her death)
Mary Eileen McEwen (née Byrne)
(m. 1968–1980; his death)

Sir John McEwen, GCMG, CH (29 March 1900 – 20 November 1980) was an Australian politician and the 18th Prime Minister of Australia, assuming the office after the disappearence of Harold Holt. McEwen served a total of 36 years as a member of the Australian House of Representatives, retiring as the 4th longest serving member in 1971. He was a minister in the Lyons, Page, Menzies, Fadden, Holt and Gorton governments.

McEwan is the last member of the Australian Country Party to serve as Prime Minister. With an un-interrupted tenure of twenty-one years as minister for commerce and for trade under Menzies, McEwen had a rare opportunity to command and develop a decisive sphere of national policy that has neither precedent nor parallel in Australian politics. He was revered and unchallenged as party leader and retired at the top of his game whilst Deputy Prime Minister. He was nicknamed "Black Jack" by Robert Menzies due to his dark 'beetle-browed' appearance and temper.[1][2]

Early life[edit]

McEwen was born at Chiltern, Victoria to David James McEwen, a pharmacist from Ireland, and his second wife, Amy Ellen (née Porter; died 1901). His father died in 1907 and consequently McEwen was raised by his grandmother with her sister. He was educated at state schools and at 15 became a junior public service clerk. He enlisted in the Army immediately upon turning 18 but the First World War ended while he was still in training.[3] He commenced dairy farming at Tongala (Victoria), near Shepparton, and then changed to sheep and cattle farming in nearby Stanhope.[4][5][6]

Political career[edit]

John McEwen in his 30s

McEwen was active in farmer organisations and in the Country Party. In 1934 he was elected to the House of Representatives for the electorate of Echuca. That seat was abolished in 1937, and McEwen followed most of his constituents into Indi. He changed seats again in 1949, when Murray was carved out of the northwestern portion of Indi and McEwen transferred there. Between 1937 and 1941 he was successively Minister for the Interior, Minister for External Affairs and simultaneously Minister for Air and Minister for Civil Aviation. In 1940 when Archie Cameron resigned as Country Party leader he contested the leadership ballot against Sir Earle Page: the ballot was tied and Arthur Fadden was chosen as the independent.

When the conservatives returned to office in 1949 under Robert Menzies after eight years in opposition, McEwen became Minister for Commerce and Agriculture, switching to Minister for Trade and Industry in 1956. He pursued what became known as "McEwenism" – a policy of high tariff protection for the manufacturing industry, so that industry would not challenge the continuing high tariffs on imported raw materials, which benefitted farmers but pushed up industry's costs. This policy was a part (some argue the foundation) of what became known as the "Australian Settlement" which promoted high wages, industrial development, government intervention in industry (both as an owner- Australian governments traditionally owned banks and insurance companies and the railways and through policies designed to assist particular industries) and decentralisation. In 1958 Fadden retired and McEwen succeeded him as Country Party leader.

When Menzies retired in 1966, McEwen became the longest-serving figure in the government, and he had an effective veto over government policy. When Menzies' successor, Harold Holt, was officially presumed dead on 19 December 1967, the Governor-General Lord Casey sent for McEwen and he was sworn in as Prime Minister, on the understanding that his commission would continue only so long as it took for the Liberals to elect a new leader. He retained all the ministers appointed by Harold Holt and had them sworn in as the McEwen Ministry. Approaching 68, McEwen was the oldest person ever to be appointed Prime Minister of Australia, although not the oldest to serve; Menzies left office one month and six days after his 71st birthday.

McEwen had been encouraged to remain Prime Minister on a more permanent basis but to do so would have required him to defect to the Liberals, an option he had never contemplated.[7]

It had long been presumed that the Treasurer and Liberal deputy leader, William McMahon, would succeed Holt as Liberal leader. However, McEwen sparked a leadership crisis when he announced that he and his Country Party colleagues would not serve under McMahon. McEwen is reported to have despised McMahon personally. But more importantly, McEwen was bitterly opposed to McMahon on political grounds, because McMahon was allied with free trade advocates in the conservative parties and favoured sweeping tariff reforms, a position that was vehemently opposed by McEwen, his Country Party colleagues and their rural constituents.

Another key factor in McEwen's antipathy towards McMahon was hinted at soon after the crisis by the veteran political journalist Alan Reid. According to Reid, McEwen was aware that McMahon was habitually breaching Cabinet confidentiality and regularly leaking information to favoured journalists and lobbyists, including Maxwell Newton, who had been hired as a "consultant" by Japanese trade interests.

McEwen's opposition forced McMahon to withdraw from the leadership ballot and opened the way for the successful campaign to promote the Minister for Education and Science, Senator John Gorton, to the Prime Ministership with the support of a group led by Defence Minister Malcolm Fraser. Gorton replaced McEwen as Prime Minister on 10 January 1968. It was the second time the Country Party had effectively vetoed its senior partner's choice for the leadership; in 1923 Earle Page had demanded that the Nationalist Party, one of the forerunners of the Liberals, remove Billy Hughes as leader before he would even consider coalition talks. Gorton created the formal title Deputy Prime Minister for McEwen, confirming his status as the second-ranking member of the government. Prior to then, the title had been used informally for whoever was recognised as the second-ranking member of the government.

McEwen retired from politics in 1971. His successor, Doug Anthony, said that McEwen's previous objections to McMahon no longer held, finally freeing the Liberals to replace Gorton with McMahon within two months. At the time of his resignation, McEwen had served 36 years and 5 months, including 34 years as either a minister or opposition frontbencher. He was the last serving parliamentarian from the Great Depression era, the last parliamentary survivor of the Lyons government. By the time of his death, Malcolm Fraser's government was abandoning McEwenite trade policies.


Bust of John McEwen by sculptor Victor Greenhalgh located in the Prime Minister's Avenue in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens

McEwen was awarded the Companion of Honour (CH) in 1969. He was knighted in 1971 after his retirement from politics, becoming a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG). The Japanese government conferred on him the Grand Cordon, Order of the Rising Sun in 1973.[2]


On 21 September 1921 he married Anne Mills McLeod, known as Annie; they had no children. In 1966, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE). After a long illness Dame Anne McEwen died on 10 February 1967.

At the time of becoming Prime Minister in December of that year, McEwen was a widower, being the first Australian Prime Minister unmarried during his term of office. (The next such case was Julia Gillard, Prime Minister 2010–13, who had a domestic partner although unwed.)[2]

On 26 July 1968, McEwen married Mary Eileen Byrne, his personal secretary; he was aged 68, she was 46. In retirement he distanced himself from politics, undertook some consulting work, and travelled to Japan and South Africa. He had no children by any of his marriages.[2]

McEwen suffered dermatitis all his life and committed suicide by starving himself to death on 20 November 1980, at the age of 80.[8] He was survived by his second wife, and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $2,180,479. He was also receiving a small pension from the Department of Social Security at the time of his death. He was the last surviving member of Joseph Lyons' Cabinet.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Fast facts: John McEwen, National Archives of Australia,; accessed 10 June 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d C.J. Lloyd, McEwen, Sir John (1900–1980),; accessed 10 June 2015.
  3. ^ "First World War Service Record – John McEwen". National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 9 October 2014. 
  4. ^ Rt. Hon. Sir John McEwen GCMG CH, Stanhope DC
  5. ^ John McEwen: Before office, National Archives of Australia
  6. ^ Peter Golding, Black Jack McEwen: Political Gladiator, Carlton South: Melbourne University Press, 1996, pp. 41–42, 45, 48–49
  7. ^ A Country Road: The Nationals Episode 1
  8. ^ Julian Fitzgerald on Message: Political Communications of Australian Prime Ministers 1901 – 2014 Clareville Press 2014 p 292

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Thomas Paterson
Minister for the Interior
Succeeded by
Harry Foll
Preceded by
Sir Henry Gullett
Minister for External Affairs
Succeeded by
Frederick Stewart
Preceded by
Arthur Fadden
Minister for Air
Minister for Civil Aviation

Succeeded by
Arthur Drakeford
Preceded by
Reginald Pollard
Minister for Commerce and Agriculture
Succeeded by
William McMahon
Preceded by
Neil O'Sullivan
Minister for Trade and Industry
Succeeded by
Doug Anthony
Preceded by
Harold Holt
Prime Minister of Australia
Succeeded by
John Gorton
New title Deputy Prime Minister of Australia
Succeeded by
Doug Anthony
Party political offices
Preceded by
Arthur Fadden
Leader of the Country Party
Succeeded by
Doug Anthony
Preceded by
Arthur Fadden
Deputy Leader of the
Country Party of Australia

Succeeded by
Charles Davidson