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He really was that bad

Revisionism be damned: William McMahon was a contemptible, conniving, conspiring squirt

18 February 2012

10:00 AM

18 February 2012

10:00 AM

A new form of parlour game seems to be arising in our midst. It is called ‘Spot our Worst-Ever Prime Minister’. Anyone can play, be they respondents to public opinion polls, ordinary voters or troops in the media corps. No qualifications are required for entry — not even a grasp of basic facts, or of elementary recent political history. On this laid-back basis, the shrewd money at the moment is on two great little gallopers called Julia Gillard and William McMahon; one or other of them will battle it out up the straight to win the race to be worst. (Gough Whitlam is like Phar Lap — in a class all his own.)

Julian Leeser’s article in these pages (‘Julia has nothing on Billy,’ 11 February) is the first move I have seen to lift the new national parlour game above the total no-brain level. He sees McMahon, though ‘far from perfect’, as having performed passably as prime minister; unlike most players, Leeser presents a cogent factual case in his support, and finds small risk of Julia’s losing her coveted golden trophy for the ‘woman who is worst’.

I am not so sure. Leeser’s material may be drawn scrupulously from the record, but he did not live through those times, nor personally know many of the actors.

I did, and so enjoy knowledge from another point of view. I can assure Mr Leeser that McMahon’s way of politics was one of lying and leaking, conniving and conspiring, deceit and double-crossing worthy of any of Labor factional
maestros of today.

But this ‘pursuit of the worst’ is trivial, and we should waste no more of our time on it. As with so many other matters, the great Dr Johnson settled it for us, back in 1783. Asked to pronounce between the merits of two contemporary poets, Johnson replied: ‘There is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea.’ Perhaps we should leave it there?

I readily admit to an enduring and totally unchristian contempt for that horrible little human called William McMahon (‘Billy Big Ears’, to some of his cabinet colleagues). Let one small true tale illustrate the man: in 1959 I had as a guest at home Sergeant-Major Kari of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary. In 1942-43, then a mere corporal, he commanded for months on end a little squad of some six barefoot black constables, operating deep behind Japanese lines in the hills behind the enemy base at Lae. They performed feats of hair-raising danger in their work of reconnaissance and surveillance, and of maintaining secret friendly contact with the inhabitants of the many native villages. For his sagacity and fidelity and for his matchless courage, Kari was decorated by the Australian government. I never met a man I respected more and he became a cherished member of my family circle. During his trip here, he was received by several dignitaries, including the chief justice, formerly our general who commanded against the Japanese in New Guinea.

One night in Sydney Kari and I dined at a posh and conservative restaurant called Kinneil in Elizabeth Bay Road. Kari, a massive man from Manus Island, in his old-style scarlet-piped navy-blue serge uniform, chest covered in ribbons and service stars, was a figure of dignified magnificence. We were the first diners to arrive, apart from McMahon and his decorative lady companion. As the head waiter led us past their table, McMahon looked up, exclaiming loudly to his lady friend: ‘Good God! What’s Kinneil coming to? A black!’ Plainly, he meant us to hear. That little worm went on to become the worst or second-worst prime minister of Australia.

Service with ‘Silly Billy’ in Robert Menzies’ government was torment for his cabinet colleagues. Years later, with the need for secrecy long past, one of those colleagues, Paul Hasluck, kept me entertained through many a private lunch and dinner with stories of McMahon’s idiocies and ineptitudes. Hasluck was beyond doubt one of the most widely accomplished and distinguished citizens ever to serve Australia: scholarship boy, journalist, historian, senior public servant and top diplomat, poet, author of many books, and finally governor-general. A stainless-steel integrity and a natural aversion to ‘glad-handing’ earned him a reputation for aloofness. It is true that he did not suffer fools gladly, but he was very far from ‘stuffy’. An aficionado of classic jazz, his participation in a jam session was a lively sight.

Though a steady classical ‘conservative’, he was no knee-jerk Liberal. His long years as a trusted public service adviser to Labor ministers gave him an insight into Labor philosophy and politics. It was significant that his personal friend John Curtin advised him that his future role lay in parliament, and to stand for election. Curtin knew well enough which side of the house Hasluck would choose. Over the last 20 years of his life I had the honour (at the old Melbourne University Press) to be his publisher, and we became close friends.

In cabinet, McMahon prolonged meetings with long and boring lectures based in ignorance and delusions of grandeur. ‘Will he ever stop?’ sighed members. One of these flights went on so long that Hasluck was able to compose a whole poem on the back of an agenda paper, and slid it over the table for the amusement of Menzies. Happily the paper was preserved, and in 1991 was published in a little collection of Hasluck’s satirical verses called Crude Impieties. The insatiably curious will find it there on page 23, titled ‘Bachelor of Economics’, and it extols the merits of ‘a mind crammed full of rubbish’.

That bachelor’s model was McMahon, drawn from life. His final removal from any worthy sense of Australian memory was achieved in Hasluck’s amazing memoir, The Chance of Politics, splendidly edited and posthumously published by his son Nicholas. What a revelation of the reality of Australian politics!

Reviewing in advance the arrangements proposed for his own state funeral, Hasluck asked that his coffin should be borne from the cathedral to the rambunctious strains of the old jazz classic ‘When the Saints Go
Marching In’. Stuffy?  
Peter Ryan is author of Final Proof (Quadrant Books), a memoir of his 26 years (1962 to 1988) as director of Melbourne University Press.

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