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National Observer Home > No. 53 - Winter 2002 > Book reviews

John Gorton: He Did it His Way

by Ian Hancock

Sydney, Hodder, 2002, pp. 406 and index.


Between Sir Robert Menzies and Mr. John Howard the Liberal Party produced a series of Prime Ministers who will not be looked back on with pride. Holt, Gorton, McMahon and Fraser proved to fall far short in their capacities for what was required of a Prime Minister; and of these by no means the least controversial was the supreme egotist, John Gorton.

This biography of Gorton was written by Ian Hancock, a historian from the Australian National University. Hancock has one of the better reputations of Australian historians, and his biography reveals much diligence. It is well researched and adequately end-noted. Hancock comments, “This is an authorised and commissioned biography, written while I was a member of Sir John Gorton’s staff.” He correctly notes that his book is not a hagiography, but it is evident that he has taken an unduly sympathetic attitude towards his subject. Authorised biographies are always difficult, and seem almost invariably to be too prejudiced in favour of the person in question. This must generally be accounted as unfortunate: it has in fact led to a recent crop of misleading works, often written by journalists and partisan supporters.

Hancock is certainly correct in emphasising Gorton’s attitude, “I did it my way”. For example, when Gorton became Prime Minister in 1968 he appointed as his Principal Private Secretary Ms. Ainsley Gotto, a very young and attractive woman, whose personality was such that many senior public servants had difficulty in dealing with her. He also appointed Lenox Hewitt as the Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department. The latter had an abrasive personality, and again relations between the Prime Minister’s Office and other senior public servants suffered.

Perhaps by reason of his competitive personality and his sexual feelings, he preferred the company of women to that of men. (Hancock suggests unwisely that this was so because Gorton “realised that they were more intelligent and more interesting than men”, thus himself not distinguishing properly between the differing qualities of male and female intelligences.) A revealing episode (which fully illustrates Gorton’s poor character) occurred when on the evening of 1 November 1968 Gorton was awaited by the American Ambassador at his Embassy. Having been consuming alcohol for some hours, Gorton eventually arrived at the Embassy, long after midnight and perhaps as late as 2 a.m., in the company of an attractive 19-year-old journalist, Ms. Geraldine Willesee. At the Embassy he spent a long time sitting at one end of the room with Ms. Willesee “in private conversation to the exclusion of the Ambassador”, and discussed, amongst other things, the private fact that “he wanted to withdraw Australian forces from South Vietnam but was prevented by party policy from doing so”. Later Don Willesee, Geraldine’s father, was to accuse Gorton “of lying in claiming Geraldine had asked him for a lift when he had offered to give her a ride home”.

During Gorton’s Prime-ministership he was not only criticised extensively in the press but also received diminishing support amongst his own back-bench. Eventually, on 10 March 1971, a vote of confidence in Gorton was tied in the party room 33-all. Knowing that his leadership was finished Gorton delivered a casting vote against himself, but, with characteristic inappropriateness, stood for and was elected to the position of deputy leader under McMahon.

Unfortunately what is not clear from Hancock’s account are the full reasons for the increasing lack of confidence in Gorton which led to his removal. Hancock refers to the personal ambitions of some of those who voted against Gorton. But of course in politics personal ambition is a general phenomenon, and it is important to understand how Gorton came so soon to be an object of general criticism and distrust and to lose respect. Hancock has provided an efficient case for the defence. But it is also important that Gorton’s failings be full explained, and this had not been done adequately.

I.C.F. Spry


National Observer No. 53 - Winter 2002