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Monday, 17 June 2002
Page: 1856

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (12:39 PM) —On behalf of the opposition I support the condolence motion and I associate the opposition with it. A condolence motion for a former Prime Minister is a rare event. Today's is the only one that I have witnessed in the 13 years I have served in this chamber. So today is not a typical Senate sitting day, as we will adjourn later as a mark of respect to Sir John Gorton. Then again, Sir John Gorton was not a typical Prime Minister. For one thing, when he was elected leader of the Liberal Party he became the first and only senator to achieve the highest elected office our country has to offer. While others have tried to make the transition, some in the hope of becoming Prime Minister—including a number recently—few have made that transfer successfully. But the then Senator Gorton became Prime Minister even before he became a member of the House of Representatives. He was Australia's 19th Prime Minister and he will be remembered for starting to drag Australia out of Menzian complacency.

There was nothing usual about Gorton's life or political career. His road to the prime ministership was predicated on tragedy—the drowning of Harold Holt. He was, as we have heard, born in 1911 and he had a rather disjointed childhood. He was born out of wedlock into a society that frowned on such things. He suffered the death of his mother while still a young boy. He was schooled at Geelong Grammar and then attended Oxford University. In 1934 he met his first wife, American Bettina Brown. She was 18. They had to fudge her age to get married.

During the war he survived two fighter plane crashes—one in a Hurricane, one in a Kittyhawk—and a torpedo attack on an ammunition ship which had rescued him. During the recent television coverage of Sir John's life, the footage of the young airman, covered in oil and being pulled from the water, is a haunting image of the heroism that he, and so many like him, displayed in war in the Pacific.

After the war Gorton entered politics in a conventional way: first, local government— becoming president of the Kerang Shire Council in Victoria, where he was an orchardist—then contesting, but losing, a seat in the Legislative Council of the Victorian parliament. In 1949 he won a Senate seat in the election which saw the defeat of the Chifley government and the beginning of 23 years of unbroken Liberal rule. Nine years later, under Menzies, Gorton was appointed Minister for the Navy, and throughout the sixties served in a variety of portfolios. He was minister in charge of the CSIRO, Minister for the Interior, Minister for Works, and Minister for Education and Science. His biographer, Ian Hancock, says that as education minister from 1963-68, Gorton produced his most `creative and substantive and enduring contribution to Australia as he expanded the Commonwealth's role across the education field'.

Perhaps it was his 19 years as a senator and two years as Senate leader that led to his strong views about the representativeness and role of this chamber. But it was his misfortune to come to the position of Prime Minister when the Leader of the Opposition was Gough Whitlam. To some extent, Gorton owed his prime ministership to Whitlam, to the challenge that the new Labor leader posed with his grasp of parliamentary tactics and exceptional media skills. As Ross McMullin would later write, Gorton owed his success to `the effective television and radio appearances he made while his parliamentary colleagues were evaluating the various contenders'. The first Liberal leader chosen on the basis of media performance, though not the last, his good fortune was to be chosen by his party as the one candidate most likely to handle Whitlam. His misfortune was that he proved incapable of doing so.

Although the contrast between Gorton and Whitlam was stark, Gorton had many curious parallels with Whitlam. Like Whitlam, his ability to use the media was integral to his political success; unlike Whitlam, it was not matched with electoral success. Like Whitlam, Gorton would be accused of high-handedness and failure to consult colleagues. Like Whitlam, he was a federalist. Indeed, when Gorton congratulated Whitlam after the 1972 election victory that swept Labor into power, the new Prime Minister wrote back:

I shall try to advance some of the causes which you were the first Prime Minister to identify.

Like Whitlam, Gorton had been a flight lieutenant in the Second World War and had gone into politics after a return from active service. Like Whitlam too, Gorton's unwise comments about his parliamentary leaders— in his case, Holt and McMahon; in Whitlam's case, Calwell—landed him in a certain amount of hot water. Whitlam, however, survived, even thrived; Gorton not so. Unlike Gorton, who left the Liberal Party, Whitlam remained always loyal to Labor. Gorton repaid his perception of Fraser's disloyalty to him by quitting the Liberal Party in disgust in 1975, even advocating a vote for Labor at the election that year—not that it did us much good, I might say. Not until two decades later was Gorton finally taken back into the Liberal fold. I, for one, will not be criticising my political opponents for holding out an olive branch to a disillusioned former leader. That is a strength; it is not a weakness.

The `Gorton experiment', as journalist Alan Reid called it, was a failure. Gorton's coalition government lost 17 seats in the first and only election he fought as leader. Eighteen months later, his own party was even less forgiving than the public. As Gavin Souter says in his great history, Acts of Parliament, by 1971 `Gorton had offended too many friends ever to be short of enemies'. In many ways John Gorton was a social conservative. He believed in the White Australia policy and resisted the push for Aboriginal land rights, though in his speech at the Prime Ministers on Prime Ministers lecture series in 1997 he graciously acknowledged Holt's efforts for Aboriginal people with the 1967 referendum before he roundly criticised the Mabo judgment and native title.

He was a hawk when it came to fighting the `communist menace', as it was then dubbed. He was a great believer in our alliance with the US, although as the Vietnam War soured he became more uncertain. In other ways, Gorton was fundamentally opposed to the dominant paradigms of his party: he was a centralist and someone who wanted a more nationalist agenda. He was not as wedded to Britain as Menzies had been—that was not difficult. He made it more difficult for foreign companies, including British ones, to take over Australian businesses. His choice of Ainslie Gotto as principal private secretary caused a furore. His choice of Sir Lennox Hewitt as secretary of the Prime Minister's department also put noses out of joint. John Gorton took on Joh Bjelke-Petersen over the protection of the Great Barrier Reef, and even that one issue alone should ensure his place in our history.

John Gorton was his own man. He was engaged in a self-styled `experiment in a Prime Minister being himself'. In the Prime Ministers lecture series, he asked:

What makes a good prime minister—apart from the obvious qualities of intelligence and integrity?

His answer was `most of all' being a risk taker:

... the need to recognise and grasp opportunities ... going out on a limb to do something you feel strongly about, and doing it regardless of the short term cost.

John Gorton lived by his own dictum, and it cost him dearly.

Through the pens of eulogists, John Gorton has been described recently as a `typical Australian'. We read about his `larrikin streak', his `liking a beer', his being `comfortable in the company of women' and his `individuality'. And John Gorton did have many personal characteristics which contributed to making him unique among Australia's prime ministers. In his 1969 informal biography of Gorton—this was when the Gorton experiment was still being judged by Australians—Alan Trengove wrote:

The nineteenth Prime Minister of Australia is probably the most complex and enigmatic bloke to have held that office ... an apparent extrovert who in reality is often withdrawn, secretive and calculating as any lonely introvert. He is the leader of a nation of suburb-dwellers who has never in his adult life lived long in a big city himself. He is an Oxford graduate, an historian, with a ... feeling for words ... that enables him at his best to make a speech of refreshing clarity and conviction and controlled emotion. He is also apt occasionally to become entangled in a maze of words so baffling that those trying to follow him through qualifying phrases, in and out of parentheses, and up and over interpolations feel that they are being led round a verbal obstacle course.

In this condolence motion, I want to make the point that, unlike some, we on this side of the chamber—and I am sure the vast majority of those in the Australian parliament and outside—have no long-held grudges to settle over either the manner of Sir John's accession to the prime ministership or the circumstances in which he left it.

Sir John Gorton was an idiosyncratic leader. As Prime Minister, he was true to himself. He was also true to Australia, and he did seek out a more independent national identity for this country. He was above all else a passionate Australian and, on behalf of my Senate colleagues, I would like to extend my sincere condolences to Lady Gorton and to his family and friends.