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Wherefore art thou Billy?

William McMahon is often regarded as the worst prime minister of the past half century. When Paul Keating was looking for an epithet to use against the then hapless Liberal leader Alexander Downer in 1994, he described him as ‘the most foolish political leader of this country since Billy McMahon’. To rub it in, he later apologised to the McMahon family. Deputy Prime Minister Doug Anthony claimed that McMahon was ‘just not big enough for the job’. Donald Horne argues McMahon was ‘perhaps the silliest prime minister we ever had’. However, my research into the cabinet papers of the time show McMahon in a different light. McMahon understood the challenge posed by a resurgent Labor Party under Gough Whitlam and he worked tirelessly behind the scenes to regain the political initiative. McMahon harassed his departments for suggestions, relying heavily on their policy and political advice. But he was caught between a government wanting to maintain its conservative traditions, whilst also acknowledging the need for social change. In the end, of course, he failed. But the path to his eventual failure shows a prime minister with a steely determination to hold on to government.

McMahon was the fifth Coalition prime minister in just over five years, succeeding John Gorton in March 1971. Since the disappearance of Harold Holt, the government had been fraught with disunity. McMahon lacked Whitlam’s media and parliamentary skills. A figure of ridicule, he was not popular and lacked respect among his colleagues. McMahon ended 1971 with an approval rating of just 36.4 per cent, yet it was slightly higher than Whitlam’s personal approval rating at 35.6 per cent. What follows is an examination of several policy areas through the prism of the cabinet papers; space prohibits a more detailed study.

In politics, disunity is death. The disunity and cabinet leaks which had plagued Gorton soon caused McMahon the same anxiety. In 1971, McMahon took it upon himself, at the very first meeting of his cabinet, to make sure that his ministers were ‘familiar with, and to observe, the practices and procedures instituted for the effective operation of the cabinet system’. He emphasised the central role played by cabinet in government: it ‘determines policy and it ensures coordination. It brings together as necessary the political and administrative elements in the decision-making process’. The statement explicitly noted that background briefing of journalists ‘should not be to distort or criticise a government decision or, in this or other ways, to advance the personal point of view of the minister giving the background’.

The problem of cabinet leaks continued, and in January 1972, McMahon ‘drew attention again to reports of cabinet discussions reaching the press in unauthorised fashion’. As a result, cabinet agreed that the prime minister should first speak with the media regarding decisions, followed by more detailed statements by ministers. Also, that the business lists of cabinet would no longer carry titles of submissions, only numbers. In September 1972, McMahon again asked ministers to avoid ‘expressing views on matters which are within the portfolio responsibility of other ministers’. Clearly, McMahon was unable to command respect as prime minister. He could not inspire unity in the government. His pronouncements rang hollow, especially given McMahon himself was widely known among journalists and his colleagues as ‘Billy the Leak’.

Having generally relaxed censorship regulations, McMahon wanted to make government more open and accountable. Whitlam adviser Jim Spigelman had achieved quite some media coverage with the publication of his book Secrecy: Political Censorship in Australia. Spigelman, who is now the NSW Chief Justice, argued that McMahon presided over a secretive, closed government, where the decision-making processes were not transparent. Shadow Minister Clyde Cameron had outlined Labor’s plans to open up government and to make it more accountable.

McMahon placed considerable pressure on his department to respond to these views. The departmental cabinet file on this matter is revealing. It includes correspondence from within the department and between the Commonwealth Public Service Board (particularly on the issue of the role of public servants), newspaper clippings about Spigelman’s book, speeches and commentaries on Labor’s proposals, draft answers to questions that McMahon might face in parliament, and notes for file by departmental officials.

Geoffrey Yeend sent a file note to Deputy Secretary Peter Bailey on 21 September 1972, noting that ‘We are under some pressure to give the prime minister a statement he can make on secrecy’. Yeend noted that he was ‘a little unsure about it’ and asked for further work to be done by the department before the statement was sent to the prime minister. Yeend also noted that a summary of the ALP’s policies was being prepared and that McMahon’s statement ‘will be seen as a response to Mr Cameron’s statement’. Two days later, a clearly irritated prime minister phoned the Secretary of the Department, John Bunting. At 9.20 pm, Bunting recorded in a confidential note, ‘The prime minister rang’. Bunting noted, ‘He said he was “listening to Spigelman’’,’ presumably on the radio. McMahon reminded him that he had sent several questions to the department in the past few weeks ‘about what Whitlam and Spigelman were saying’, and, clearly agitated, asked again, ‘Where were the answers? Can I get them hurried up?’

Bunting noted that McMahon asked for ‘something’ to be prepared in response to Spigelman’s accusations. He concluded, ‘The prime minister said that the opposition will be making a good deal of this in the election campaign if the government is not alert.’ Clearly McMahon was rattled by Whitlam (and Spigelman), but was looking for opportunities to respond to, and counter, their proposals.

Finally, after several drafts, McMahon presented cabinet with his own submission on the issue of secrecy in government. The date was 25 October 1972, just days before the election campaign. McMahon noted, ‘I do see merit in our deciding that, when policy decisions or actions are announced, the considerations which have led us to the particular course should wherever practicable be made public’. He raised issues such as the role of public servants, the release of background material, and the introduction of green and white papers. The submission also included a detailed summary of Labor’s policies in this area, proposals submitted by the public service, and papers on recent developments in the United Kingdom and the United States.

The cabinet minutes recording the outcome of the meeting reveals a rebuff for McMahon. It reads, ‘The cabinet deferred consideration of the submission’. Whilst the complex matters certainly warranted more detailed consideration, the evidence from behind the scenes outlining McMahon’s strong desire to effect a change clearly signals that he wanted to move faster than his cabinet permitted.

In 1971, McMahon continued the Gorton government’s more progressive stance on Aboriginal issues, which included increased funding for education, health, housing and community services. The Council for Aboriginal Affairs, headed by ‘Nugget’ Coombs, had helped persuade McMahon towards this position. However, the cabinet was uncomfortable about embracing land rights. There had been a ministerial and departmental focus examining land rights and its consistency with a policy of assimilation. Unease in the Country Party and elements of the Liberal Party (not least Peter Howson) stalled the issue throughout 1971.

On Australia Day 1972, McMahon stated that the government understood ‘the deep affinity between the Aboriginal people and the land with which traditionally they are associated,’ and his desire that the cabinet’s work should reflect this. McMahon announced that the government would make leases available for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory for ‘economic and social use’. The Sydney Morning Herald concluded: ‘it represents a quite important advance in federal government thinking’, but ‘it will fall far short of satisfying all, or even most, Australians’. Whilst McMahon understood and showed empathy with the position of Aboriginal people and the mood of the community generally, he failed to reflect this in the government’s position.

The government did not embrace a land rights agenda, but instead initiated a system of leases for land as part of Aboriginal reserves. Whilst land could be used for specific activities, the government baulked at surrendering native title rights to Aboriginal people. It did not want to establish any policy that could be construed as endorsing separate development, as opposed to the long established principle of assimilation. Whilst McMahon was probably disposed to a more radical approach in Aboriginal affairs, he moved cautiously, taking a middle course between his more progressive advisers and his conservative colleagues.

Whilst Whitlam is remembered for ending Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, it was the McMahon cabinet that withdrew all Australian combat troops. In early 1968 the Gorton government announced that no new troops would serve abroad and a year later announced a planned withdrawal of troops. On 26 July 1971, the McMahon government ‘decided that it should move immediately to withdraw, and to do so to an “accelerated” timetable.’ Whilst not wanting to trumpet such an announcement, the cabinet noted that there is ‘no longer … a combat role for Australian forces.’

Whilst the Gorton and McMahon governments had effectively ended Australia’s involvement in the war, they could hardly make political mileage out of this, as it was their Liberal predecessors who had committed Australian troops to the war in the first place. In contrast, the Labor Party’s earlier opposition helped it to gain credibility on this important issue. One of the first decisions of the Whitlam government, via press release no less, was to announce the withdrawal of the remaining 128 members of the Australian Army Assistance Group, which had provided training to South Vietnamese and Cambodian troops. There were no Australian combat troops left in Vietnam when the Whitlam government was elected.

One of the Whitlam opposition’s major proposals was a new emphasis on urban and regional development. Whitlam’s imaginative agenda for ‘the cities’ struck a chord in the electorate, as the urban sprawl of the post-war 1950s and 1960s demanded a renewed focus by government. It proved to be a decisive issue in Labor’s 1972 election victory. The demand for such attention was not lost on the McMahon government.

In early 1972, the Minister for Housing, Kevin Cairns, made a submission to cabinet titled The Role of the Commonwealth in Urban Affairs. In that submission, Cairns acknowledged that ‘there is a growing call for action now by suburbanites, motorists, commuters and social welfare workers to improve living conditions in our towns and cities by alleviating existing problems before they become worse, and to plan to avoid the creation of new problems.’ Understanding the political need, Cairns sought more information and research on planning issues, and foreshadowed a coordinated approach with state and local government. The official records of the cabinet proceedings are limited, yet what is clear is that despite recognising a need for a new commonwealth approach on urban affairs, cabinet was divided on the best way to move forward.

There were a number of other submissions and decisions that followed the Cairns submission, which were all met with a lukewarm response from cabinet, and a cool response from the prime minister. In July, the Deputy Prime Minister Doug Anthony, who was also Minister for Trade and Industry, suggested in his own submission that, prior to a larger policy being implemented, the government ‘participate in the development … of several selected, decentralised growth centres’. He advocated a cautious approach.

In August—five months after Cairns’ original submission—McMahon weighed in, with cabinet noting that he had asked John Overall to ‘submit a report to him … on the proposals relating to urban and regional development … to assist the cabinet in its deliberations’. Next month, after interdepartmental consultation, cabinet decided that a ‘National Urban and Regional Development Authority’ would be established with Overall as head, contrary to the wishes of Doug Anthony. Whilst the government had recognised a problem, its slow policy response was symptomatic of its political woes. Lacking leadership and wracked by disunity, it was unable to retake the policy ground stolen by Whitlam.

Following a Senate motion by ALP Senator Lionel Murphy proposing an inquiry into poverty, the cabinet considered establishing its own inquiry on 16 May 1972. McMahon had written to the Minister for Social Security seeking his opinion. Whilst unsure exactly how to respond to the Murphy motion for a Senate inquiry, the cabinet discussed the subject again in May and then in July. The government decided against establishing its own inquiry, but was not opposed to a Senate inquiry, although they wanted the proposed terms of reference amended. Then, in August cabinet recognised that ‘there had been a growing public concern about poverty’ and therefore decided that ‘the government should take the initiative in the matter’ by instituting an inquiry into poverty. Two days later cabinet agreed to a terms of reference for the inquiry. Despite expressing doubts over Ronald Henderson’s use of the term ‘Henderson poverty line’, cabinet agreed that Henderson be invited to conduct the inquiry.

What this demonstrated was that, far from taking the ‘initiative’, the cabinet had identified an issue in response to the opposition’s proposal, then delayed making a decision, made a decision declining to instigate an inquiry, then reversed that decision, and appointed a chair whilst expressing doubts about that chair’s research methods. It is a further example of where the McMahon cabinet recognised a need but was slow to act, in this case due to poor leadership from the prime minister.

One of the key tasks of the McMahon government in 1972 was to produce a favourable budget in the lead up to the election. Throughout 1971 and 1972 the economy had deteriorated and McMahon and Treasurer Billy Snedden argued over economic strategy. McMahon was unable to secure widespread agreement and unity on the strategy needed for the economy and how it was to be executed. Frustrated by delays and departmental advice, McMahon went to great lengths to have his views recorded for history, noting where Treasury had made mistakes, rather than focusing on the present need to devise an economic policy which would reap a political dividend at the coming election.

The editorial of The Australian, 30 years after the cabinet papers were released, concluded ‘the ship of state wallowed rudderless on the sea of politics with the prime minister incapable of plotting any course’. In reality, McMahon’s cabinet was attempting to chart new policy courses, but the small moves instigated were more reactive than forward looking. The cabinet papers reveal a prime minister who clearly understood the challenge of the times and was fighting to get his ship back on course.

Indeed, Whitlam himself acknowledged that:

‘It now tends to be forgotten that McMahon was an extraordinarily skilful, resourceful and tenacious politician. Had he been otherwise, the ALP victory in December 1972 would have been more convincing than it was.’

During the election 1972 campaign McMahon blamed cabinet disunity for his woes, believing that without it he might have been a more activist prime minister. In so doing, he identified his own failure. In the end, despite his efforts, he was unable to provide the leadership that his government required. 

Troy Bramston is co-editor of The Hawke Government: A critical perspective (Pluto Press, 2003), works for a Labor Senator and is completing a Masters in Politics at UNSW.

Photographs are courtesy of The Canberra Times.



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