Monday, 5 December 2011

Prime Suspect - Australia's 20th PM Sir William McMahon was a bit suss...

Sir William McMahon had a long climb up the ladder of success. Once at the top, he fell off. He was not a popular PM. His wife seems to be the only person who liked him. Unlike Sir Billy, she was much loved. She is well remembered for her style, beauty and - wearing a scandalous dress to the White House. Their son is the actor Julian McMahon. Billy is barely remembered - but there are those constant whispers about him being a big poof.

William McMahon became the 20th Prime Minister of Australia in 1971, by default.

In just 5 years the Liberal Party had lost it's main men. Menzies retired. Holt disappeared while swimming. Hasluck became Governor General. Gorton lost the confidence of his own party room.

The last man standing was the unpopular and distrusted McMahon.

Hasluck did his duty as Governor General and swore William McMahon in as PM, but later wrote, "I confess to a dislike of McMahon. The longer one is associated with him the deeper the contempt for him grows and I find it hard to allow him any merit. Disloyal, devious, dishonest, untrustworthy, petty, cowardly - all these adjectives have been weighed by me and I could not in truth modify or reduce any one of them in its application to him."

This is the form of language Governors General are required to use when they mean, "I can't stand the shifty little bastard."
Until the age of 57 Billy remained unmarried, a 'confirmed bachelor'. Rumours persisted throughout his life that he was homosexual. During his time as Navy Minister in the early fifties he was said to 'co-opt handsome young sailors in tight-fitting bell-bottom trousers to caddy for him at golf.' It would be decades before the Village People sang In The Navy but even in the 50's 'handsome young sailors in tight-fitting bell-bottom trousers' were a well established gay fantasy. If Billy was gay the job of Navy Minister must have been like being a kid in a candy store. 'I'll have one of those, one of those... oh... I can't decide... just give me a bag of mixed sailors please.'

Being a 'confirmed bachelor' was a hindrance to advancement in that conservative government and in those conservative days. (Even nearly 50 years later, Julia Gillard's unmarried status evokes comment.) Sir Robert Menzies himself advised McMahon that if he ever wished to be Prime Minister he would need a wife and children.

McMahon's secretary remembered that immediately Billy heard Menzies was retiring he looked up Sonia Hopkins, an unmarried Sydney socialite, 24 years his junior, and Liberal Party member. Six months later he proposed, another three, they were married, and in two more, she was pronounced pregnant. Expedient! 

The marriage did not help McMahon's political progress in the short term. Holt was Menzie's designated successor, and when he drowned, the leader of the Liberal's Country Party coalition partner, Jack McEwen, refused to continue the coalition with McMahon as PM. He told McMahon it was because he didn't trust him, but told others it was because he believed McMahon was homosexual (and he didn't trust him).

Sonya and Billy were a bizarre couple. He was much older. He was shorter. He had extremely prominent ears and a noticeably high pitched voice. The Australian mentioned a ' rather effeminate manner'.She was beautiful, tall, elegant and stylish. McMahon said people came to see him purely to have a 'squizz' at Sonia. In later years she mentioned having felt like an 'appendage'. Less kind people may have used the word 'handbag' or even 'beard'.

Neil Brown, later John Howard's deputy leader (who would in the 90's leave his own wife and acknowledge his homosexuality) said, "She towered over her diminutive husband and her elegance and good looks stood in sharp contrast to the decrepit gnome-like figure beside her and simply added to his comic appearance."

McMahon used his beautiful wife to advantage. On a state visit to Washington Sonia wore a stunning white dress slit up to the thighs to dinner at the White House with Richard Nixon. The dress made headlines world wide. The Washington Post said it was the most talked about garment ever seen in Washington and Sonia would later claim the dress put Australia on the map. ( At the very least it put the map of Tassie on the map!)

The dress did not save McMahon's Prime Ministership. The following year Gough Whitlam led the Australian Labour Party to a landslide win and McMahon became not only one of our shortest, but also shortest serving PMs.

I was a kid when he was in government and only have a vague recollection of a slightly ridiculous relic of an age past, trying desperately to hold back the tide of the modern. He headed a government that had held power since 1949, and they looked like it. In the early 70's there was a feeling that 'the times they are a changing' and the Whitlam campaign cleverly caught that wave with their 'It's Time' slogan. Whitlam won in a landslide. McMahon resigned as party leader but stayed in Parliament another decade.

I read in a gay magazine in the late seventies a blatant inference that McMahon was gay. It mentioned regular assignations at a suburban Canberra restaurant. I was shocked. I lived in Queensland under the puritanical and dictatorial Bjelke-Peterson regime. The highest political office a gay could aspire to in Queensland was President of the Hairdresser's Association - so long as they stayed closeted - there would have been mass panic if people realised homosexuals were cutting their hair. It was inconceivable to a gay teenage Queenslander that a gay man could hold the high office of Prime Minister.

After Billy's death his wife protested that the rumours and printed assertions about her late husbands sexuality were baseless. She claimed "the gay business," was started by Gough Whitlam, who mocked Billy when he dared defy the strict footwear convention of the era to wear suede shoes into Parliament. "Bill was a sophisticated, cultured and fashion-conscious man. I think sometimes if someone doesn’t conform to an ocker-macho stereotype, they get branded as being homosexual. That’s so silly."

Obviously Billy was a pioneer metrosexual, decades ahead of his time.

Whitlam focused on the suede shoes but his innuendo was informed by 2 decades of rumour and the not insubstantial fact that, by the time McMahon wed, he numbered amongst less than 5% of Australians his age who had never married. Tony Wright wrote in The Bullettin "former senior public servants recall McMahon when PM in the early 1970s would rove the men’s dressing rooms at the old squash courts in Manuka. Wearing not a stitch, he was in the habit of approaching other men and virtually demanding they engage in long, often meaningless conversations ... The only newspaper report was a picture of McMahon with a black eye, which he said occurred in a game when he was hit by an opponent’s racquet."

Sonia also mentioned when defending Billy that he had chosen that dress for her. Indeed he chose all her dresses. (As any self respecting metrosexual would!)

I don't know - maybe I'm shallow and too cynical, but I tend to favour the duck test.
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

Inspecting the Troops.

Does it matter if our 20th Prime Minister was gay?
Is it any of our business?
I think it does matter, and it is most certainly our business.

William McMahon was in government from 1949. He held senior positions in that government from the early 50's and ended up at it's head. That government (like it's predecessors) denied Aboriginals basic human rights for most of it's time in power. They continued the White Australia Policy. Despite Menzies having declined to fight in either of the World Wars and McMahon sitting out the second in an office job due to hearing problems, they happily conscripted young Australian men to fight and die in Vietnam. Concientious objectors languished in Australian prisons as McMahon swanned up the White House stairs with Sonia in her split dress. Homosexuals were subject to not only discrimination and prejudice but also criminal sanction and prison for private consensual adult sexual activity.

The Federal parliament actually did what it could about this situation while McMahon remained a member. In 1973 McMahon's predecessor John Gorton and the Whitlam Minister, Moss Cass, co-sponsored legislation decriminalising adult homosexual activity. While it only affected the Federal Territories, (A.C.T. and N.T.) it was the first tentative step to granting gay Australians equal citizenship.

McMahon was in Parliament House the day the legislation was voted on.  Even if he was not homosexual he had long personal experience of the discrimination homosexuals faced, with the decades of whispers about his sexuality culminating in McEwen's refusal to see him elected Prime Minister.

How did he vote?



Just love it. Now there are rumours about Gough.

Old Blackjack (John McEwen) may well have had other reasons for opposing McMahon. In the doco about the death of Harold Holt it was mentioned that McMahon was suspected of associating with Max Newton, a journalist selling inside cabinet secrets on tariff discussions to the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI).

I think Paul Hasluck's detailed analysis, if accurate, would surely be enough reason to distrust and dislike McMahon.

In 1978 I was in year 12 and doing Economics in the HSC. There was a day-long seminar for HSC students at UNSW's Clancy Auditorium on current economic events. They tried to get John Howard (then Treasurer) and the Labor Shadow Treasurer (I think Chris Hurford) to address us. They got the Shadow Treasurer, but the only one they could get from the Coalition was McMahon (they'd tried everyone else). I remember only two things about him - he was wearing a grey suit with white shoes (70s high fashion) and he prefaced his remarks by admitting that 'no government has taken me into its confidence since 1972' - he'd stayed a backbencher even after the Coalition returned to government in 1975.

A correction on the twice referenced 'landslide' victory by the Whitlam led Labour party over MacMahon's "reactionary, ramshackle coalition' (Gough's words on hearing the 72 election date announced) It was nothing of the sort. Labour won with a barely convincing 9 seat majority. MacMahon in his gracious concession speech tha t night complent the ALP on a 'handsome victory,' based on the commentariat's consensus that Labohr had won more than double what they in fact did. One of the fascinating insights is to be found on Whitlam's own comments later. Presumably anxious to neutralise the widely held view that his victory, considering the conservative's exhaustion and division after 23 years in office,was virtually certain, Whitlam gilded the MacMahon record by referring to him as'an extraordinarily able politician...but for this, our margin of victory would have been more convincing.' What Whitlam's fairly narrow, at an election where so much was stacked in Labour's favour, was the enduring proof of the deep conservatism of the Australian electorate, and its innate attraction to the status quo

I seem to recall reading a newspaper article, that when Billy resigned as Prime Minister, he complained that they had taken his Daimler off him and supplied him with a "lesser" car.

wasn't Billy McMahon also getting the age pension when he was Pm ?

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