Why we did it his way

John Gorton may have been lionised but he was not a good prime minister, maintains Peter Howson

The Australian, 21 May 2002.

When we were both backbenchers John Gorton and I frequently saw eye to eye. It was only when he became leader that I realized the full extent of the problem the Liberal Party had brought upon itself.

Even so, it was entirely appropriate that John Howard recently brought him back into the fold of what is a broad-church party, culminating with the launch of Gorton’s biography in March. Gorton’s long self-imposed separation largely reflected a sustainment of personal bitterness over both the minor incident that Malcolm Fraser used to resign his defence portfolio and the subsequent challenge that produced Fraser's provocative remark in March 1971: "He is not fit to hold the great office of Prime Minister".

How do such judgments stand up in retrospect?

The first test of any leader is whether the party judges him a likely electoral success. The loss of 17 seats by the Gorton Government in the 1969 election and the result in the 1970 Senate election indicated he had already lost much electoral ground before the 1972 election won by Gough Whitlam’s Labor.

The 1970 election produced the lowest Liberal vote since 1943 and Liberal votes in the Senate ballot boxes in Gorton’s electorate of Higgins dropped to 22,000 from 30,000 at the 1969 election. His attempt in the 1970 election campaign to exploit the larrikin image given him by the Canberra press gallery was not well received. In reality, it was the indication that Australian voters were deserting Gorton that led the party to accept Bill McMahon as his replacement.

Of course, the Canberra press gallery was sorry to see Gorton go. They loved to play along with someone who challenged the mores of conventional behaviour even when it posed unnecessary risks for the country. Confirmation of that came from US secretary of state Dean Rusk when he advised President Johnson that Gorton was "inclined to reach snap judgments and personal conclusions before he has considered the full advice of more experienced colleagues. He will take a bit of handling….".

Many of Gorton’s policy decisions also raised questions as to his liberalism, and still do today. His government-interventionist traits were reflected in Whitlam’s response to Gorton’s congratulatory message after the 1972 election — "I shall try to advance some of the causes which you were the first Prime Minister to identify". But although many continue to make unfavourable comparisons between the Gorton and Whitlam periods, one cannot help wondering whether an impartial assessment would recognize the greater chaos and disruption under Whitlam.

Unsurprisingly, the favourable reviews of the Gorton biography have come from journalists on the Left, just as Gorton’s favourable response to Phillip Adams’s call for a commonwealth film and television school was welcomed by the media in 1969. Gorton’s centralism failed, however, to adequately recognize that it is liberal to decentralise many decisions on governmental issues and/or to involve the States on a co-operative basis

where national intervention is needed.

Treasury’s analysis showed, for example, that the states needed better access to funds to finance their basic services. Yet Gorton summarily dismissed the states call for a growth tax and engaged in inordinate controversy with Liberal and other Premiers over the issue. It was left to McMahon to hand over pay-roll tax to them.

Whatever the case for Commonwealth interventionism on offshore oil, Gorton’s roughshod riding over the States in doing so was poor politics. And, although he created an environment department, he got no further than appointing a department head. Equally, his ventures into social welfare involved the extension of benefits to the middle class instead of focusing on need.

The characterization of his foreign investment interventions as "nationalist" overlooks the protectionism involved and the contribution of such investment to Australia’s development. His acceptance of an assimiliationist approach to Aboriginal policy, however, is now proving correct.

The journalists, of course, also loved an I’ll-do-it-my-way PM. Only the more perceptive, such as Alan Reid, recognized that politics has to involve a reasonable preparedness to compromise with colleagues and other political players.

The chip on Gorton’s shoulder, possibly not unrelated to his illegitimacy, led him to see leadership as the aggressive exercise of personal dominance rather than acting as the chief of a team. His appointment of Lennox Hewitt as head of Prime Minister’s department reflected this challenger approach to running the ship of state.

Hewitt had limited experience in handling policy issues in Treasury but thought of himself as an inadequately recognized policy-guru who needed to draw on little advice other than his own. Gorton paid a price for appointing Hewitt that went to the heart of why he failed as leader: an inordinate disposition to intervene rather than delegate, to act on limited advice and to make decisions without involving colleagues.

My own view of Gorton is inevitably influenced by his decision on becoming prime minister not to keep me in the ministry, where I had been responsible for air and assisting the treasurer. Gorton mistakenly thought I had been primarily responsible for the failure to reveal those allowed to travel on VIP planes. Recent archives show it was a cabinet meeting that Gorton failed to attend that decided not to make the manifests publicly

available and to pass the responsibility for handling the matter to prime minister’s department.

Nonetheless, I retain no bitterness over that Gorton decision on his Ministry. For me, any assessment of the man should be based on the policies he pursued and the extent to which he can be regarded as a worthy successor to Menzies after Harold Holt’s tragic drowning in December 1967.

Many commentators give a favourable assessment of Gorton on the grounds that he was better than Holt or McMahon. But he did not measure up as a good leader for those who believe in small government and non-crisis management.

Nor, unlike Menzies in 1961 and Howard — both of whom changed policy in response to backbench agitation and election debacles, federally in 1961 and at a state and by-election level in early 2001 respectively - did he learn to change his ways.

Peter Howson was a federal minister in the Menzies, Holt, McEwen and McMahon Coalition governments.