William McMahon

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Rt Hon William McMahon
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Rt Hon William McMahon

Sir William McMahon (February 23 1908March 31 1988), Australian politician and 20th Prime Minister of Australia, was born in Sydney, New South Wales, where his father was a lawyer. He was educated at private schools and at the University of Sydney, where he graduated in law. He practised in Sydney with the oldest law firm in Australia. In 1940 he joined the Army, but because of his chronic deafness he was confined to staff work. After World War II he travelled in Europe and completed an economics degree.

McMahon was elected to the House of Representatives for a Sydney seat in 1949, one of the flood of new Liberal MPs known as the "forty-niners." He was capable and ambitious, and in 1951 Prime Minister Robert Menzies made him Minister for the Navy. He was to spend 21 continuous years in the ministry, a record in the Australian Parliament. Over the next 15 years he held a series of portfolios. In 1966, when Harold Holt became Prime Minister, McMahon succeeded him as Treasurer and as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party.

Despite his steady advance, McMahon remained unpopular with his colleagues. He was highly capable, but seen as too ambitious and a schemer. He was also haunted throughout his life by rumours that he was homosexual. The truth of this has never been established. In 1965, aged 57, he married Sonia Hopkins, a very beautiful and wealthy woman with whom he had three children (one of them the model and actor Julian McMahon), but the rumours persisted.

When Holt died in December 1967, McMahon was assumed to be his automatic successor. But John McEwen, caretaker Prime Minister and leader of the Country Party, announced that he and his party would not serve in a government led by McMahon. This was partly because of McEwen's personal dislike of McMahon, for reasons suggested in the previous paragraph, but also because McEwen, an arch-protectionist, correctly suspected that McMahon favoured policies of free trade and deregulation.

McMahon therefore withdrew, and John Gorton won the party room ballot. McMahon became Foreign Minister and waited for his chance at a comeback. He declined to challenge Gorton after the 1969 elections, but when McEwen retired in January 1971 he began actively plotting. In March, the Defence Minister, Malcolm Fraser, resigned from Cabinet and denounced Gorton, who then called a party meeting. When the confidence vote in Gorton was tied, he resigned, and McMahon was elected leader.

After all that waiting and intriguing, McMahon found the Prime Ministership to be a nightmare. The Vietnam War and conscription had become very unpopular. He was unable to match the performance of Labor leader, Gough Whitlam, who campaigned on radical new policies such as universal health insurance. He was undermined by plotting from Gorton's supporters. He attacked Whitlam over his policy of recognising the People's Republic of China, then had to back down when President Nixon announced his visit to China. His reputation for economic management was undermined by high inflation.

McMahon lost his nerve, and in the December 1972 election campaign he was outperformed by Whitlam and subjected to ridicule in the press. When Whitlam easily won the elections, McMahon resigned the Liberal leadership. He served in the Shadow Cabinet under his successor, Billy Snedden, but was dropped after the 1974 elections. He stayed in Parliament as a backbencher until his resignation in 1982, by which time he was the longest-serving member of the House. He died of cancer in Sydney in 1988.

No Australian Prime Minister has had such a bad press as McMahon. In 1994 Paul Hasluck's memoirs were posthumously published, describing McMahon as "disloyal, devious, dishonest, untrustworthy, petty [and] cowardly." Hasluck had obvious scores to settle, and the truth of such charges cannot be judged. Personal matters aside, McMahon has been judged by historians as a highly efficient minister and an excellent Treasurer, and they have asserted that he might have made a good PM if he had been ten years younger, if he had had the support of his colleagues, and if he had not been in charge of a government that the electorate had grown tired of.

See also

External links

  • William McMahon (http://primeministers.naa.gov.au/meetpm.asp?pmId=20) - Australia's Prime Ministers / National Archives of Australia


Preceded by:
Harold Holt
Treasurer of Australia
1966-1970
Succeeded by:
Leslie Bury

Template:Succession box one to two

Preceded by:
Kim Beazley (senior)/Clyde Cameron
Longest serving member of the Australian House of Representatives
1980–1982
Succeeded by:
Malcolm Fraser/Billy Snedden/Sir James Killen

Template:End box

Template:AustraliaPMde:William McMahon

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