|Monarch Elizabeth II|
Deputy Billy Snedden
Preceded by Gough Whitlam
|Deputy Doug Anthony|
Name William McMahon
Preceded by John Gorton
Succeeded by Gough Whitlam
|Role Former Prime Minister of Australia|
Died March 31, 1988, Potts Point, Sydney, Australia
Spouse Sonia McMahon (m. 1965–1988)
Children Julian McMahon, Melinda McMahon, Deborah McMahon
Previous offices Prime Minister of Australia (1971–1972)
Similar People Sonia McMahon, Julian McMahon, John Gorton, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke
Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck
Synd 12 3 71 new prime minister william mcmahon speaks to the press
Sir William Daniel "Billy" McMahon, PC (23 February 1908 – 31 March 1988), was an Australian politician who was the Leader of the Liberal Party and the 20th Prime Minister of Australia from 10 March 1971 to 5 December 1972. McMahon was a member of the Australian House of Representatives for the seat of Lowe from his election in 1949 until his resignation in 1982. He rose to power at a bad time for the Coalition after over two decades in power, and he led his government to a loss to the Labor Party led by Gough Whitlam. He was the longest continuously serving government minister in Australian history - serving 21 years and 6 months - and held the longest tenure as Prime Minister without leading his party to victory at an election, being Prime Minister for 1 year and 270 days.
- Synd 12 3 71 new prime minister william mcmahon speaks to the press
- Synd13 03 71 australia s new prime minister william mcmahon is sworn in
- Early life
- Prime Minister
- Later political career
- Personal life
McMahon was born in Sydney, Australia, to an Australian mother and an Irish-Australian father, and was one of four children. When his mother died in 1917, when he was 9, McMahon was brought up by relatives and guardians, the most prominent among them his maternal uncle, who became Lord Mayor of Sydney in 1932. McMahon's father died when he was 18. McMahon was educated at Abbotsholme College, Killara, and at Sydney Grammar School and attended the University of Sydney, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Laws and returned to study economics, a factor that made him an apt Treasurer, but was a factor in the downfall of his premiership. While at university, McMahon competed in boxing and took interest in theatre, music and art.
After first graduating, McMahon worked as a solicitor, before serving in the Army during the Second World War. He was commissioned in the Citizens Military Force (now Australian Army Reserve) and later transferred to the Australian Imperial Force. He achieved the rank of captain in 1942 and was promoted to major in 1943, before he was classified medically unfit for overseas service. He was confined to staff work in Australia, where he was quartermaster for the Australian II Corps and the Australian Second Army.
After a tour of Europe to observe problems created by the Second World War, McMahon returned to the University of Sydney to complete his Bachelor of Economics degree, and was elected to Parliament in 1949, representing the seat of Lowe in the House of Representatives. McMahon became a minister in 1951. He became Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party in 1966. In 1971, when Prime Minister John Gorton resigned after a leadership vote ended in a tie, McMahon became leader, thus becoming Prime Minister himself.
The McMahon Government was formed at a turbulent time for the Coalition, and in the 1972 federal election, McMahon led his party to defeat. McMahon remained a member of Parliament until 1982, when he resigned.
Synd13 03 71 australia s new prime minister william mcmahon is sworn in
William McMahon was born in Sydney, the son of Mary Walder McMahon and William McMahon, a lawyer. His uncle was Samuel Walder, Lord Mayor of Sydney. His father was of Irish descent. McMahon's mother died when he was 9 and his father when he was 18. He was educated at Sydney Grammar School and at the University of Sydney, where he graduated in law. He practised in Sydney with Allen, Allen & Hemsley (now Allens Arthur Robinson), the oldest law firm in Australia. In 1940, he joined the Army, but because of a hearing loss, he was confined to staff work. After the Second World War, he travelled in Europe and completed an economics degree at the University of Sydney.
McMahon was elected to the House of Representatives for the Sydney seat of Lowe in the 1949 federal election, 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 Air and Minister for the Navy. McMahon served in Cabinet in one capacity or another for the next 21 years. At various times under Menzies, he was Minister for Social Services, Primary Industry and Labour and National Service. He was also Vice-President of the Executive Council. 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.
After making an extensive tour of Europe to observe the problems created by World War II, McMahon returned to the University of Sydney (B.Ec., 1949). In 1948 (Sir) Jack Cassidy sought preselection for the new Federal seat of Lowe and asked McMahon to speak at Strathfield on his behalf. So impressed were the Liberal Party women whom he addressed that they encouraged him to stand for preselection himself. Elected in December 1949 as the Liberal member, he was to hold the seat for thirty-two years, although he never lived in the electorate. McMahon’s maiden speech on 2 March 1950 displayed not only his attributes—proficiency in economics and robust preparation—but also an inclination to show off and exaggerate, and weak attempts at humour. Its theme was that the coalition parties had a greater prospect of maintaining full employment than the Australian Labor Party whose ‘lack of warmth for private enterprise’ and tendency to increase the size of the public service channelled employment into non-productive spheres.
After the 1951 election McMahon became minister for the navy and minister for air. He visited troops in Korea and approved Sir James Hardman’s reorganisation of the Royal Australian Air Force along functional command lines. Appointed minister for social services in 1954, he supported the building of more rehabilitation facilities to enable disabled people to enter the workforce. The minister for trade, (Sir) John McEwen, lobbied the prime minister, (Sir) Robert Menzies, to promote McMahon and on 11 January 1956 he was elevated to cabinet as minister for primary industry. With no experience in agriculture, McMahon was expected to comply with decisions made by McEwen. Instead, by working hard and mastering his brief, he often brought matters to cabinet without McEwen’s knowledge and argued against his senior minister. In his longest held portfolio, as minister for labour and national service (1958–66), McMahon introduced the National Service Act (1964) that authorised conscription for army service. Australia was soon to send troops to fight in South Vietnam and the Borneo State of Malaysia. The government also wished to increase army manpower in case of wider conflicts involving the country’s commitments under the South-East Asia Treaty Organization and the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty. He pursued the Communist-dominated Waterside Workers Federation, established an inquiry into waterfront efficiency and employment, legislated to strip the WWF of its authority over recruitment and made deregistration of the union theoretically possible. From 1964 to 1966 he was Vice-President of the Executive Council.
When Harold Holt replaced Menzies as prime minister on 26 January 1966, McMahon defeated (Sir) Paul Hasluck for the deputy leadership. As deputy, he was also treasurer (1966–69)—the post he had always wanted. He developed good relationships with his department—which contained a number of highly skilled economists—and was appointed a governor (1966–69) of the International Monetary Fund and chairman (1968–69) of the board of governors of the Asian Development Bank. Extensive knowledge of his portfolio, his understanding of economics, his inquisition of public servants and his desire to keep control of expenditure often made him unpopular, but these qualities boosted his reputation as a treasurer. He introduced four budgets, gradually reducing the deficit from $644 million in 1967-68 to $30 million in 1969-70. They were characterised by significant increased spending on defence, drought assistance, pension benefits and grants to the States, and by new Commonwealth programs for the health, education and housing of Aborigines, and for school libraries. Funding came from increased company and sales tax rates, radio and television licence fees, air navigation charges and overseas borrowings. Together with (Sir) John Gorton, he tried to resist State demands for extra revenue. Relations between the Treasury and the Department of Trade were strained even when Holt was treasurer. When McMahon became treasurer his relationship with McEwen deteriorated further. They clashed over industry protection, McMahon’s opposition to the establishment of the Australian Industry Development Corporation and his (ultimately vindicated) decision not to devalue the Australian dollar. McEwen accused McMahon of being behind the Basic Industries Group, a pro-free-trade agricultural lobby that funded Western Australian and Victorian Liberals to stand against Country Party members. The governor-general, R. G. (Lord) Casey, met with McMahon to encourage him to heal relations with McEwen, but there were persistent tensions that the affable Holt found difficult to manage.
When Holt drowned in December 1967, McMahon was assumed to be his probable successor. However, John McEwen, interim Prime Minister and leader of the Country Party, announced that he and his party would not serve in a government led by McMahon. McEwen did not state his reasons publicly, but privately he told McMahon he did not trust him. McEwen, an arch-protectionist, correctly suspected that McMahon favoured policies of free trade and deregulation.
McMahon therefore withdrew, and Senator John Gorton won the party room ballot for party leader and Prime Minister. McMahon became Foreign Minister and waited for his chance at a comeback. The Coalition was nearly defeated at the 1969 federal election. After the election, McMahon challenged Gorton for the leadership, but failed in part because of McEwen's continued opposition.
In January 1971, McEwen retired as Country Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister. His successor, Doug Anthony, discontinued the veto against McMahon. In March 1971, the Defence Minister, Malcolm Fraser, resigned from Cabinet and denounced Gorton, who then announced a leadership spill. The ensuing party room vote was tied, and under the party rules of the time this meant the motion was lost and Gorton could have theoretically remained as leader and Prime Minister. Nevertheless, Gorton declared that a tie vote meant he no longer had the confidence of the party, and voluntarily resigned the leadership. McMahon was then elected leader (and Prime Minister), and Gorton was elected deputy Liberal leader.
McMahon came into office at a bad time for the Coalition, which was increasingly seen as tired and unfocused after 22 years in power. His first problem was Gorton. Since Gorton had been elected as Liberal deputy leader, McMahon was all but forced to name him Defence Minister. This farcical situation came to a head when Gorton published two articles detailing the problems he had had with ministers leaking information from cabinet. McMahon forced Gorton's resignation. Billy Snedden was chosen as the new deputy Liberal leader.
McMahon found himself dealing with a resurgent Labor Party under Gough Whitlam. Labor had come within four seats of winning government in 1969, and since then had positioned itself as a credible government-in-waiting. Over the next year-and-a-half, McMahon was unable to get the better of Whitlam. McMahon was no match in parliamentary debates for Whitlam, a witty and powerful orator. He frequently found himself on the defensive as Whitlam attacked the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War and advocated radical new policies such as universal health insurance. In a typical instance, McMahon attacked Whitlam for his demands that Australia recognise the People's Republic of China, only to have to back down when U.S President Richard Nixon announced his visit to China. He was not helped by rising inflation, which hurt his reputation as a sound economic manager. Additionally, the Liberal Party was showing severe schisms, which came at an especially bad time since McMahon had, at most, two years before the next election. His voice and appearance also came across badly on television.
In June 1971, McMahon cancelled Gorton's planned nuclear power program, which had included a reactor capable of generating weapons-grade plutonium. He considered it inconsistent with the goals of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed under Gorton in 1970 and ratified under Whitlam in 1973.
McMahon went into 1972 facing a statutory general election. By then, Labor had established a clear lead in the polls and McMahon's approval ratings had dwindled to 28 percent. The press had turned on him so violently that the British psephologist David Butler recalled on a visit to Australia that he could not recall a prime minister in any country being "so comprehensively panned" as McMahon. By then, it was widely perceived that McMahon simply "did not look or sound like a Prime Minister". He waited for as long as he could, but finally called a federal election for 2 December. During the campaign, McMahon was abandoned by some of his own ministers, unheard of in a Westminster system. The Coalition was swept from power on an eight-seat swing. Late on election night, with the result beyond doubt, McMahon conceded defeat, ending the longest unbroken run in government in Australian history.
McMahon had been a minister continuously for 21 years and 6 months, a record in the Australian Government that has never been threatened. Only Sir George Pearce and Sir John McEwen had longer overall ministerial service, but their terms were not continuous.
Political journalist Laurie Oakes described McMahon as "devious, nasty, dishonest - he lied all the time and stole things" before describing an incident where McMahon attempted to steal a tape recorder from his radio station by claiming ownership of the device despite it having the radio station's name engraved on it. He concludes with "totally unworthy individual and the fact that he was Prime Minister of this country was a disgrace".
Later political career
McMahon served in the Shadow Cabinet under his successor Billy Snedden, but was dropped after the 1974 election. He retained his seat in Parliament in the 1975, 1977 and 1980 elections.
McMahon became Joint Father of the House of Representatives with Clyde Cameron in 1977, and sole Father in 1980 when Cameron retired. On the retirement of Senator Justin O'Byrne in 1981, he became Father of the Parliament. He resigned from Parliament in 1982 causing the Lowe by-election, 1982 which was won by Labor for the first time in the seats' 31-year history. Traditionally a Labor leaning electorate, the swing against the soon to be defeated Fraser Liberal Government was in stark contrast to McMahon's ability to hold the seat for such a sustained period.
In 1965, aged 57, McMahon married Sonia Rachel Hopkins, who was then aged 32. McMahon had proposed six months after the pair first met. The wedding was held three months later at St Mark's Church, Darling Point, followed by a reception for 400 people at the Royal Sydney Golf Club.
McMahon had three children; Melinda, Julian and Deborah. Julian is an actor and model while Melinda and Deborah, who is openly gay and suffers from schizophrenia, lead largely private lives.
Throughout his life there were also frequent rumours that he was homosexual. The suggestion was repeatedly denied by Lady McMahon; one occasion in the 1970s resulted in an infamous tabloid headline "My Billy's No Poofter - Sonia Tells".
McMahon died of cancer in the Sydney suburb of Potts Point on 31 March 1988 aged 80. He was cremated after a private ceremony. A memorial service was held at St Andrew’s Cathedral on 8 August 1988.
Sonia McMahon died, aged 77, on 2 April 2010, 22 years after her husband's death.
McMahon was appointed a Privy Counsellor in 1966, a Companion of Honour in the New Year's Day Honours of 1972 and a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George in the Queen's Birthday Honours of 1977.
Following the 2009 redistribution of New South Wales federal electorates, the Division of Prospect was renamed the Division of McMahon starting at the 2010 federal election.