John Gorton

For the English writer, see John Gorton (writer).
The Right Honourable
Sir John Gorton
19th Prime Minister of Australia
Elections: 1969
In office
10 January 1968  10 March 1971
Monarch Elizabeth II
Governor-General Lord Casey
Sir Paul Hasluck
Deputy John McEwen
Doug Anthony
Preceded by John McEwen
Succeeded by William McMahon
Minister for Defence
In office
19 March 1971  13 August 1971
Prime Minister William McMahon
Preceded by Malcolm Fraser
Succeeded by David Fairbairn
Minister for Education and Science
In office
16 February 1962  28 February 1968
Prime Minister Robert Menzies
Harold Holt
John McEwen
Succeeded by Malcolm Fraser
Minister for Works
In office
18 December 1963  28 February 1967
Prime Minister Robert Menzies
Harold Holt
Preceded by Gordon Freeth
Succeeded by Bert Kelly
Minister for the Interior
In office
18 December 1963  4 March 1964
Prime Minister Robert Menzies
Preceded by Gordon Freeth
Succeeded by Doug Anthony
Minister for the Navy
In office
10 December 1958  18 December 1963
Prime Minister Robert Menzies
Preceded by Charles Davidson
Succeeded by Jim Forbes
Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia
In office
10 January 1968  10 March 1971
Deputy William McMahon
Preceded by Harold Holt
Succeeded by William McMahon
Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia
In office
10 March 1971  August 1972
Prime Minister William McMahon
Preceded by William McMahon
Succeeded by Billy Snedden
Senator for Victoria
In office
22 February 1950  1 February 1968
Succeeded by Ivor Greenwood
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Higgins
In office
24 February 1968  11 November 1975
Preceded by Harold Holt
Succeeded by Roger Shipton
Personal details
Born (1911-09-09)9 September 1911
Melbourne, Australia
Died 19 May 2002(2002-05-19) (aged 90)
Sydney, Australia
Political party Country Party (before 1949)
Liberal Party (1949-1975)
Independent (after 1975)
Spouse(s) Bettina Gorton
Children 3
Military service
Allegiance  Australia
Service/branch  Royal Australian Air Force
Years of service 1940–1944
Rank Flight Lieutenant
Unit No. 61 Operational Training Unit RAF
No. 232 Squadron RAF
No. 77 Squadron RAAF
Battles/wars World War II

Sir John Grey Gorton GCMG, AC, CH (9 September 1911 – 19 May 2002) was the 19th Prime Minister of Australia and long serving minister in the governments of Sir Robert Menzies, Harold Holt, Sir John McEwen and Sir William McMahon.[1]

Gorton became Prime Minister after being elected Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia caused by the disappearance of Harold Holt in December 1967 while swimming. Gorton assumed the prime ministership while still a member of the Australian Senate, the only Prime Minister to have done so. Due to the Westminster tradition of Prime Ministers being a member of the Australian House of Representatives, Gorton stood for and won Holt's now vacant and ultra-safe seat of Higgins at the subsequent by-election by an increased margin.

Gorton would go on to lead the Liberal-Country Coalition Government to their twelfth straight win at the 1969 Australian federal election. After long-term internal bickering and power shifting within the governing Liberal Party, Gorton resigned the party leadership and was succeeded by his former treasurer, William McMahon, in March 1971. Before entering politics, he was a skilled and respected pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force and was considered a "war hero" for his service during World War II.

Early life and education

Gorton as a child and his mother Alice in 1915

John Grey Gorton was born in Melbourne on 9 September 1911, the illegitimate son of Alice Sinn,[2] the daughter of a railway worker, and English orange orchardist John Rose Gorton. The older Gorton and his wife Kathleen had emigrated to Australia by way of South Africa, where they had prospered during the Boer War. They separated in Australia, and Gorton established a de facto relationship with Sinn, who died of tuberculosis in 1920. Gorton the younger went to live with his father's estranged wife and his half-sister, Ruth, in Sydney.[3]

Gorton was educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (where he was a classmate of Errol Flynn[4]) and Geelong Grammar School. He then travelled to England to attend Brasenose College, Oxford. While in England, he undertook flying lessons and was awarded a British pilot's licence in 1932.[5] He studied history, politics and economics at Oxford and graduated with an upper second undergraduate degree.[2]

Personal life

During a holiday in Spain while still an undergraduate, Gorton met Bettina Brown of Bangor, Maine, United States. She was a language student at the Sorbonne. This meeting came about through Gorton's friend from Oxford, Arthur Brown, who was Bettina's brother. In 1935, Gorton and Bettina Brown were married in Oxford. After his studies were finished, they settled in Australia, taking over his father's orchard, "Mystic Park", at Lake Kangaroo near Kerang, Victoria. They had three children:[6] Joanna, Michael and Robin.

Gorton was a Freemason.[7]

War service


On 31 May 1940, following the outbreak of World War II, Gorton enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force Reserve.[8] At the age of 29, Gorton was considered too old for pilot training, but he re-applied in September after this rule was relaxed. Gorton was accepted and commissioned into the RAAF on 8 November 1940.[9] He trained as a fighter pilot at Somers, Victoria and Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, before being sent to the UK. Gorton completed his training at RAF Heston and RAF Honiley,[10] with No. 61 Operational Training Unit RAF, flying Supermarine Spitfires.[11] He was disappointed when his first operational posting was No. 135 Squadron RAF, a Hawker Hurricane unit, as he considered the type greatly inferior to Spitfires.[10]

John Gorton prior to leaving for war service in 1941.

During late 1941, Gorton and other members of his squadron became part of the cadre of a Hurricane wing being formed for service in the Middle East. They were sent by sea, with 50 Hurricanes in crates, travelling around Africa to reduce the risk of attack. In December, when the ship was at Durban, South Africa, it was diverted to Singapore, after Japan entered the war.[12] As it approached its destination in mid-January, Japanese forces were advancing down the Malayan Peninsula. The ship was attacked on at least one occasion by Japanese aircraft, but arrived and unloaded safely after tropical storms made enemy air raids impossible.[13] As the Hurricanes were assembled, the pilots were formed into a composite operational squadron, No. 232 Squadron RAF.

In late January 1942, the squadron became operational and joined the remnants of several others that had been in Malaya, operating out of RAF Seletar and RAF Kallang.[14] During one of his first sorties, Gorton was involved in a brief dogfight over the South China Sea, after which he suffered engine failure and was forced to land on Bintan island,[11] 40 km (25 mi) south east of Singapore. As he landed, one of the Hurricane's wheels hit an embankment and flipped over. Gorton was not properly strapped in and his face hit the gun sight and windscreen, mutilating his nose and breaking both cheekbones.[15] He also suffered severe lacerations to both arms. He made his way out of the wreck and was rescued by members of the Royal Dutch East Indies Army, who provided some medical treatment. Gorton later claimed that his face was so badly cut and bruised, that a member of the RAF sent to collect him assumed he was near death, collected his personal effects and returned to Singapore without him.[15] By chance, one week later, Sgt Matt O'Mara of No. 453 Squadron RAAF also crash landed on Bintan, and arranged for them to be collected.[16]

They arrived back in Singapore, on 11 February, three days after the island had been invaded.[16] As the Allied air force units on Singapore had been destroyed or evacuated by this stage, Gorton was put on the Derrymore, an ammunition ship bound for Batavia (Jakarta). On 13 February, as it neared its destination, the ship was torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-55 Kaidai class submarine and the Derrymore was abandoned. Gorton then spent almost a day on a crowded liferaft, in shark-infested waters, with little drinking water, until the raft was spotted by HMAS Ballarat, which picked up the passengers and took them to Batavia.[17]

Two schoolfriends, who had also been evacuated from Singapore to Batavia, heard that Gorton was in hospital, arranged for them to be put on a ship for Fremantle, which left on 23 February and treated Gorton's wounds.[18] When the ship arrived in Fremantle, on 3 March, one of Gorton's arm wounds had become septic and needed extensive treatment. However, he was more concerned about the effect that the sight of his mutilated face would have on his wife. It is reported that Betty Gorton, who had been running the farm in his absence, was relieved to see Gorton alive.[11][19]


After arriving in Australia he was posted to Darwin, Northern Territory on 12 August 1942 with No. 77 Squadron RAAF (Kittyhawks), during this time he was involved in his second air accident. While flying P-40E A29-60 on 7 September 1942, he was forced to land due to an incorrectly set fuel cock. Both Gorton and his aircraft were recovered several days later after spending time in the bush. On 21 February 1943 the squadron was relocated to Milne Bay, New Guinea.[20]

John Gorton's final air incident came on 18 March 1943. His A29-192 Kittyhawk's engine failed on take off, causing the aircraft to flip at the end of the strip. Gorton was unhurt. In March 1944, Gorton was sent back to Australia with the rank of Flight Lieutenant. His final posting was as a Flying Instructor with No. 2 Operational Training Unit at Mildura, Victoria. He was then discharged from the RAAF on 5 December 1944.[20]

During late 1944 Gorton went to Heidelberg hospital for surgery which could not fully repair his facial injuries.[20]

Political career

Gorton (middle) in 1951

Although Gorton had been a member of the Country Party before the war, in 1949 he was elected to the Senate for the Liberal Party, his term commencing on 22 February 1950. From 1958 onward, he served in various positions under Robert Menzies and Harold Holt, including Minister for the Navy from 1958–63, Minister for Works, Minister for the Interior and Minister for Education as well as Leader of the Government in the Senate. Gorton was an energetic and capable minister, and began to be considered leadership material once he moderated his early extremely right-wing views.

Prime Minister

Harold Holt disappeared while swimming on 17 December 1967 and was declared presumed drowned two days later. His presumed successor was Liberal deputy leader William McMahon. However, on 18 December, the Country Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister John McEwen announced that if McMahon were named the new Liberal leader, he and his party would not serve under him. His reasons were never stated publicly, but in a private meeting with McMahon, he said "I will not serve under you because I do not trust you".[21] McEwen's shock declaration triggered a leadership crisis within the Liberal Party; even more significantly, it raised the threat of a possible breaking of the Coalition, which would spell electoral disaster for the Liberals. Up to that time, the Liberals had never won enough seats in any House of Representatives election to be able to govern without Country Party support. Indeed, since the Coalition's formation in 1923, the major non-Labor party had only been able to govern alone once, during Joseph Lyons' first ministry—and even then, Lyons' United Australia Party had come up four seats short of a majority and needed confidence and supply support from the Country Party to govern.

The Governor-General Lord Casey swore McEwen in as Prime Minister, on an interim basis pending the Liberal Party electing its new leader. McEwen agreed to accept an interim appointment provided there was no formal statement of time limit. This appointment was in keeping with previous occasions when a conservative Coalition government had been deprived of its leader.[22] Casey also concurred in the view put to him by McEwen that to commission a Liberal temporarily as Prime Minister would give that person an unfair advantage in the forthcoming party room ballot for the permanent leader.

In the subsequent leadership struggle, Gorton was championed by Army Minister Malcolm Fraser and Liberal Party Whip Dudley Erwin, and with their support he was able to defeat his main rival, External Affairs Minister Paul Hasluck, to become Liberal leader even though he was a member of the Senate. He was elected party leader on 9 January 1968, and appointed Prime Minister on 10 January, replacing McEwen. He was the only Senator in Australia's history to be Prime Minister and the only Prime Minister to have ever served in the Senate. He remained a Senator until, in accordance with the Westminster tradition that the Prime Minister is a member of the lower house of parliament, he resigned on 1 February 1968 to contest the by-election for Holt's old House of Representatives seat of Higgins in south Melbourne. The by-election in this comfortably safe Liberal seat was held on 24 February; there were three other candidates, but Gorton achieved a massive 68% of the formal vote. He visited all the polling booths during the day, but was unable to vote for himself as he was still enrolled in Mallee, in rural western Victoria.[23] Between 2 and 23 February (both dates inclusive) he was a member of neither house of parliament.

Gorton was initially a very popular Prime Minister. He carved out a style quite distinct from those of his predecessors – the aloof Menzies and the affable, sporty Holt. Gorton liked to portray himself as a man of the people who enjoyed a beer and a gamble, with a bit of a "larrikin" streak about him. Unfortunately for him, this reputation later came back to haunt him.

He also began to follow new policies, pursuing independent defence and foreign policies and distancing Australia from its traditional ties to Britain. But he continued to support Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, a position he had reluctantly inherited from Holt, which became increasingly unpopular after 1968. On domestic issues, he favoured centralist policies at the expense of the states, which alienated powerful Liberal state leaders like Sir Henry Bolte of Victoria and Bob Askin of New South Wales. He also fostered an independent Australian film industry and increased government funding for the arts.

Gorton proved to be a surprisingly poor media performer and public speaker, and was portrayed by the media as a foolish and incompetent administrator. He was unlucky to come up against a new and formidable Labor Opposition Leader in Gough Whitlam. Also, he was subjected to media speculation about his drinking habits and his involvements with women. He generated great resentment within his party, and his opponents became increasingly critical of his reliance on an inner circle of advisers – most notably his private secretary Ainsley Gotto.

The Coalition suffered a 7% swing against it at the 1969 election, and Labor outpolled it on the two-party-preferred vote. During the close election Gorton promised to waive all future government rent on residential leaseholders in Canberra.[24] After surviving the election Gorton came through on his promise, giving away an estimated $100 million in equity to leaseholders and abandoning future government rent revenue.[25] Still, Gorton saw the sizeable 45-seat majority he had inherited from Holt cut down to only seven. Indeed, the Coalition might have lost government had it not been for the Democratic Labor Party's longstanding practice of preferencing against Labor. The Coalition was only assured of an eighth term in government when DLP preferences tipped four marginal seats in Melbourne —the DLP's heartland—to the Liberals. Had those preferences gone the other way, Whitlam would have become Prime Minister.[26]

Leadership challenge and resignation

John and Bettina Gorton c. 1968

After the election, Gorton was challenged for the Liberal leadership by McMahon and David Fairbairn, but so long as McEwen's veto on McMahon remained in place, he was fairly safe. McEwen retired in January 1971, and his successor, Doug Anthony, told the Liberals that the veto no longer applied. With the Liberals falling further behind Labor in the polls, a challenge was launched in March when Defence Minister Fraser resigned. Fraser had strongly supported Gorton for the leadership two years earlier, but now attacked Gorton on the floor of Parliament in his resignation speech, saying that Gorton was "not fit to hold the great office of Prime Minister."

Gorton called a Liberal caucus meeting for 10 March 1971 to settle the matter. A motion of confidence in his leadership was tied. Under Liberal caucus rules of the time, a tied vote meant the motion was lost, and hence Gorton could have remained as party leader and Prime Minister without further ado. However, he took it upon himself to resign, saying "Well, that is not a vote of confidence, so the party will have to elect a new leader."[27] A ballot was held and McMahon was elected leader and thus Prime Minister. Australian television marked the end of Gorton's stormy premiership with a newsreel montage appropriately accompanied by Sinatra's anthem My Way.

In a surprise move, Gorton contested and won the position of Deputy Leader, forcing McMahon to make him Defence Minister. This farcical situation ended within five months when McMahon sacked him for disloyalty.

After 1972

After Labor won the 1972 election, Gorton served in the Shadow Ministry of Billy Snedden until after the 1974 election, when he was dropped. In 1973, Gorton moved a motion in Parliament calling for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in Australia. The motion was successful following a conscience vote.

When Fraser became Liberal leader in 1975, Gorton resigned from the party, sat as an independent, and openly campaigned against Fraser, whom he detested. He denounced the dismissal of the Whitlam government by Sir John Kerr, and unsuccessfully stood for an Australian Capital Territory Senate seat at the 1975 election as an independent. He achieved 11 per cent of the vote, coming third behind the major parties.

In 1977, he became a public supporter of Don Chipp's new centre-line Australian Democrats party.

Retirement and death

Gorton retired to Canberra, where he kept out of the political limelight. However, in March 1983, he congratulated Bob Hawke "for rolling that bastard Fraser" at that year's election.[28] Bettina Gorton died aged 68 on 2 October 1983, and in 1993 he married Nancy Home.

In the 1990s, Gorton quietly rejoined the Liberal Party to which John Hewson credited himself with "returning Gorton to the fold."[29] In his old age he was rehabilitated by the Liberals; his 90th birthday party was attended by Prime Minister John Howard who said at the event: "He (Gorton) was a person who above everything else was first, second and last an Australian." Although he was back within Liberal circles, he never forgave Fraser; as late as 2002 he told his biographer Ian Hancock that he still could not tolerate being in the same room as Fraser.[30]

Gorton died at Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital at the age of 90 in May 2002.[31] A State funeral[32] and memorial service was held on 30 May at St Andrews' Cathedral where extremely critical remarks of Fraser, who was in attendance with wife Tamie, were delivered during the eulogy by Gorton's former Attorney-General Tom Hughes. Current and former Prime Ministers Howard, Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke where also in attendance.[33] Gorton was cremated after a private service.


Bust of John Gorton by sculptor Victor Greenhalgh located in the Prime Ministers Avenue in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens

Gorton was appointed a Privy Counsellor in 1968, a Companion of Honour in 1971,[34] a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1977[35] and a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1988.[36] He was awarded the Centenary Medal in 2001.[37]

See also


  1. "Prime Facts 19" (PDF). Old Parliament House. The Australian Prime Ministers Centre. Retrieved 20 August 2008.
  2. 1 2 "John Gorton, Before office, Growing up". National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 24 January 2010.
  3. Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, 1988, p. 481
  4. Shaw, John (22 May 2002). "New York Times, 22 May 2002". Retrieved 25 April 2010.
  5. Hancock: 22
  6. "Bettina Gorton". National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 24 January 2010.
  7. Famous &/or Notable Australian Freemasons
  8. Hancock: 30
  9. Hancock: 31
  10. 1 2 Trengrove: 71
  11. 1 2 3 Hancock: 33
  12. Trengrove: 72
  13. Trengrove: 73–74
  14. Trengrove: 75
  15. 1 2 Trengrove: 76
  16. 1 2 Trengrove: 77
  17. Trengrove: 80
  18. Trengrove: 81
  19. Trengrove: 82
  20. 1 2 3 "John Gorton, Before office, War service 1940–45". National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 24 January 2010.
  21. Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, 1988, pp. 478–79
  22. In 1939 when Joseph Lyons died suddenly, and in 1941 when Robert Menzies resigned, the Governor-General had commissioned the (unofficial) Deputy Prime Minister, who was the leader of the Country Party, to serve as Prime Minister until the major coalition partner—then the UAP—could choose its new leader.
  23. the age(melbourne)magazine, p. 16
  24. Hong, Yu-Hung (March 1999). "Myths and Realities of Public Land Leasing: Canberra and Hong Kong" (PDF). Land Lines. 11 (2). Retrieved 3 April 2015.
  25. Fitzgerald, Karl. "Canberra's Leasehold Land System". Prosper Australia. Retrieved 3 April 2015.
  26. Analysis of 2007 election in Victoria by Antony Green
  27. Neil Brown, On the Other Hand ...Sketches and Reflections from Political Life, The Popular Press, 1993, p. 59'
  28. Macinnis, Peter (2013). The Big Book of Australian History. National Library Australia. p. 221. ISBN 978-0-642-27832-6.
  29. ABC TV "Midday Report", Interview w. J Hewson, 26 May 2010
  30. Cameron Stewart, Buried alive, Weekend Australian, 16–17 March 2002
  31. Murphy, Damien (20 May 2002). "Larrikin PM who sacked himself dies aged 90". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
  32. "State funeral for Sir John Gorton". ABC Radio. 20 May 2002. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
  33. "Hughes's wintry blast for the undertaker PM". Sydney Morning Herald. 1 June 2002. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
  34. It's an Honour – Companion of Honour
  35. It's an Honour – Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George
  36. It's an Honour – Companion of the Order of Australia
  37. It's an Honour – Centenary Medal

Further reading

Wikimedia Commons has media related to John Gorton.
Parliament of Australia
Preceded by
Harold Holt
Member for Higgins
Succeeded by
Roger Shipton
Political offices
Preceded by
Charles Davidson
Minister for the Navy
Succeeded by
Jim Forbes
Preceded by
Gordon Freeth
Minister for Works
Succeeded by
Bert Kelly
Minister for the Interior
Succeeded by
Doug Anthony
Preceded by
Robert Menzies
Minister in charge of the Commonwealth
Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

Absorbed into next
New title Minister in charge of Commonwealth Activities
in Education and Research

Succeeded by
Malcolm Fraser
Minister for Education and Science
1966  1968
Preceded by
John McEwen
Prime Minister of Australia
Succeeded by
William McMahon
Preceded by
Malcolm Fraser
Minister for Defence
Succeeded by
David Fairbairn
Party political offices
Preceded by
Harold Holt
Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia
Succeeded by
William McMahon
Preceded by
William McMahon
Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia
Succeeded by
Billy Snedden
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