Fourteen Australian Prime Ministers I have known
They have been drawn from both sides of the political spectrum, and were varied by their backgrounds, their politics, and the length of time they individually spent in the Prime Minister's Lodge at Canberra.
I will deal briefly with each of them in alphabetical order.
1. Stanley Melbourne Bruce. 12th. Prime Minister
Bruce followed Billy Hughes, but two greater contrasts could not be imagined, Bruce came from a wealthy Melbourne family who lived in the upper crust suburb of Toorak, whilst Hughes hailed from being a manual labourer immersed in a Trade Union environment.
Bruce served in WW1 in the British Royal Fusiliers as a Captain, he was wounded at Gallipoli, and earned a Military Cross. It was in 1918 he won a seat in the Commonweath Parliament as a Nationalist, and was a Cabinet Minister within three years, and the next year was elected by his party as Prime Minister, a rather meteoric rise for the ex Army Officer and businessman.
He was responsible for having the Duke of York ( the future King George V1 ) open the new Commonwealth Parliament House in Canberra in 1927.
Stanley Bruce held the dubious distinction of being the only serving Prime Minister in Australia to lose his seat at a general election in 1929.
In 1947, Bruce was created a Viscount, I met him later, in 1952, when he was installed as the Chancellor of the new Australian National University situated in Canberra. He retained this post until he died on the 25th. of August 1967, Bruce had remained a London resident, only venturing back to Australia to visit his University for a major ceremony.
He was probably more English than he was an Australian, he had been a leader in good times, but when by the 1929 election, things were not so rosy, his electorate found him wanting and threw him out of office.
Known as Ben Chifley, rose from being an engine driver on the New South Wales railways based on Bathurst, through the Union movement to enter Federal politics as the Labour member for Macquarie in 1928.
He held Ministerial office in Defence, and was the Minister assisting the Treasurer. When the conservatives gained control of the Federal Parliament, Chifley spent 9 yeras in the political wilderness. In 1940, he once more won Macquarie for Labour, and Prime Minister Curtain made him his Treasurer. Curtin died on the 5th. of July 1945, Frank Forde took over for but 7 days, when Chifley prevailed.
He nominated William McKell, then serving as the Labour Premier of the State of New South Wales as Governor General.
This brought an uproar from the conservatives, with a cry of " Jobs for the boys!" and we will get rid of McKell when we regain office, which of course they never did.
King George V1 was not at all enamoured at the thought of his Vice Regal Representative in Government House Canberra, coming from the ranks of a serving Labour politician, but Chifley dug his toes in, and insisted that the King was bound to accept his Australian Prime Minister's advice in this appointment, and so it happened.
I got to know Ben Chifley very well, he often called upon his long time friend, now His Excellency, and I enjoyed many a chat with him, then leader of the Opposition, whilst we waited for the GG to be ready to receive Mr Chifley.
He had a very gravelly voice, on meeting him, I would enquire as to his health, his response was always the same: "Well, if my racing form is as good as my track form, I'll be alright."
Ben Chifley died on the evening of the 13th. of July 1951, when the Commonwealth Jubilee celebrations, at the most lavish party ever staged at Parliament House Canberra were in full cry. All the State Governors and Chief Ministers of the Territories were in attendance, and an invitation to this night was the most sought after ever in Canberra's social history!
Robert Menzies as Prime Minister, with the greatest regret, and dignity, announced Chifley's death, and suggested to the glittering audience, that the party should end at once, and we all go home. The assembly did just that. The sumptuous dinner was left untouched, and was transported to the Capital's Hospital.
30,000 people turned out for Chifley's funeral in Bathurst, I marched with the Military Secretary, immediately behind the Governor General, who in turn marched behind the gun carriage carrying the body of his old friend Ben.
3. Arthur William Fadden. 17th. Prime Minister
Country Party leader from the Queensland sugar town of Ingham, he joined Robert Menzies in the coalition formed between the United Australia Party and the Country Party. Menzies when PM, lost a vote of confidence within his UAP, and therefore resigned as Prime Minister. The junior member of the coalition grabbed their chance and Fadden was briefly installed as Prime Minister, but in October of 1941, two Independents who had kept the Government in office voted with the Labour Party to defeat Fadden's budget, it was all over for him, he could only resign.
I knew Artie Fadden when he was Treasurer in the new Liberal Party ( this was the old UAP rejuvinated by Robert Menzies ) in concert with the Country Party and they won government in 1949, Fadden was Treasurer until he retired from politics in 1958.
He enjoyed himself at Government House dinners for the Prime Minister and his Ministers of State, and loved a good story about some of the pranks he and his Country Party mate Larry Anthony, got up to, when new members joined the House of Representatives, and were to make their maiden speeches.
4. Francis Michael Forde. 19th. Prime Minister
No one in the history of the Commonwealth of Australia has served a shorter term as Prime Minister than Frank Forde.
He strode this stage as PM, for but 7 days in July of 1945, on the 2nd. of July when Curtin became so ill, Forde was made Caretaker Prime Minister, in three days more Curtin had died.
The Governor General, the Duke of Gloucester had appointed Forde to hold the fort as a Caretaker on the 5th. of July, but Chifley soon won the party's approval and he took over as PM a week later on the 12th. of July.
In the 1946 elections Forde lost his seat, I had met him on several occasions when he had called on the Governor General at Government House. Forde was appointed High Commissioner to Canada by the Liberal government in 1953, after his return from Canada, he lived for many years in his native Queensland, until his death in 1983.
One of my tasks as ADC , was to meet all of the Governor General's visitors, as he was not always ready to receive them on their arrival, and they would often arrive very early for their appointment, I had to engage them in conversation, and generally fill the gap between their arrival at Government House and their audience with His Excellency. In one of the reception rooms was a beautiful model of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric scheme (it was one of the Governor General's pet projects, and he had been involved in its start up.)
It had small lights that could be switched on to denote the various tunnels, generators etc, it was a wonderful back up whenever I struck a sticky patch with a particular visitor.
Two special VIP's stand out in my memory, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, and John Foster Dulles, the American Secretary of State, the latter was as dry as a stick, and very hard going. I was only saved by the Snowy Scheme, when The Secretary showed some interest in my explanation.
Monty, forever the firebrand, impatient at being kept waiting, also calmed down when the Snowy Scheme lights were switched on.
5. John Malcolm Fraser. 27th. Prime Minister
Entered Parliament at the relatively young age of 25, but had to wait 11 years before making it as a Junior Minister, taking the Army portfolio under Prime Minister Holt. After Holt's untoward drowning, Gorton became PM, at that time backed by Fraser, who became a Cabinet member with Education and Science. A year later he was moved to Defence, but fell out with his Prime Minister and resigned his ministry. After Whitlam was dismissed by the Governor General Sir John Kerr, Fraser who at that time was lurking in the wings at Government House, was commissioned as a Caretaker Prime Minister. At the subsequent elections he won a massive victory and spent almost 8 years as PM.
I met the Prime Minister, and his wife Tammie, at a ground breaking ceremony for a new block at the Austin Hospital, I had the task of organising this event when an executive of the hospital. Research brought to light that Fraser's Grandfather had been a Board Member of the hospital many years previously, so I was able to establish a connection with the Fraser clan and Austin Hospital, and we invited the Prime Minister and his wife to participate.
6. John Grey Gorton. 24th. Prime Minister
A fighter pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force in WW2, shot down during the defence of Singapore, escaping from his burning aircraft badly burned. The vessel in which he was evacuated, was torpedoed by the Japanese, and Gorton was picked up by the Australian corvette HMAS Ballarat. He returned to duty in New Guinea, having to crash land his Kittyhawk there. He was now discharged in 1944.
Gorton was elected to the Senate in 1950, but had a 10 year wait before gaining the Navy Ministry, as a junior minister under a senior Defence Minister.
Harold Holt had taken over from Menzies in 1966, but in December of the next year, he went missing whilst swimming off Portsea in Victoria, his body was never found.
With emnity within the Government coalition between John McEwen the Country Party leader who had been appointed Caretaker PM, and the Deputy of the Liberal Party, William McMahon, Gorton was elected the first Prime Minister in Australian History to be sworn in as a Senator. He later resigned as a Senator, to be elected to the lower house, whereby a long held convention that the Prime Minister always came from the House of Representatives was again established.
Gorton served for over three years, but upset many of the conservatives with his layback style, more in the Presidential mould, and his perceived centalist tendencies.
In a ballot to test his leadership, the vote went 33 - 33, he used a casting vote ( which was subsequently established that he did not possess. ) to put himself out of office. In 1974, he resigned from Parliament to live a long life, be knighted, and he has only just recently died in 2002, aged 90.
7. Harold Edward Holt. 22nd. Prime Minister
Inherited the crown of Prime Minister when Robert Menzies retired in January 1966. When he visited thge United States in June of that year, he made the somewhat infamous public statement: " Australia would go all the way with LBJ."
He was repaid by the very first visit of any US President to Australia, and Johnson received a tumultous welcome in Sydney. After this visit, on going to the country for an election, Holt received a landslide victory in November 1966, his coalition government receiving 82 seats to Labours' 41.
As already reported Holt went missing on the 17th. of December 1967, and was never found, at the Memorial Service held in Melbourne on the 22nd. of December, Prince Charles represented Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the 2nd. and President Johnson attended, as did the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
Many will recall Holt's short reign at the top of Australian politics, as a time when Australia gave up its independence to the United States, by going overboard in pledging unconditional support to them.
John Howard trained as a lawyer, and has been a member of the Commonwealth Parliament for 28 years, he is probably the best and most effective debater in Canberra.
Served as Treasurer in Liberal Governments for a number of years, and finally won the leadership of the Liberal/National coalition, and has led them to three election victories including his first win in 1996.
Has been described as the most conservative PM in Australia's history, but is an uncompromising leader who supports President George Bush and his anti-terrorist leadership to the hilt, he is a staunch friend of the United States.
Howard has just returned to Australia in June 2002 from a week's visit to the US, and became only the third serving Australian Prime Minister after Menzies and Hawke to address a joint sitting of the US Congress.
He believes that:
On September the 10th. 2001, my wife Denise and I were in Washington DC. as guests of our Australian Embassy there, for the presentation of the USS Canberra's ship's Bell from President George W. Bush to our Prime Minister John Howard.
In November 2001, we both met John Howard again at a pre election function, I said: "Prime Minister, I believe Denise and I have you to thank for the fact we were not on board American Airlines Flight No 77 on September 11 when it crashed into the Pentagon. ( We had been resheduled on another flight at the last moment so we could join the PM's party going to Arlington Cemetery ) The PM's response was " Yes our Embassy told me about that. He had just returned from China where he had met President Bush again. He now said to me: " In China, President Bush indicated how much he had enjoyed the Bell ceremony at the Washington Navy Yard on the 10th. of September. What a lovely day that was." The President then added " You know, that was the last day of the free world as we knew it! "
He is still in office, and may pass the baton of leadership to his Deputy Peter Costello, the current Treasurer, on reaching his 64th. birthday next July.
Prime Minister Howard has indicated that is the time he will review his position and he has never wavered from that stance.
As I write these words on Sunday the 16th. June 2002, I consider there is a but here, and it is a very big BUT, he just may not give up his job, he obviously enjoys his position and its power, he can strut the World Stage, and I think he may well keep Costello waiting , none too patiently in the wings a bit longer.
Time alone will solve this position.
9. William Morris Hughes. 11th. Prime Minister
Born in London in 1862, trained as a teacher, emigrating to Queensland, Australia when 22, he never returned to the teaching profession. Hughes was fond of relating stories about all the different jobs he tried his hand at, he moved to Sydney, married, and lived in the harbourside suburb of Balmain.
By 1890 he was immersed in the Wharf Labourer's Union, and became its Secretary, then moved on to the Shearer's Union, by 1894 he had entered State politics, winning the seat of Lang in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly.
Although he had opposed Federation, when the Commonwealth of Australia became fact in 1901, Hughes stood for, and won the seat of West Sydney, to become one of the founding members of the Australian Labour Party. He now studied law, and was admitted to the bar.
In 1904, John Watson led the Labour Party to victory, the first Labour Government in the world, but he only lasted for 3 months and 21 days before Fisher took over as Prime Minister.
In all, Fisher held the PM's job on three separate occasions, before he finally abdicated to pressure from Hughes, who, in October 1915 became Australia's 11th. Prime Minister. He was at the helm over WW1, and tried to bring in conscription, but was defeated.
On the 14th. of November 1916, a no confidence motion was moved against him, he then defected from the Labour Party taking 23 supporters out of the 65 members of the Labour caucus. Hughes formed the National Party, and with the support of Joseph Cook's conservative Liberals clung to his office.
In 1917, he gave up the West Sydney seat, moved to the electorate of Bendigo, a country town in the centre of Victoria, won this seat, and retained the Prime Ministership.
At the end of WW1, he attended the Peace Conference at Versailles, and played a leading role in framing the Charter of the League of Nations.
He hung on as PM, until 1923, when he was finally ousted by Stanley Bruce.
By 1951, he had served 50 years in the Commonwealth Parliament.
I met Billy Hughes on a number of occasions, and if he did not want to listen to you, he merely turned off his hearing aid, which by this time in his life, he needed if he was to hear at all.
He died in 1952, aged 90, forever the opportunist right to the end.
10. John McEwen. 23rd. Prime Minister
Had but a brief tenure as Prime Minister, when Harold Holt disappeared, as Leader of the Country Party he was commissioned as Caretaker Prime Minister.
In 1934 he had won the Federal seat of Echuca, and became a member of the Lyons Government in 1937. In the Menzies Government of 1949, McEwen took the Deputy Prime Minister's post, and was Minister for Commerce and Agriculture, he was a past master at political blackmail, and gained far more for his minority Country Party than he should have been allowed to achieve.
As Caretaker PM, he dictated to his senior coalition partner who they could nominate for Prime Minister, indicating he would not serve with William McMahon, and would walk out of the coalition, taking his Country Party members with him, if Mc Mahon was elected by his party.
The Liberals caved in, they should have called his bluff, no party likes to lose office, and I believe the minority Country Party members, if the crunch had come, would have elected to stay in the coalition with McMahon as PM, rather than be hustled out of office onto the cold opposition Parliamentary benches.
McEwen was the typical school yard bully!
He retired in 1971, at the age of 70, I am sure the Liberal Party were glad to be rid of " Big Black Jack McEwen."
11. William McMahon. 25th. Prime Minister
Born into a wealthy family in 1908, at 16, when his father died he inherited a huge estate.
He qualified as a lawyer, and later took out an economics degree.
McMahon joined the Liberal Party and stood for the New South Wales seat of Lowe in 1949, and entered the Commonwealth Parliament.
He soon joined the ranks of the Ministry, and did not not marry until he was 55.
He was known as a plotter within his party, but finally gained his cherished ambition of becoming Prime Minister after Gorton voted himself out of office in 1971. McMahon and his Government were ousted by Gough Whitlam the Labour leader in 1972, when he swept into power with the slogan " Its time."
McMahon was a small man in many ways, and was unfortunate to have very prominent ears. When the Governor General was proclaiming the accession of Queen Elizabeth the 2nd from the steps of Parliament House Canberra on the 8th. of February 1952, I stood next to William McMahon. Even at this distance in time, I recall wondering what this little man with the bat ears was doing, to be amongst these Ministers of Her Majesty's Australian Government.
McMahon achieved the distinction of being the Liberal PM who lost Government after 23 years of non Labour rule. He continued to hold onto the seat of Lowe for another 10 years, but as soon as he left Parliament his old seat fell to Labour in 1982.
Sir Paul Hasluck, a former colleague, and subsequent Governor General in his book: The Chance of Politics edited by his Son Nicholas Hasluck, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1997, wrote:
"I confess to a deep 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 McMahon. I find him a contemptible creature and this contempt and the adjectives I have chosen to apply to him sum up all defects that, in my estimation of other people, cannot be balanced by better qualities."
Strong words indeed, and I must admit, Billy McMahon was certainly not among my favourites of all the Prime Ministers that I met and knew.
21st. Prime Minister.10th. December 1949 - 20th. January 1966. In Office: 16 years, 1 month, 8 days.
Robert Menzies served two terms as PM, and was the absolute doyen of all of Australia'a Prime Ministers. His record 16 years in power, in his second term, is unlikely ever to be overtaken. He stood head and shoulders above any other who has achieved this high office .
A brilliant lawyer, and debater, a wonderful speaker, I had more to do with him as Prime Minister, than any other politician in my time as ADC.
He used to call me " young man" and on the occasion in 1951, when he sought a Double Dissolution of both Houses of Parliament from the Governor General, I met him on his arrival at the front of Government House, and he asked me " How do you think I will go with His Excellency with my request for a Double Dissolution?"
My rather brash response was " Well Sir! I have had a look at the Constitution, and unlike you, I am not a lawyer, but I don't see how His Excellency can refuse you."
I ushered the PM into the Governor General's study, and waited in my office for this audience to be completed. After some 20 minutes or so the GG buzzed me, meaning he had finished his time with the PM, and I should immediately go to his study, collect the PM, and see him to his waiting car.
Mr Menzies was all smiles, once clear of the GG's study, he turned to me and said "Young man, that was good advice you gave me, His Excellency has granted my request for a Double Dissolution."
So, in fact, I was the first to know outside of my boss, and the Prime Minister, that, Australia was about to go to the polls, for an election.
The press were waiting on the steps of Government House to learn the outcome of this visit by the Prime Minister to the Governor General, the Melbourne Age took a photograph of Robert Menzies about to enter his car, with me holding the car door open for him. It made the front page of the next morning's Age.
On a much later visit to the Governor General, Mr Menzies got out of his car with something tucked under his arm, I greeted him as usual, he handed me his package, saying: " Its not a bad photograph of both of us, I thought you might like a copy."
He had inscribed this photograph: "With my warm regards, Robert Menzies 1951."
It remains amongst my treasured possessions.
Lord Gowrie, a former Governor General, had lost his son Patrick Hore - Ruthven in WW2, he had been killed in action in the Western Desert. Patrick had written a book: The Joy of Youth, and in the gardens at Government House was a fountain dedicated to him and inscribed around its edge were the words: To Pat, and his many happy hours."
I took the Prime Minister one day to view this fountain, he had been unaware of its existence, and then loaned him my copy of Patrick's book. A long time later he returned it with a very nice letter saying thank you, and how much he had enjoyed it.
Robert Menzies excelled as an after dinner speaker, I recall dinners at Government House for his Ministry, or for a visiting dignitary, and he was a guest, after the ladies had withdrawn, he would hold everyone spellbound talking about his beloved cricket. On one occasion, he had just returned from a visit to the US, he recalled a dinner in New York, for the distinguished Chinese, Doctor Wellington Koo, after the soup course, his next door neighbour asked him: " Likee soupee?" this was answered with a quick nod by Dr. Koo. He was now called upon as guest speaker for the evening, and he promptly delivered a most erudite speech in impeccible English.
Resuming his seat, he leaned across to his neighbour saying: "You likee speechee!" Menzies was knighted by the Queen in 1963 when she created him a Knight of the Thistle, the first person outside of Britain to be so honoured, and in 1966 he resigned from Parliament, and Holt took over this position.
For many years after I had left Government House, we received a Christmas Card from Sir Robert and Lady Menzies, it was nice to be remembered.
Sir Robert died on the 15th. of May 1978, and the funeral procession was one of the largest ever seen in Melbourne.
I remember Sir Robert Menzies with affection, he was always ready to stop and talk with me, just a Naval Officer, who was merely trying to do his job as Aide - de- Camp well.
13. Sir Earle Christmas Grafton Page. 15th. Prime Minister
Earle Page, one of only three Caretaker Prime Ministers in the political history of Australia.
He was a qualified medical practitioner, and had served in France in WW1, and entered politics in 1919, by 1921 he was leading the Country Party.
After Joseph Lyons died on the 7th. of April 1939, his United Australia Party had no deputy, and the Governor General called on Page to take over as Caretaker Prime Minister. Menzies then was elected to the PM's position, and in 1949, with the coalition filling the Government benches in Parliament, Sir Earle Page held the Health Portfolio, the position he filled when I was serving at Government House.
I remember him as a quiet, hardworking Minister, whom one would place in the category of gentleman.
He stood for election again in 1961 , but died before the votes were finalised, in fact, this was the first time he had been defeated in his own electorate.
14. Edward Gough Whitlam. 26th. Prime Minister
3rd. December 1971 - 11th. November 1975. In Office: 2 years, 11 months, 7 days.
Swept into power in the 1971 elections, the first Labour Government since 1949.
He was born on the 11th. of July 1916, his father had been Crown Solicitor when the Australian Parliament first moved to Canberra in 1927.
Whitlam obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree, and followed up with a law degree.
During WW2, he was a Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Australian Air Force.
Joined the Labour Party in 1945, and took the seat of Werriwa for the party in 1952.
For a long time he was frustrated in his leadership ambitions, the tough and doughty Arthur Callwell holding him at bay as leader, until Whitlam finally prevailed on the 8th. of February to seize the reins as Leader of the Opposition.
It was the ascention of William McMahon to the Prime Ministership that gave Whitlam his chance, on the floor of the house, he was devastating against the PM in the day to day hurly burly of the Parliamentary sittings. McMahon had no chance.
In the subsequent elections of 1972, Whitlam and his party swept to power, and he became Prime Minister.
He visited China in 1973, and his, was one of the first world Governments to recognise Chaiman Mao.
Whitlam had appointed his long time friend and fellow lawyer, Sir John Kerr to the high office of Governor General, no doubt believing he had ensured he had a friend at court. (the Labour Party had already made this mistake when Chifley had put William McKell into Government House, many in the party believed that the GG would never grant a Double Dissolution to their enemies, the Government of Robert Menzies. How wrong they were then.)
Thus, in November 1975, Whitlam was most suprised (after Supply had been withheld by the Conservative Opposition) to find he was dismissed as Prime Minister by the GG, and had his commission withdrawn, he could not believe it.
It was the first time in Australian History, that a Governor General who had been appointed, had dismissed a Government that had been elected by the Australian people.
The whole nation was in an uproar, in general, people taking sides in line with their political beliefs.
Malcolm Fraser waiting, hidden in the wings at Government House was immediately sworn in as a Caretaker Prime Minister, with a mandate to call an early election.
When the Official Secretary to the Governor General, David Smith, using the steps of Parliament House as his platform, read the proclamation dissolving both Houses of Parliament, and installing Fraser as PM, he finished with the phrase "God save the Queen."
A very stern and bitter Whitlam forced his way to the front steps, he was a tall and imposing figure, he announced:
Labour promptly lost the elections, and Fraser became Prime Minister in his own right with a huge majority.
Whitlam was seen by many as an arrogant and lofty leader with a huge ego, he has continued today, on one hand, be a much adored figure of the Labour Party faithful, a National treasure, on the other side of politics, he remains much disliked, and by some, the hated ex Labour PM. It depends so much upon the political beliefs of the individual. Gough Whitlam in 2002, remains as one of the most controversial PM's in my country's history.