Sir William “Billy” McMahon, GCMG, CH was born on 23 February 1908 in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia and died on 31 March 1988 of cancer in Sydney, Australia aged 80. Sir William McMahon was an Australian Liberal politician and the 20th Prime Minister of Australia.
Sir William McMahon’s father was a lawyer. Sir William McMahon was of Irish ancestry.
Sir William McMahon was educated at Sydney Grammar School and at the University of Sydney, where he graduated in law. Sir William McMahon practised in Sydney with “Allen, Allen and Hemsley”, 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 World War II he travelled in Europe and completed an economics degree.
Sir William McMahon was elected to the House of Representatives for the Sydney seat of Lowe in 1949, one of the flood of new Liberal MPs known as the “forty-niners”. Sir William McMahon was capable and ambitious, and in 1951 Prime Minister Robert Menzies made him Minister for Air and Minister for the Navy. Over the next 15 years he held the portfolios of Social Services, Commerce and Agriculture and Labour and National Service. In 1966, when Harold Holt became Prime Minister, Sir William McMahon succeeded him as Treasurer and as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party.
Despite his steady advance, Sir William McMahon remained unpopular with his colleagues. Sir William McMahon was highly capable, but seen as too ambitious and a schemer. Sir William McMahon had never married, and there were frequent rumours that he was homosexual. However, in 1965, aged 57, he married Sonia Rachel Hopkins who was (born in August 1932), with whom he had 3 children: Melinda, Julian McMahon (the actor and model) and Debra.
When Harold Holt drowned in December 1967, Sir William McMahon was assumed to be his automatic successor. But 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 Sir William McMahon. John McEwen did not state his reasons publicly, but privately he told Sir William McMahon he did not trust him. There was also John McEwen’s personal dislike of Sir William McMahon for the reasons suggested in the previous paragraph, but also John McEwen, an arch-protectionist, correctly suspected that Sir William McMahon favoured policies of free trade and deregulation.
Sir William McMahon therefore withdrew, and John Gorton won the party room ballot. Sir William McMahon became Foreign Minister and waited for his chance at a comeback. Sir William McMahon stood as a candidate for the Liberal Party leadership (and therefore Prime Minister, as the Liberal/Country Party coalition held a majority in the House of Representatives) after the 1969 election but was defeated by John Gorton. In January 1971 John McEwen retired as Country Party leader and his successor, Doug Anthony, did not continue the veto against Sir William McMahon. In March 1971 the Defence Minister, Malcolm Fraser, resigned from Cabinet and denounced John Gorton, who then called a party meeting. When the confidence vote in John Gorton was tied, he resigned, and Sir William McMahon was elected leader.
Sir William McMahon found being Prime Minister an unenjoyable experience. The Vietnam War and conscription had become very unpopular. Sir William McMahon was unable to match the performance of Labor leader, Gough Whitlam, who campaigned on radical new policies such as universal health insurance. Sir William McMahon was undermined by plotting from John Gorton’s supporters. Sir William McMahon attacked Gough 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.
Sir William McMahon reputation for economic management was undermined by high inflation. Sir William McMahon voice and appearance came across badly on television, and he was no match in parliamentary debates for Gough Whitlam, a witty and powerful orator. The press further weakened Sir William McMahon’s popularity.
Sir William McMahon lost his nerve, and in the December 1972 election campaign he was outperformed by Gough Whitlam and subjected to further humiliation in the press. When Gough Whitlam won the election Sir William McMahon resigned the Liberal leadership.
Sir William McMahon had been a minister continuously for 21 years and 6 months, a record in the Australian Parliament. Only Sir George Pearce and John McEwen had longer overall ministerial service, but their terms were not continuous.
Sir William McMahon served in the Shadow Cabinet under his successor, Billy Snedden, but was dropped after the 1974 election. In 1977, he was knighted. Sir William McMahon stayed in Parliament as a backbencher until his resignation in 1982, by which time he was the longest-serving member of the House.
Bust of William McMahon by sculptor Victor Greenhalgh located in the Prime Minister’s Avenue in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens William McMahon was appointed a Privy Counsellor in 1966, a Companion of Honour in the New Years Day Honours of 1972 and Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 1977.
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