The view from Billinudgel

Worst PM makes for a good read
A biography of Billy McMahon prompts a re-evaluation of who holds the title of Australia’s worst PM

Writer Patrick Mullins dared to go where no human being has ventured: he completed a biography of Billy McMahon.

The resulting book, Tiberius with a Telephone: The Life and Stories of William McMahon, was recently awarded the $25,000 National Biography Award. The judges described it as a work that “interweaves McMahon’s life and times with an account of McMahon’s futile efforts to write his own story”.

At least three writers have previously attempted to write McMahon’s biography, but all gave up in despair, not because the subject refused to cooperate but because he wouldn’t leave them alone.

McMahon was, if nothing else, indefatigable. When Gough Whitlam was asked which quality he most admired in McMahon, he unhesitatingly nominated – in a rare moment of tact – his persistence.

McMahon, who used to boast of his own phenomenal memory, would bombard his potential chroniclers with material, ringing them day and night, as was his wont, with new thought bubbles. The trouble was that when his reminiscences were coherent they were utterly unreliable.

To his contemporaries, this was hardly surprising. Our 20th prime minister was christened, variously, as Billy Liar and Billy the Leak – and that was from his own cabinet colleagues. One of them, the usually urbane Paul Hasluck, referred to him as “that treacherous bastard”.

McMahon, who was tossed out of office in the only election he fought as leader, has since been labelled by many as the worst prime minister ever, and there have been a few duds over our brief history. So, not a promising subject for a serious re-examination.

But Mullins started with one great advantage: he never met the man. He could therefore claim a measure of objectivity denied to those of us who had to live through what many saw as an unnecessary delay to the change of government we all knew was coming.

A rethink, perhaps, but hardly a hagiography. “McMahon was not a great prime minister by any means,” Mullins admits with what appears to be reluctance. “Fundamentally, he was overwhelmed by the office.

“However reactionary, panicked and outclassed he was, McMahon was able to amass a record as PM that is much more substantial than has been acknowledged.”

Well, perhaps that’s true, although I don’t remember it that way. I was too busy laughing, and, like most of the rest of the country, enjoying it. From that perspective, at least, the McMahon years were happy, and there was a sense of anticipation embraced by the slogan “It’s Time”.

But I can agree with Mullins on one point: McMahon’s record can be seen as putting the petty squabbles of the Lodge’s more recent occupants to shame. Our current leader, the vacuous marketeer, would certainly be considered among the worst of our PMs if it were not for the salvation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And commentators are now reconsidering the league table: has Tony Abbott surpassed McMahon as the worst of our worst? When Abbott was recently announced as a trade envoy to the United Kingdom – an act of commercial treachery for a former Australian prime minster – even some of the Poms were outraged. One, shadow trade secretary Emily Thornberry, described him as an “offensive, leering, cantankerous, climate-change-denying, Trump-worshipping misogynist”. 

Whatever Billy McMahon’s many and egregious faults, he was never denounced with such contempt.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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