John Gorton

Sir John Grey Gorton GCMG, AC, CH (9 September 1911 19 May 2002) was the nineteenth Prime Minister of Australia, in office from 1968 to 1971. He led the Liberal Party during that time, having previously been a long-serving government minister.

After a previous unsuccessful candidacy at state level, Gorton was elected to the Senate at the 1949 federal election. He took a keen interest in foreign policy, and gained a reputation as a strident anti-Communist. Gorton was promoted to the ministry in 1958, and over the following decade held a variety of different portfolios in the governments of Robert Menzies and Harold Holt. He was responsible at various times for the Navy, public works, education, and science. He was elevated to the Cabinet in 1966, and the following year, he was promoted to Leader of the Government in the Senate.

While living in Killara, Gorton began attending Headfort College, a short-lived private school run by a former Anglican minister. In 1924, he began boarding at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore), initially on a weekly basis but later on a full-time one. He did not excel academically, failing the Intermediate Certificate on his first attempt, but was a well-liked boy and good at sports. Gorton began spending his holidays with his father, who had purchased a property in Mystic Park, Victoria, and planted a citrus orchard. He left Shore at the end of 1926, and the following year began boarding at Geelong Grammar School, which he would attend for four years from 1927-30. He represented the school in athletics, football, and rowing, and in his final year was a school prefect and house captain.

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. 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. As the Hurricanes were assembled, the pilots were formed into a composite operational squadron, No. 232 Squadron RAF.

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.

From 1952 to 1958, Gorton served on the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, including as chairman for a period. He developed a keen interest in Asia, which was rooted in his anti-communism, and joined parliamentary delegations to Malaya, South Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines. He strongly supported Australia joining the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), a collective defence initiative designed to prevent the spread of communism in the region. He also supported Taiwanese independence and opposed Australian recognition of the People's Republic of China (PRC). On a number of occasions, Gorton spoke of the need for Australia to develop a foreign policy independent of Britain and the United States. In May 1957, he told the Senate that Australia should acquire its own nuclear deterrent, including intercontinental missiles.

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. 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.

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 passed 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." 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 accompanied by Sinatra's anthem "My Way".

In the 1990s, Gorton quietly rejoined the Liberal Party; John Hewson credited himself with "returning Gorton to the fold." In 1993, Gorton was invited to open the Liberal Party's campaign headquarters for the 1993 election. He endorsed Hewson's Fightback! package. 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.

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