Untold story of Canberra’s first coup: The political assassination of PM John Gorton – Part 8

Mrs Gorton stands by her man

Canberra, Wednesday, 19 March 1969 – In popular mythology the Ides of March is associated with hellish forebodings. It is dated from March, 44BC, when Julius Caesar was assassinated by fellow senators marking a turning point in Roman history. Shakespeare cemented irrational fears about the calendar month by writing a doom-laden line for a fortune teller in his play Julius Caesar: “Beware the Ides of March”.

Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, had a premonition of her husband’s imminent murder and tried to persuade him not to attend a meeting with fellow senators but he dismissed her warnings. Brutus volunteered to escort Caesar to the meeting place and then joined the plotters in stabbing him to death. Shakespeare portrays Calpurnia as a devout, shy person who had a dream of Caesar’s statue flowing with blood and Roman citizens washing their hands in it. In another dream, Caesar died in her arms.

Bettina Gorton playing the didgeridoo in June 1968

Mrs Bettina Gorton, wife of Prime Minister John Gorton, was an intense woman of remarkable intelligence and courage. Of Australia’s “First Ladies” before 1968 or since, she stands out as the most outstanding scholar and the most intensely private. Bettina Edith Brown married John Gorton in 1935 on the completion of his studies at Oxford University and she was a languages student at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Her birthplace in the United States is disputed: some records say she was born in Portland, Maine, others say in Bangor, Maine, while still others claim it was Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Confusion may arise from the fact that Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820 when its citizens voted for independent statehood to become America’s 23rd state of the Union. John Gorton experienced similar problems of knowing exactly where he was born.

They met when Gorton’s best friend at Brasenose College, Oxford, Arthur Brown, took a holiday in Spain. They were stirring times in Spain. Generalissimo Francisco Franco was on the brink of plunging the country into civil war against republicans, communists, leftists and anarchists centred on Barcelona. Arthur Brown, Bettina’s brother, would have been aware of Franco’s ugly designs: he was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.

“Jack” Gorton from Victoria and Arthur Brown from Maine may seem an odd couple but Oxford University was a battlefield of ideological tendencies in the 1930s between conservatives, liberals, socialists and communists. This was particularly true of the neighbouring campus at Cambridge University where Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross studied capitalism and Marxism. They showed a preference for the latter by working for the KGB, the Soviet Union’s secret spy service. Furious students debate were fuelled by the rise of fascist leader Benito Mussolini, “Il Duce”, in Italy, Antonio Salazar’s fascist takeover of Portugal in 1932 and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler ascension as Chancellor and Fuhrer of Germany in 1933.

Cadaques in Spain – haunt of artists, writers, leftists and the Gortons in the 1930s

When Arthur Brown and his Oxford chums rented a holiday house at Cadaques right on the Mediterranean coast in Spain, he invited his sister Bettina to join them. For adventure-loving Bettina it was the trip of a lifetime: she was on the next train. On arrival she met John Gorton, the dashing Australian student from Melbourne. In this heady atmosphere of politics, religion and cheap wine they fell in love.

Cadaques is a small town in Catalonia, the republican province which became the centre of resistance to Franco’s murder squads in the civil war. It was also an artists’ colony for anti-fascist modernists such as Salvadore Dali, Pablo Picasso, Rene Magritte, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. Writers gathered there too: Ernest Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls), George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia) and Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon), war correspondents Claud Cockburn (Daily Worker), Kim Philby (The Times), Sefton Delmer (Daily Express) and Australian journalists Alan Moorehead, Rupert Lockwood and Sam White.

Labor MHR Bert James

In January 1968 when the Gortons swept into The Lodge Canberra was more a hotbed of gossip than politics. The capital city lived and breathed it, possibly out of boredom. The unconventional Gortons attracted more gossip than the Menzies family had experienced in the 20 previous years. The PM’s fascination with younger women and his impatient style of government drew critics from the Liberal Party and the higher echelons of the public service and business. Things came to a head on Wednesday, 19 March 1969 when Bert James, a Labor MP from Newcastle, announced he would “drop a bucket” on Mr Gorton during a late night adjournment speech in the House of Representatives. Incredibly, a mere 14 months into John Gorton’s prime ministership, he was facing a parliamentary trial.

Edward St John QC, Liberal MP

After dinner and the closure of the non-members’ bar at 10 o’clock the House and the Press Gallery began to fill while spectators wandered into the Old Parliament House to find spare seats in the public gallery. During the day Edward St John QC, a prominent Sydney Liberal backbencher, changed tactics and decided to bring forward sweeping allegations against his own Prime Minister. Instead of waiting to address the Liberal party room, St John told the media he would speak after Bert James resumed his seat. The over-ambitious and sanctimonious St John (pronounced “Sinjin”) saw a chance to speak on the national stage, call for John Gorton to resign and lay out his leadership credentials for the prime ministership. It was a daring play – would he succeed or not?

Bettina Gorton abandoned listening to parliamentary proceedings on the radio and called a Commonwealth car to take her to Parliament House to follow the high drama on the spot. She sat in the Speaker’s Gallery lending moral support to her besieged husband and looking directly at the Liberal Party’s front and backbenchers.

At 10.45pm Bert James, a former NSW police sergeant, started to deliver his long-awaited adjournment speech. He was an unlikely pillar of propriety to “bucket” anybody. On an occasion when he went missing before a crucial vote, Labor’s whip found him sitting on the toilet with his trousers around his ankles eating a meat pie.

James skipped quickly over references to the Chequers incident with Liza Minnelli and an unspecified “incident” in Bali and concentrated his attack on what had taken place at the US Embassy after the Press Gallery dinner. He concluded by saying: “It disturbs me somewhat to think that such things could be written about a person who holds the highest position in this nation. I have no doubt that the Prime Minister could clear the air with regard to this shadow that has been cast on his integrity …” That was it? Is that all he had? It was starting to look like a big fat anti-climax.

Bert James was followed by three prominent Liberal MPs, Jim Killen, Tom Hughes QC and Billy McMahon, who led the charge to defend Gorton from the “muck-rakers”. St John rose to speak at 10.34pm, the only Liberal to break ranks and scandalise John Gorton’s conduct. He gave his version of what happened at the US Embassy and goaded by backbench interjections he declared: “His conduct is simply not good enough in a Prime Minister of Australia.” There were gasps from members of Gorton’s Cabinet in the House. A pro-Liberal hack in the Press Gallery muttered: “This is treason.”

Deputy PM John McEwen

John McEwen, Deputy Prime Minister and “Father of the House”, rose to bring order and shut down the adjournment with a “gag” motion. Speaking with obvious passion McEwen told MPs: “I have not the slightest doubt at all and I have never been in any doubt about rejecting them (the allegations of impropriety). I have no doubt whatever that the Australian people, who have been happy to have this distinguished man as their Prime Minister, accept the veracity of what he says. This Prime Minister has our confidence and our respect and this not a matter that needs debate.” Then he halted the Liberals lining up by moving: “That the question be now put.”

After various procedural devices, Prime Minister Gorton entered the House and asked to be heard. “I do not propose to spend more than perhaps five minutes on this matter,” he said dismissively. “But it is an interesting exercise in how something which I believe is a perfectly reasonable and proper thing can be twisted, turned and slimed over as it has been tonight.” He had been invited to the US Embassy by Mr Crook, he said, and he offered Ms Willesee a lift. She sat in back seat with press secretary Tony Eggleton and he sat in the front seat next to the driver.

“Is there anybody here who has not at some stage or other, at some meeting or other, been asked to give somebody a lift home and given them a life home? Of course not.” Taking direct aim at Mr St John, the PM concluded: “I am happy, and Mr St John says he is happy, to let this House and to let the public of Australia, decide how terrible that occurrence was.” Following his political instincts, the PM had decided to give a nod of approval to Parliament while putting his fate in the court of public opinion.

Bettina Gorton listened to Mr St John’s pious hypocrisies with mounting anger. While her husband was thanking fellow MPs for their support and trying to calm rattled staff, she typed a bowdlerised version of the first stanza of a poem composed by Lancashire poet Sir William Watson (1858-1936). Watson’s original verse was an explosive broadside directed against Margot Asquith, second wife of the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who had written an unkind review of his poetry. Where Watson had written “She”, Mrs Gorton typed “He” and on the second line she changed “The woman” to “The Member”. Taking enraged aim at St John, the PM’s wife had copies of her version Xeroxed and individual copies of “Comment on Current Event” delivered to every office in the Press Gallery.

He is not old, he is not young,

The Member with the Serpent’s tongue,

The haggard cheek, the hungering eye,

The poisoned words that wildly fly,

The famished face, the fevered hand –

Who slights the worthiest in the land,

Sneers at the just, condemns the brave,

And blackens goodness in its grave.

However, her attempt to shame St John misfired. Reporters who bothered to mention Mrs Gorton’s verse merely drew attention to the fact that she had “misquoted” Sir William Watson’s original and mocked her scholarly reputation. The last laugh, they concluded, was on her!

Was that really the case? Mrs Gorton had made no attempt to hide her authorship of the press release. She had signed it. She also wrote in brackets above her signature, “With apologies to William Watson”, thereby admitting the original work was Watson’s and not hers. Instead of celebrating her staunch defence of her husband, MPs and Gallery journalists chose to close ranks.

Bettina Gorton kisses husband John on his 60th birthday, 1971

At 1am John and Bettina Gorton left Parliament with his arm affectionately around her shoulder. It wasn’t something parliamentary staff had ever seen in their lifetime, certainly not between Sir Robert and Dame Pattie Menzies or Harold Holt and Zara. The Gortons had weathered Parliament’s scrutiny with relative ease but they would be reckless to believe the fight was over. Storm clouds were gathering.

In the words of one parliamentary reporter Gorton had “made a mountain out of a mole hill”. Sure, he had behaved foolishly and recklessly but where was evidence of a sexual misadventure with Ms Minnelli or Ms Willesee? Like many barristers, St John had fallen in love with the sound of his own voice. It’s a professional hazard, especially among QCs. They come to believe their oratorial skills can overwhelm facts and evidence and that juries will believe their version of events. In front of amiable juries selected randomly from electoral rolls it may have worked but not with hard-headed Federal MPs – at least not in the 1960s.

Feeling increasingly isolated by a united Coalition party room, St John decided to broaden his attack. While the Gallery worked overtime to pick inconsistences in the time line that Gorton had given to MPs, St John launched into fresh accusations. He criticised PM’s “arrogant” approach to Cabinet decision-making, his advocacy of federalism and centralism and his antagonistic attitude to Premiers in Victoria (Henry Bolte), NSW (Robert Askin) and Queensland (Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen).

At 9.30am on Thursday, March 26, the Liberal Federal Parliamentary Party met in Parliament House to destroy St John and demonstrate that his critique of Gorton was rubbish. With John Gorton in the chair, Cabinet ministers spoke in favour of a motion “strongly deploring the disloyal public attacks” made by the Sydney MP and called on him to consider withdrawing from the Parliamentary Party and operate in future as an Independent. True to form, St John rejected a secret ballot and chose martyrdom. “I stand alone,” he declared. “I am the only dissenter.”

On the surface of events, Gorton appeared to be taking a hiding. But in fact he was not only surviving but gaining popularity, particularly among working-class Australians, and winning support from some media commentators. He became a cause celebre in Honi Soit, Sydney University’s student newspaper edited by Jim Spigelman, later to be NSW Chief Justice and chairman of the ABC, and Tharunka, University of NSW student newspaper edited by Richard Walsh, an editor of Oz magazine and later Kerry Packer’s CEO of Australian Consolidated Press (ACP). He also received favourable coverage in trade union newspapers impressed by his economic nationalism. Some “ethnic” newspapers and Aboriginal papers took a shine to him as well. By making his case against Gorton in fringe media, St John was exploiting a resource never before recognised by Australian politicians.

Sir Alexander Downer

Gradually, however, the pendulum began to swing the other way. The “Gorton scandal” became a national soap opera with fresh instalments almost every day. The sensational coverage was aided and abetted by three different sources: right-wing MPs in the Liberal Party such as Peter Howson from Melbourne and William McMahon from Sydney; press proprietors such as Sir John Williams (Melbourne Herald owner), Sir Frank Packer (Sydney Daily Telegraph owner), Sir Warwick Fairfax (Sydney Morning Herald owner) and Rupert Murdoch (Sydney Daily Mirror owner); and American and British militarists who feared the unpredictable Gorton was taking Australia into a position of neutrality on Vietnam, China, Korea, Indonesia and the Pacific.

Their motives may have been different but their intentions were to “get Gorton”. On his way from London’s Heathrow to The Savoy in January, an exuberant John Gorton had told the Australian High Commissioner Alexander Downer that Britain had become for Australians a foreign country “and we must treat her as such”. He was referring to Britain’s withdrawal from “east of Suez”, the decolonisation of Africa signalled in Harold Macmillan’s “winds of change” speech and the end of Britain’s trade preferences with Australia. Downer, a fierce Menzies loyalist, was speechless.

Downer’s other gripe was with John Gorton’s private secretary, Ainsley Gotto. He overheard her referring to the PM as “John” and thought her behaviour was impertinent. At a London reception Mr Gorton asked him “to be kind to Ainsley” because she was “one of the team”. In his diary, Downer recorded his growing admiration for Ainsley’s “efficiency, resourcefulness, grasp of problems and devotion to his welfare”. But he added rather ominously: “But, in Canberra, unfortunately, many people thought differently. As time went on, with the Prime Minister encountering criticism from some members of the party, the press, and, ultimately, even his strongest erstwhile supporters, the role of Ainsley Gotto occupied too much of the spotlight, with unpleasant insinuations about their relationship.” No doubt Downer, as an Old Guard conservative, was making certain behind the scenes that London and Canberra were fed an anti-Gorton line.

Ainsley Gotto, Gorton’s private secretary

From their entry onto the political stage, John and Bettina Gorton were considered “outsiders” and “unconventional” by highfalutin’ social circles in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney. The couple did not appear to care. At one Christmas Party in the 1960s at the family home in Hamelin Crescent, Narrabundah, there were few politicians or diplomats and even fewer journalists, but many farmers and their wives from Cootamundra and bush surrounds. “The Gortons were perfect hosts,” said one invitee. “John was behind the bar serving the most delicious home-made jug of cocktail.”

A noted scholar, Mrs Gorton buried herself in language studies. In 1961 she enrolled at the Australian National University in the Faculty of Oriental Studies. In 1965, at the age of 50, she was awarded a university degree with honours in Indonesian languages and culture. She embarked on fresh studies to obtain an MA, learned to speak Malay and Javanese and was part of an ANU team that produced a Malay-English dictionary.

Bettina Gorton in The Lodge with her Indonesian language teacher Yohanni Johns

Two days after her husband became PM, Bettina Gorton made her first radio broadcast to Indonesia in Indonesian. Her language teacher was Mrs Yohanni Johns, Indonesian-born wife of an ANU academic, Professor A. H. Johns and she completed her MA writing a dissertation on the Indonesian playwright and author, Achdiat Karta Mihardja. Hal Myers, political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald in the post-war years, described Bettina Gorton as “a direct, genuine, intelligent, understanding woman who lacked any interest in the trivialities of politics”.

Achdiat, author of Indonesia’s most famous novel, Atheis, has a noteworthy political history. Son of a bank manager, Achdiat read Karl Marx as a teenager and was accused of being a member of the banned Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). He denied the allegations saying he was an “atheist”.

Writer Achdiat Karta Mihardja

In 1950 he was a founding member of Lekra, a writer’s organisation linked to the PKI. He joined the Socialist Party of Indonesia but it was banned by his friend President Sukarno in 1960 amid sectarian bloodshed fuelled by the American CIA. In a later interview about his friendship with Sukarno, the founder of modern, post-colonial Indonesia, Achdiat said: “We were best friends but not in terms of ideology. Worse, out of the blue, he banned my party.”

One year later, in 1961, he settled in Canberra and became the ANU’s professor of Indonesian literature and language. Immigration Minister Alexander Downer arranged Achdiat’s refugee status and his visa document to live and work in Canberra.

Downer was an old friend of Gorton’s: they knew each other from Australia’s most exclusive private school, Geelong Grammar, studied at Oxford at Brasenose College and both joined the Menzies Government.  When Gorton asked a favour using the “old boy network”, Downer obliged. It had worked in England for Oxford and Cambridge graduates, so why not here?

Moving into The Lodge in January 1968, Mrs Gorton created a garden of indigenous plants that she selected from all over Australia. It is called the Bettina Gorton Garden in her honour. In June that year, in response to her husband’s relentlessly bad press, she gave a lecture to the Canberra Press Gallery on Indonesian art and culture. She needn’t have bothered. It was diligently ignored.

The Gortons in the garden Bettina created at The Lodge

Next week: John Gorton’s escapade in Bali

© Alex Mitchell

NB: These articles are covered by exclusive copyright with ownership belonging to the author. They can only be reproduced in full or in part by his written permission.

NB: The Weekly Notebook has been temporarily suspended while I complete the John Gorton series. But I’ll back soon with exclusive reports on the NSW and Federal elections, Trump, Brexit and much more. A.M.


  1. I am delighted to hear that Gorton was surrounded by beautiful intelligent women! The ‘times’ in this story speak loud!

  2. This has been an excellent series Alex. Are you going to compile it all into a book and publish more widely?

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