Untold story of Canberra’s first coup: The political assassination of Prime Minister John Gorton – Part 13

John Gorton makes a “Labor” speech then joins the ultra-conservatives

MYSTIC PARK, near Kerang, Victoria, Wednesday, 3 April 1946

John Gorton was 35, a war hero, farmer and silvertail from Sydney’s Shore School, Geelong Grammar and Oxford University when he made his first political speech. Local people called the community together for a “welcome home” dinner for returned servicemen from World War 2. Robert Davey was one of those who had answered the call to arms but never returned home. It was only natural that the locals wanted to pay their respects.

Mystic Park Hall

Mystic Park Hall, a weatherboard community centre for wedding parties, birthdays and sports presentations, was festooned with flags for the occasion. The dinner attracted around 500 farmers and their families from near and far. A marquee was erected outside for the overflow from the main hall (which no longer exists). There was a quiet dignity about the occasion. Veterans rarely talked about the war, and women and children learnt not to ask. Tonight would be different because the war was front and centre in everyone’s thoughts.

The entire population of Mystic Park was about 50 and everyone knew the late Robert Davey, a born and bred local. Most of the men wore ties and medals while womenfolk wore gloves, hats and necklaces. Poppies were pinned to shirts and dresses because Anzac Day was only two weeks away. People donated gifts for the 17 local servicemen who had returned from the war and the organisers left a vacant chair for Robert.

Robert Percy Davey VX 17245

There were two reasons for the large attendance: respect for Robert Davey and the opportunity to hear a speech by Mystic Park’s favourite son, John Gorton. Since their teenage years, “Bob” and “Jack” were mates who had played footy together. Robert Percy Davey, service number VX17245, from Mystic Park, enlisted at Caulfield recruitment centre on 25 May 1940. Born on 12 February 1910, he served as a gunner with the 2/8 Field Regiment in the North African campaign. According to Australian War Memorial records, he was killed in action on 14 August 1941. He was 31.

Gorton and his father were local identities. Their exploits were the source of constant gossip, mainly behind closed doors. They had as many detractors as admirers. The older Gorton was pidgeonholed as a Pommy who had “tickets on himself”. Young “Jack” had blotted his copybook by marrying an American girl who he met in Paris or Barcelona or somewhere foreign. Why didn’t he choose one of the local Aussie girls? Weren’t they good enough for him? Still, he had fought like the devil during the war and won medals so people were willing to cut him some slack. He was also regarded as “bit of a mug lair” but locals warmed to him when he flew low over the village in an RAAF plane, did a barrel-roll and waved to his kids before flying off again.

After polite applause Gorton took the stage to deliver an unexpectedly philosophical speech challenging the standard guff about “peace in our time” and “lest we forget”. They listened in silence. It was unforgettable. 

“There has been a good deal of confusion of thought as to why we went to war, and as to what we can reasonably expect as the result of our military victory. We did not go to war to make a new and better world. We cannot expect to make a new and better world as the result of the exercise of brute military force. We can only expect to achieve the kind of world we want by the use of brains and effort during peace.

“We fought only to preserve, for ourselves and our children, that conception of political freedom and justice which was being attached by a tyrannous power. We succeeded in that defence. Yet, I have heard not only civilians but returned soldiers say that because the world is not better, but worse, therefore the war was fought in vain. That it was a futile thing without reason or result, and that all the suffering which it entailed was wasted.

Australian crowds greet the end of World War 2

“It was not wasted. We got what we went after. We retained a system of government in which we, the people, choose our governors, dismiss them when we wish and have a voice in our own destiny. We retained a conception of justice in which the humblest one amongst us has equal rights before the law with the head of the State. We believe those principles were worth defending, not because in themselves they provided all that could be desired for human happiness, but because we believed that we could only advance to a full and satisfying life for all if we retained the freedom on which to build. A foundation is not a house; but without a foundation you cannot build an enduring structure. That we have retained this foundation is the answer to those who claim the war was futile.

“But it is now, in the peace, that we must make our advances. I believe that the returned serviceman wishes us to secure for all men that economic freedom which we have never had, and to which all who are willing to work are surely entitled. We must remove from the minds of men the fear of poverty as a result of illness, or accident, or old age. We must turn our schools into institutions which will produce young men and women avid for further education and increased knowledge.

“We must raise the material standard of living so that all children can grow up with sufficient space and light and proper nourishment; so that women may be freed from domestic drudgery; and so that those scientific inventions which are conducive to a more gracious life may be brought within the means of all. We must raise the spiritual standard of living so that we may get a spirit of service to the community and so that we may live together without hate, even though we differ on the best road to reach our objectives. And we must do all this without losing that political freedom which has cost us so dearly, and without which these tasks cannot be accomplished.

“Outside Australia peace has set us tasks as hard. All around us we see a world living in the gloom of half-peace, in the immediate agony of starvation and disease, and in the shadow of a future atomic world, whether we like it or not. And what affects the world will affect us. We must do our most to alleviate the immediate suffering, and we must take our place in the world, not as a self-sufficient, sealed-off unit, but as a member of a family, the members of which are dependent the one upon the other.

“We must do this. For no person of susceptibility, no soldier who has seen his comrades killed, no Christian, above all no mother with growing children can stand idly by and see the chance which we have once more won, once more wasted.

Australian troops in the Battle of El Alamein

“This is why I demand of you, in the name of the dead and returned, that you do not consider this war as a tasked finished; that you do not regard this celebration as the last chapter of the book. Look on it rather as half-time! a joyful occasion certainly, but only a break in the continous task. For tomorrow we must carry on again, and the tasks which lie in front us are immense and urgent as never before.

“What can we do? Individually, it may not be much. But we can at least all think on the problems which are in front of us and be ready to act on our thoughts if the opportunity arises. We can try to reason out how we may best take our place in the family of nations, and how we may best provide a full and satisfactory life for all our citizens. We can practise tolerance and understanding. And we can be ready always to defend against attacks, either from within or without, the political freedom, the measure of freed which we already have.

“It will be hard. Without the spur and urgency of a war, it will mean a constant effort from all of us. But I am going to call on your imaginations. I want you to forget it is I who am standing here. And I want you to see instead Bob Davey. And behind him I want you to see an army; regiment on regiment of young men, dead. They say to you, ‘Burning in tanks and aeroplanes, drowning in submarines, shattered and broken by high explosive shells, we gave the last full measure of devotion. We bought your freedom with our lives. So take this freedom. Guard it as we have guarded it, use it as we can no longer use it, and with it as a foundation, build. Build a world in which meanness and poverty, tyranny and hate, have no existence.’

“If you see and hear these men behind me – do not fail them.”

John and Bettina Gorton return to Mystic Park Hall

As an opening shot in a plan to build a political career Gorton’s speech made no sense at all. It was too far to the left for the conservatives and a majority of the Labor Party and Trades Hall. So who put him up to it? Was it his radical-minded American wife Bettina who was increasingly frustrated by the small-minded parochialism of their neighbours? Since their marriage in England, the Gortons had formed a formidable team with Bettina “contributing much over the years in intuition and common sense”, according to biographer Alan Trengove. Or was Gorton simply letting his true feelings run riot after years of suppressing his inner thoughts? The speech sounded like a summary of all the humanitarian and enlightened virtues he’d been taught by tutors, masters and lecturers at Christian boarding schools in Sydney, Geelong and Oxford.

His detractors noticed echoes of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address when the Republican President said: “It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us …. and that we here highly resolve that these dead men shall not have died in vain.” Gorton studied Lincoln’s speeches, writings and biographies at Brasenose and would regale friends with intimate details of his life story.

But whether Gorton was channelling Lincoln or not seems to me to miss the main point. The “Mystic River Speech” remains a priceless piece of Australian political history and I can’t imagine any contemporary Canberra politician, from the major parties, saying anything remotely like it.

Gorton as President of Kerang Shire, 1949

Among locals, Gorton’s politics were the subject of much speculation. He talked, behaved and dressed like a true Labor man; yet he was actively involved in the Country Party, the predecessor of today’s National Party; and he had all the bearings of a “born-to-rule” Liberal.

Throughout his life Gorton seemed accident-prone but always managed to fall on his feet. In fact, there was nothing accidental about Gorton’s steady rise. He always had a “plan” and every step he made was calculated down to the last detail. He had burgled his way into the common rooms of the poshest schools in Australia and England and now he intended to break into the clubs and drawing rooms of the Oz bourgeoisie via Robert Menzies’ newly-formed Liberal Party of Australia. The next thing he did was join Victoria’s exclusive Melbourne Club.

He turned his back on Ben Chifley’s Labor Party ostensibly over its policy on bank nationalisation, walked out of the Victorian Country Party because it was run by boneheads and Liberals welcomed their rural, war hero recruit by giving him a place on the  party’s Senate ticket for the 1949 Federal Election. He won a seat and went to Canberra with a clear-cut mission to fight socialism and communism and start a career which was to lead to the prime ministership 19 years later.

In her inaugural speech to the NSW Parliament in 1982, Ann Symonds AM (1939-2018), a NSW Labor MP, said the Liberal Party should be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act because it was trading under a false name. Mrs Symonds, a lifelong socialist and feminist born in the sugar cane and banana-growing town of Murwillumbah, thought that the Australian Capitalist Party (ACP) would be a more accurate name. She had a point.

Old Parliament House, Canberra

Fourteen men have led the Liberal Party of Australia: Robert Menzies (1944-1966), Harold Holt (1966-1967), John Gorton (1968-1971), William McMahon (1971-1972), Billy Snedden (1972-1975), Malcolm Fraser (1975-1983), Andrew Peacock (1983-1985 and 1989-1990), John Howard (1985-1989 and 1995-2007), John Hewson (1990-1994), Alexander Downer (1994-1995), Brendan Nelson (2007-2008), Malcolm Turnbull (2008-2009 and 2015-2018), Tony Abbott (2009-2015) and Scott Morrison (2018-2019).

Gorton was the exception to the rule. None of the other party leaders could have delivered the Mystic Park Hall speech. When they occupied The Lodge they aped their founder by looking backwards and living in the past.

Returning from Oxford in 1936, Gorton held a burning ambition to become a journalist and a war correspondent. When he was demobbed from the RAAF in 1946 he was single-mindedly determined to enter politics. Why the dramatic change of mind?

Gorton’s experiences in Britain and Europe during the rise of fascism and the Great Depression had appalled him. He was even more horrified to read a 1938 speech by Robert Menzies glorifying Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, especially his belief that the Fuhrer was “a dreamer, a man of ideas, many of them good ones”. A decade later Gorton joined Menzies’ Liberal Party of Australia and a couple of year later was barnstorming Victoria promoting a “Yes” vote for a Hitlerian ban on the Communist Party of Australia, the arrest and jailing of its leaders, the sacking of its members from the public service, the closure of its publications and the seizure of its books, correspondence and membership lists. Meanwhile, on the bookshelves of the Gorton home at Mystic Park banned works by Shakespeare, Shelley, Milton, Henry Lawson, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Goethe, Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin were neatly on display.

Dr James Darling, Gorton’s headmaster at Geelong Grammar, was so concerned about his former pupil’s sudden political swing to the right, he wrote a private letter pleading with him to be “more liberal” in his approach.  Gorton dismissed his mentor’s plea saying that the current liberal outlook “is the belief that you cannot help men permanently by doing things for them which they should, or could, do for themselves, and this is a sentiment I have imbibed from Abraham Lincoln than whom no-one could be more liberal”.  Replying to Darling’s wish to see Gorton eventually reaching The Lodge, Gorton unabashedly replied that he didn’t think he was yet ready for the job, adding: “I shall turn down the offer because of conditions I shall not choose to accept. Time will tell.” As always, Gorton was working to a “plan”. He always had one.

Those who heard the original Mystic Park Speech never forgot it but the Liberals who read it later on – after he became a senator – were horrified. “That fellow Gorton, he’s not one of us,” members muttered at the Melbourne Club in Collins Street, founded in 1838. Today the club still bans women from membership. It remains a “gentleman’s club”.

Next week: John Gorton goes to Canberra to join the Senate “swill”

© 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 is suspended temporarily while my revelations about Prime Minister John Gorton become my No 1 priority. Coverage of Oz elections, Brexit and Trump will resume shortly. AM

One comment

  1. Thanks for reminding us of Mystic Hall and revealing Gorton’s early commitment to justice plus his recognition of the interdependence of all people. Sounded like a socialist even if the veneer of conservatism persuaded him to go elesewhere. The pictures go with the usual elegant prose. Crucial historical record which we should know. Many thanks.

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