John Gorton’s road to Canberra and the “Taiwan lobby”
CANBERRA, 22 February 1950 to 10 January 1968
Arriving at the Canberra Press Gallery in 1963 I quickly realised that the venerable institution of Federal Parliament was under intense transition. The Old Guard of MPs in parliament and the trenchant Old Retainers in the Press Gallery were on the way out and the Young Turks were on the march. The same thing was happening back in our head offices in Sydney, Melbourne and other metropolitan capitals but at a different pace and style. The cultural clash was expressed more vividly in Canberra because the nation’s capital had become a backwater of conservatism during the long years of caution, insecurity and backwardness under Prime Minister Robert Menzies. A sea change was long overdue.
One of my first political discoveries was the existence of a far right faction of the Liberal Party known as the “Taiwan lobby”. It comprised Melbourne MP Dr Wilfrid Kent Hughes, WC “Billy” Wentworth from Sydney and Victorian Senator John Gorton. With a membership of three, the faction was tiny but it generated an enormous volume of noise. All three were ferocious anti-communists whose hatred of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China bordered on being pathological.
With boundless enthusiasm, they played red-baiting histrionics for the Press Gallery and the gallery of public opinion. Entering Federal Parliament in the same year, 1949, they held fantastical ambitions to succeed Menzies once the voters tired of his backward-looking conservatism. All of them had attended private boarding schools in Australia, took university degrees at Oxford and served with distinction in World War 2 (Hughes also served in World War 1). They were outstanding athletes, and two of them, Hughes and Wentworth, represented Australia at the Olympic Games. Gorton married Bettina Brown, an American from Maine, and Hughes married Edith Kerr, an American heiress from New Jersey.
Australian academic and historian David Lowe described the tactic of the anti-communist trio saying that Wentworth was “a chief proponent of the technique of implying guilt by association”. Much of the media employed the same tactic, and still does. Using this tawdry approach, they baited Labor leader Dr HV Evatt as a “Soviet dupe”, a “communist sympathiser” and a “traitor” to his homeland and drummed up lurid stories of “Soviet reds under the bed” and “Chinese communists invading our north”.
Kent Hughes and Menzies were old friends. In 1929 the two “young bloods” founded the Young Nationals Organisation, a ginger group for ultra-right-wing politics in Victoria. On his return from Benito Mussolini’s Italy, Kent Hughes wrote an enthusiastic article celebrating Il Duce’s dictatorship. He also welcomed British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley’s call for a British government of handpicked business and military leaders. Under fascism, he wrote, “industrial peace and security have been found to be worth the price of sacrificing some of the individual liberty previously enjoyed”. In 1933 he chose the right-wing Melbourne Herald to publish a series of articles titled “Why I Have Become a Fascist”. One can only conclude that masters taught some strange lessons at Kent Hughes’s two alma maters, Trinity Grammar and Melbourne Grammar.
As a senior minister in the United Australia Party’s State Government in Victoria from 1927 to 1939, Kent Hughes enacted the Unemployment Relief (Administration) Bill which coerced the long lines of unemployed to work for slave wages. Instantly, the trade union movement nicknamed him “The Minister for Starvation”. Dismissing his critics, Kent Hughes described himself as “a fascist without a shirt”, i.e. neither a Black Shirt, the paramilitary wing of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, nor a Brown Shirt, the “storm detachment” of Hitler’s Nazi Party.
When world war broke out in 1939, the Australian Commonwealth and its people faced a massive dilemma. Could the UAP Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, a politician who had once hailed (sic) Hitler as “one of the really great men of the century” lead an acceptable and successful wartime government? The response from Canberra, Washington and London was resoundingly negative. As a consequence, Labor’s John Curtin, a former journalist from Perth, was chosen to be Australia’s wartime leader.
The fierce resistance to uncovering the pro-fascist political views of senior members of The Establishment was not confined to Australia. It was part of a worldwide studied amnesia. In England, for example, there was a conscientious effort to protect the royal family, members of the House of Lords, industrialists, bankers and the landed gentry from pesky questions about their pre-war loyalties and anti-Semitism. No one was prepared to cite Winston Churchill’s 1933 statement saluting Hitler’s Third Reich: “I think of Germany with its splendid clear-eyed youth demanding to be conscripted into an army burning to suffer and die for their Fatherland. I think of Italy, with her ardent fascists, her renowned chief, and stern sense of national duty.” Churchill was correct in one sense: there would be much burning in 10 years’ time but it would be in industrial-sized ovens. When today’s Tories are attempting to suggest the whole British Labour Party is anti-Semitic, Churchill’s fanatical rantings remain unmentionable.
Kent Hughes enlisted in the Australian army in 1939 to defend the British base in Singapore. He wanted to fight the Japanese for whom he had a pathological hatred because he believed they threatened the White Australia policy. He was captured and interned in Changi prisoner-of-war camp before being sent to camps in Taiwan, where President Chiang Kai-shek was supporting Japan’s invasion of mainland China and then Japanese-occupied Manchuria. He was liberated by the Red Army in 1945, a fact that is ignored in Liberal Party biographies and absent from official war records kept by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
While Menzies always argued vociferously for fellow Australians to enlist in the two world wars, he never wore a service uniform himself. In later years, under withering criticism in parliament, Menzies was defended by his friend Kent Hughes who launched a counter-attack on Labor’s ex-wharfie MP Eddie Ward saying: “The Member for East Sydney has never even learned to stand to attention”. Ward fired back: “The Prime Minister has learned to stand to attention, but he never learned to charge.”
After WW2, Kent Hughes’s previous adherence to fascism was politely ignored by Menzies who welcomed him into the Liberal Party. At the outset, Menzies stressed the “broad church” character of his new party but did not mention that his definition included fascists. In 1949 Gorton, Kent Hughes and Wentworth were elected to Federal Parliament and joined the exclusive club of “49ers”. Other notable “49ers” were Alexander Downer from Adelaide who became Australian High Commissioner in London, William McMahon from Sydney, a future Prime Minister, Paul Hasluck from Perth, a future Governor-General, and Athol Townley from Hobart, a future Defence Minister. Gorton’s change of heart was nothing short of spectacular. At Oxford his closest friend had been Arthur Brown, an avowed communist, while his closest friend in Canberra was Wilfrid Kent Hughes, a barking fascist.
Gorton, Kent Hughes and Wentworth recognised a bandwagon when they saw one. They were attracted to the party, not to its founder. They all believed that Menzies was intellectually inferior and that his old-fashioned ties to Britain would bring him undone. They were positioning themselves as the party’s modernisers and reformers. Wentworth was uncertain whether he hated Menzies more than the “Reds”. In a signed article in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1943, Wentworth wrote: “The greatest national service he [Menzies] can render Australia would be to quit politics. Those of us who stand for a more vigorous policy are anxious that Mr Menzies’ inevitable failures should not block the path of future progress,” i.e. his own!
Fred Daly, Labor MP for Grayndler in Sydney, dreaded Wentworth’s arrival in Canberra calling him “the greatest communist hater to cross my path in my many years in politics. He became so fanatical on occasions that it was humorously said that he really believed that the Rhode Island Reds were responsible for the shortage of eggs in the fowl yards”. On one occasion another Sydney MP Les Haylen, a writer, novelist and journalist, put on an attendant’s white coat to look like a psychiatric nurse and stood next to Wentworth while he was addressing MPs. The Speaker suspended Haylen for 24 hours after he refused to take his seat on the Opposition benches.
In his first 1949 Cabinet the PM included his old political collaborator, Kent Hughes, as Minister for the Interior and Minister for Housing (in 1952 Menzies added Minister for Works). But he was very wary of Gorton and Wentworth and they were condemned to the backbenches.
Sworn in as a senator on 22 February 1950, Gorton was hit by a whirlwind of events as Menzies led Australia into the catastrophe of America’s Cold War. On June 23 the Communist Party Dissolution Bill was passed and on July 26 Menzies joined the US-led war in Korea. It was the first armed conflict of the Cold War and lasted four years, taking tens of thousands of lives. For what? Officially, 339 Australian service personnel were killed and 1,200 maimed or wounded. The Pentagon and the CIA used the war to experiment with chemical and biological warfare and napalm bombing, and even considered using tactical nuclear strikes when their forces were overwhelmed by Chinese and Korean troops.
The war ended in a gruesome stalemate – brokered by British diplomats – with America dividing the Korean Peninsula into two countries. The world is still living under the menacing shadow of this face-saving piece of diplomatic skulduggery. The same escape plan was used by London in partitioning Ireland, India, Palestine, Germany, Yemen and Cyprus. The divided nations were left in economic and social ruins for decades and the loss of life was counted in millions. Polite academics called it “decolonisation” and gained tenure.
Gorton’s anti-China agitation was disrupted in 1954 when British Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, the former UK Prime Minister, suddenly arrived in Beijing to meet Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai. The visit created angry hysteria in conservative Western circles in London, Washington and Canberra. The imperialist camp had withdrawn its diplomatic recognition of China when the People’s Republic was declared in 1949, and Gorton belonged to the eccentric group calling for the offshore island of Taiwan to be recognised as the sole representative of China.
Before dropping off in China, Attlee’s delegation, which included Hugh Gaitskell, Aneurin Bevan and Dr Edith Summerskill, a founding architect of the National Health Service and ardent feminist, visited Moscow for talks with Nikita Khrushchev, Georgi Malenkov and the Politburo. Another 17 years elapsed before the ALP’s Opposition leader Gough Whitlam would visit China and promise to recognise the People’s Republic. President Richard Nixon followed in February 1972.
In 1956 Menzies finally tired of the uncontrollable behaviour of Kent Hughes and sacked him from Cabinet. The former fascist ideologue had been co-opted by Menzies on the principle attributed to Chinese war strategist Sun Tzu that leaders should “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”. When that tactic was exhausted, Kent Hughes was unceremoniously sacked. Menzies covered the axing with waffle about “administrative inefficiency” and the need to introduce “new blood”. However, the trigger was obvious to everyone: during a ministerial visit to Tokyo the irascible Kent Hughes criticised policies of the Menzies government.
There were other issues as well. Within Cabinet and through media leaks, Kent Hughes held forth about the “red tape, inefficiency and bumbledom” of Canberra’s bureaucracy and ridiculed the capital’s “parish pump” politics. He hated his minor Cabinet portfolios, describing himself as a “junior office boy” in charge of hedge-cutting and installing water meters. His dismissal from Cabinet effectively brought his political career to an end so he devoted his energies to Melbourne’s Olympic Games. His new occupation came with the promise of a knighthood.
Brigadier Sir Charles Spry, the director of the Australian Security Intelligence Office (ASIO) did not regard the far right worthy of investigation as “agents of a foreign power”. Its formidable resources were directed at those Australians who wanted peace and even-handed relations with the USSR and mainland China. So what’s changed?
In 2019, ASIO and the Australian Federal Police were relentlessly pursuing Moslems and Middle East refugees when Grafton-born Brenton Tarrant, a dinky-di white Aussie, shot and killed 50 Moslem worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The white supremacist’s slaughter produced a memorable front-page headline in Rupert Murdoch’s Australian: “Spy boss joins terror fight” What had he been doing in the decades before? The sub-heading said: “Ministers to be briefed on security response as New Zealand death toll hits 50”. The article declared that “Australia’s top national security officials, ASIO director Duncan Lewis and AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin, will today hold an urgent meeting to brief ministers on Australia’s response to Friday’s terrorist attack, offering a review of the threat posed by right-wing terrorists.” (18 March 2019).
Using his innate tactical skills, Gorton drifted away from Kent Hughes and Wentworth and decided that his future lay at the side of Menzies. He became the PM’s loyal lieutenant in the Senate, feeding him gossip and snippets of political intelligence gleaned from his ever-widening range of contacts in all major parties. Gorton had also cultivated important Liberal Party grandees in Melbourne and Sydney and enjoyed constant access to media proprietors and editors. In December 1958 he joined the Menzies ministry as Navy Minister. It appeared to be a very junior appointment but all that changed very quickly. Over the next 10 years he would become Interior Minister (1963-64), Works Minister (1963-1967), Education and Science Minister (1962-1968) and Prime Minister on 10 January 1968. No one saw him coming.
In the navy portfolio Gorton flourished. Retired seamen from admirals to engine room mechanics still hail Gorton as the “best minister we ever had”. When he took delivery of the destroyer HMAS Daring in 1959 he raised cheers by announcing that four new anti-submarine frigates were being delivered from Australian shipyards and that Cabinet was considering plans for an upgrade of new RAN warships. He made an utter fool of himself when two RAN ships, the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne and destroyer HMAS Voyager, collided during a night exercise off Jervis Bay in February 1964 but his career was revived, when he became Education Minister, by a pioneering policy to introduce state aid for Catholic and private schools which revived the Coalition’s electoral popularity.
His elevation to the Ministry was vehemently opposed by ASIO director Brigadier Charles Spry who constantly briefed Menzies by phone and at private meetings in Melbourne. Spry’s “TOP SECRET” files were full of reports on Gorton dating back to his days at Geelong Grammar, Brasenose College at Oxford, his two visits to Spain in the 1930s, his marriage to Bettina Brown and her brother Arthur’s university friendship with him. Droves of American and British delusional spooks from London and Washington had visited Melbourne to advise on the establishment of ASIO and to make wild accusations of treachery against leading Australians in prominent positions, and Gorton was one of them.
Security suspicions were concentrated on Gorton’s university holidays to Catalonia on the eve of the Spanish civil war. Franco’s backers were bankers, industrialists, army chiefs, landlords and Catholic clergy while the other side attracted workers, peasants, writers, poets, artists, journalists and a wave of anti-fascist activists from Britain, Ireland, Europe, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Asia who comprised the International Brigades. Novelist George Orwell wrote: “In essence, it was a class war. If it had been won, the cause of the common people everywhere would have been strengthened. It was lost, and the dividend-drawers all over the world rubbed their hands.”
War correspondent Herbert Matthews of the New York Times wrote rhapsodically: “Today, wherever in this world I meet a man or a woman who fought for Spanish liberty, I meet a kindred soul. In those years we lived our best and what has come after and what there is to come can never carry us to those heights again.” The spooks were obsessed with knowing whether Gorton felt influenced the same way.
Phillip Knightley, 1929-2016, my fellow journalist on the London Sunday Times, a mentor and great friend, admired what he called “the first fellow-travellers, who were swept away by the earth-shaking events of the Russian Revolution”. The author of the book Philby: KGB Master Spy, Knightley also expressed his admiration for the agent at the centre of the Cambridge spy ring. “They were all wrong,” said “PK”, “and today it is easy to scoff at their naivety, deride their choice, and gloat at their downfall. I suppose the crunch question is, knowing all you do now, would you have stood with Kim Philby against the Fascists in Vienna in 1934? And for me, the answer has to be Yes.”
The defection in 1951 of senior British Foreign Office and intelligence officers, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, members of the KGB’s Cambridge spy ring, formed a crazed backdrop to the atmosphere of hysterical paranoia. Philby, the so-called “third man”, followed them to Moscow when he fled in 1963.
Cold War hysteria was fed by Allen Dulles, the first civilian director of the CIA and brother of the reactionary Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, J Edgar Hoover’s FBI and Senator Joe McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities. The execution of atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg at Sing Sing in 1953 added a further layer of fear and loathing.
But Menzies’s pièce de resistance was the election-winning Petrov Affair. On 13 April 1954 with an election called for 29 May, it was in the dying hours of Parliament when Menzies strode into the House at 8 o’clock without prior notice to the Labor Opposition or his own backbenchers. He announced the defection of the Soviet Embassy’s third secretary, Vladimir Mikhailovich Petrov, who had made application – through ASIO – for political asylum. There was bedlam in parliament and around the country.
Two Soviet security guards tried to send Mrs Evdokia Petrov back to Moscow but Menzies, guided by Spry, formerly of Military Intelligence, had her seized at Darwin Airport in the full glare of the media and placed in Australian custody. The rescue was portrayed in the conservative media as a thunderous success for Menzies himself.
But when votes were counted, it was clear a majority of Australians were fed up with Menzies’s “Red scare” chicanery. “Doc” Evatt’s party polled an absolute majority of votes and 135,000 more than the Liberal-National parties. Labor picked up five seats and the Coalition lost five but still ruled Parliament with 64 seats to 57. The judicially rigged Petrov Royal Commission was dragged on and on. It became an anti-Labor, anti-communist, anti-union sideshow crushing Labor’s morale for Federal Elections until 1969 when Gough Whitlam led a resurgent ALP to within a whisker of defeating Gorton.
The ASIO-scripted press release from Petrov was laughable and few believed they were his words. It read: “I wish to ask the Australian Government for permission to remain in Australia permanently. I wish to become an Australian citizen as soon as possible. I ask for protection for myself and assistance to establish myself comfortably in this country. I no longer believe in the Communism of the Soviet leadership. I no longer believe in Communism since I have seen the Australian way of living.”
Global events in the year 1956 shook domestic politics in Australia on an unprecedented scale. The absurdly parochial news media had to adjust itself to carry news reports from flashpoints around the world. What follows is a selected month-by-month account:
January: Egypt’s nationalist President Gamal Abdel Nasser vows to “reconquer” Palestine, called Israel since 1948. Elvis Presley releases his first single, Heartbreak Hotel, which soon becomes a No 1 hit around the world. Notable births: Christine Lagarde who became French Finance Minister; actor Mel Gibson; and actresses Geena Davis and Mimi Rogers.
February: British Foreign Office spies, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, resurface at a press conference in Moscow. Nikita Khrushchev condemns Stalin’s crimes in a secret speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He rehabilitatsd Bolshevik leaders Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin and other victims of the infamous show trials and other party stalwarts persecuted, tortured, jailed and banished to Siberia during “Uncle Joe’s” reign of terror.
March: Archbishop Makarios, leader of the Cypriot independence movement, is bundled into exile in the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. Morocco’s rulers yield to popular pressure and declare the kingdom’s independence from France. Another Arab kingdom, Tunisia, gains independence from France. Pakistan declares itself as the world’s first Islamic Republic.
April: Spain relinquishes its colony in Morocco to the new rulers in Rabat. Tunisia’s independence leader Habib Bourguiba is elected president of the National Assembly (parliament) to become Prime Minister. Maria Desylla-Kapodistria becomes mayor of the island of Corfu, the first woman elected mayor of a city in the history of modern Greece.
May: Israel establishes diplomatic relations with Austria, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler. India’s Congress Party government announces diplomatic relations with Francoist Spain. The constitutional union between newly-independent Indonesia and Holland is dissolved. Switzerland wins the first Eurovision Song Contest with a song called Refrain.
June: Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, a renowned Stalinist, is sacked to become ambassador to Mongolia. Elvis Presley’s TV performance of “Hound Dog” creates a storm of protest over his “suggestive hip movements”. Gamal Abdel Nasser becomes the second President of the Arab Republic of Egypt.
July: Peers in the House of Lords, London, vote against Bill to abolish the death penalty. Egyptian President Nasser nationalises the Suez Canal after Britain, France and Israel refuse to negotiate a proper payment. A joint meeting of the US Congress, called by President Dwight Eisenhower, approves “In God we trust” as America’s national motto.
August: West Germany bans the Communist Party of Germany in compliance with demands from Washington, NATO and Nazi remnants in the Bonn government.
September: Television broadcasting starts in Australia. The submarine transatlantic cable between Europe and the US is opened.
October: Queen Elizabeth II opens the world’s first nuclear power plant, Sellafield, on the coast of the Irish Sea in Cumbria. Soviet troops march into Budapest to crush an anti-Russian uprising and Hungary’s moves to leave the Warsaw Pact. Britain, France and Israel invade Egypt to seize Sinai and the Suez Canal.
November: Tens of thousands of Hungarians flee the Soviet invasion of Hungary to seek new lives in the West. Republican President Eisenhower defeats Democratic challenger Adlai Stevenson in a rematch of their clash four years earlier. The UN demands the withdrawal of British, French and Israeli forces from Egypt and all Arab lands. The Olympic Games open in Melbourne, the first time the sports event has been held in the southern hemisphere. Morocco, Tunisia and Sudan join the UN. Fighting stops in Hungary and Egypt.
December: The Suez crisis forces petrol rationing in Britain as oil producers punish Anthony Eden’s Tory Government. Fidel Castro and a small band of followers, including his brother Raul and Che Guevara, land by boat in a mangrove swamp to start the Cuban Revolution against the CIA and Mafia-backed Batista regime. Soviet artist Alexander Rodchenko dies in St Petersburg aged 64.
The Nobel Peace Prize is not awarded in 1956. Surprise, surprise!
To all who knew him at the time, Gorton was chastened by the dramatic turn of events in the 1950s, and 1956 was his personal watershed. His ambitions became more Machiavellian and his attitude more secretive. He trusted a tiny inner circle and used everyone else as pawns in his private Game of Thrones. His intense belief in Australian nationalism became tempered by events outside Australia. He was attempting to marry two opposites: larrikin Aussie pragmatism and old-fashioned imperial exploitation. He wanted to be three things at once – a glad-handing Labor man, a Country Party protectionist to subsidise primary producers and a conservative defender of wealth and privilege. It was a doomed project from the very start.
His life changed on Saturday afternoon, 16 December 1967, when Prime Minister Harold Holt was drowned at Cheviot Beach, Victoria. He manoeuvred his way onto the party’s short list of contenders, but no one seriously considered that a senator would be chosen for the prime ministership. The bookies rated him as a rank outsider. When press reports emerged that Holt may have been kidnapped and taken back to China on board a Chinese submarine, his widow Zara rejected the notion with the indignant retort: “But Harry doesn’t even like Chinese food.”
Gorton confounded the pollsters, bookies and commentators by defeating the other three candidates Paul Hasluck, Les Bury and Billy Snedden, all from the much-favoured House of Representatives. After Bury and Snedden were eliminated, the final vote was Gorton 43 and Hasluck 38. A few hours later he was sworn in as Prime Minister by the Governor-General, Lord Dick Casey, a Brisbane-born Trinity College boarder at Melbourne University. Casey studied at Cambridge University, became a member of Churchill’s war cabinet, served as Governor of Bengal and later become treasurer of Menzies’s Liberal Party of Australia.
Gorton allowed himself a strong drink after the ceremony and told Bettina that their long struggle for acceptance and power were over. He should have been told the story, perhaps it is apocryphal, of the new MP who looked across the chamber and said, “So, those are our enemies.” Sitting next to him, a wiser and older MP shook his head and said, “No, you’re wrong. Your real enemies are on this side of the House.”
Next week: Liberal Party dirty tricks at the Olympics
© 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: Revelations about Prime Minister John Gorton’s political assassination have been my No 1 priority in recent weeks. However, I plan to publish my Weekly Notebook as elections in Australia hot up and major developments occur with Brexit, the EU, Donald Trump and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. A. M.