Untold story of Canberra’s first coup: the political assassination of Prime Minister John Gorton – Part 3

Liza Minnelli in her Oscar-winning role as Sally Bowles in 'Cabaret', 1972

Chequers scandal threatens to end John Gorton’s prime ministership

SYDNEY, Tuesday, 2 July 1968 – When Prime Minister John Gorton arrived at Chequers nightclub he had been drinking – on and off – for most of his day in Sydney. After the formal Cabinet meeting which he chaired, Gorton joined Liberal Party grandees from the NSW Division at an alcohol-fuelled lunch; then at Kirribilli House where he was staying he had a late afternoon drink on the verandah; at dinner with the NSW Governor Sir Roden Cutler at Government House he drank some more; and back at Kirribilli House he had a couple of drinks before heading to Chequers where chilled champagne was waiting for the VIP revellers led by David McNicoll, editor-in-chief of Sir Frank Packer’s newspaper empire.

“Denis Wong [Chequers’ part-owner] was at his smiling best,” McNicoll later recalled. “It had been a long day for John Gorton – work, dinner, and now a late night. I noticed he looked quite sleepy.” For the uninitiated, the expression “sleepy” was “McNicollspeak” for “looked pissed”. But as usual, the ferocious social climber and professional flatterer decided to write about Gorton’s condition with the utmost discretion.

John and Bettina Gorton: she was not amused

He continued: “When the floor show started, he perked up, had a few drinks, and seemed to show some interest. Then he nodded quietly off to sleep.” To translate again: already fairly pissed, Gorton drank a few flutes of champagne and passed out during Ms Minnelli’s flashy show.

Wong alerted the singer that the Australian prime minister was in the house and sitting at the front table. During the performance she gave a special bow in his direction and after audience cheers he stirred from his “little catnap”.

But Gorton “seemed unimpressed” by Ms Minnelli’s exuberant song and dance routine and “even bored”, wrote McNicoll. “During a lull after one of her songs, he called out, ‘Sing Over the Rainbow’. Bettina Gorton gave him a reproving look. ‘This is not Judy Garland, this is her daughter,’ she said to the PM. ‘Over the Rainbow is her mother’s song.’ Gorton grunted, but at the end of the very next song he again called for Over the Rainbow. This time my wife explained. The PM remained unimpressed.”

Ms Minnelli was unfazed by the boorish behaviour from the front-row table. After all, she had played casino nightclubs in Las Vegas where drunken celebrities were a dime a dozen so she smiled at Gorton and said, somewhat unconvincingly, she was “honoured to see him” at her show.

After Ms Minnelli left the stage, Denis Wong accompanied her to Gorton’s table and introduced her to the prime minister. “She sat down and was soon in animated conversation with John Gorton,” McNicoll wrote. “After about 10 minutes, she announced she would have to go to her dressing-room to change. She got up and the prime minister got up with her. Together they walked away from the table towards her dressing room, laughing and joking. “We ordered more champagne. Googie [Withers] and John McCallum were in their best form, Bettina Gorton at her most amiable. But, as time passed, I saw she was getting a little worried. Finally, she turned to me and said, ‘I think you’d better go and see what’s happened to John, it’s time we were on our way’.”

Actors Googie Withers and John McCallum – friends of the Gortons

On entering the singer’s dressing room, McNicoll reported that he found a scene of “complete innocence”. Gorton was sprawled in an armchair “roaring with laughter” at something Ms Minnelli had said. Others in the room were Ms Minnelli’s wardrobe mistress and a man who was packing her suitcases. McNicoll addressed the PM, saying: “It’s getting late, John. Bettina thinks it’s time we were on our way.” He said that Gorton “looked at his watch, heaved himself out of his chair, said goodnight to Liza’s dresser, gave Liza a peck on the cheek, and came back to the table with me. Three minutes later we were emerging into the crisp morning air of Goulburn Street.”

The reference to “crisp morning air” was the first mention of the timing of Gorton’s nightclub adventure. It sounds like around daybreak with the sun almost up. I have independently established that Gorton’s party arrived after 11pm, perhaps midnight, and departed well after 1am. In later official statements and media stories, the timing of Gorton’s arrival and departure would differ widely.

While Gorton slept at Kirribilli House, a scandal was erupting about his unconventional behaviour with Ms Minnelli at Chequers. His political enemies in the Liberal Party were the first to hear accounts of the drunken evening and they passed them on with relish and embellishment.

Foremost among the anti-Gorton factionalists were Peter Howson, a right-wing Melbourne MP, and William McMahon, a millionaire Sydney MP, who lusted after the prime ministership. McMahon had a powerful media ally in Sir Frank Packer, the bruiser who owned a string of newspapers and magazines including the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, The Australian Women’s Weekly, The Bulletin magazine and Channel Nine.

Sydney media mogul: Sir Frank Packer

When Harold Holt disappeared under the treacherous waves at Cheviot Beach on 17 December 1967, Packer’s first preference was to back his “little mate” McMahon but later when McMahon withdrew from the race he switched to Gorton. But it was a very temporary alliance with McNicoll recording in his memoir: “It is hard to pinpoint any particular day that Frank Packer started to go cold on John Gorton. Not that he’d ever felt very warm about him.”

After the Chequers episode McNicoll briefed his boss with every salacious detail of the tumultuous night and then recorded the following observation: “The relationship between John Gorton and Consolidated Press became increasingly stormy. Our organisation finally turned against John Gorton when we ran an editorial (which I wrote) saying that Gorton must go.” (Luck’s A Fortune by David McNicoll, Wildcat Press 1979)

David McNicoll

Anti-Gorton gossip was shared by Liberal MPs with their junior anti-Labor partners, the Catholic-run Democratic Labor Party (DLP). Eventually, Labor and National MPs heard the gossip as well but no one dared to blow the whistle. Federal Labor MP Bert James, a former policeman from Newcastle, was one of the first to learn of John Gorton’s indiscretions at Chequers and he shared them with Sydney journalist Frank Browne, publisher of a private subscription newsletter called Things I Hear.

James explained that Gorton with a few others, including David McNicoll, had gone to the theatre restaurant “at about 0100 hours”, i.e. 1am. James claimed that “Gorton was pretty full”. After Liza Minnelli performed her cabaret act, Gorton went to the artist’s dressing room. “Oh well,” wrote James, “he was closeted with the girl for quite some time and finally the screams went up and he was apparently pawing her and so on … being thoroughly objectionable … and so the boys all rushed in and got him out and away.”

At the time it seemed that the only people who were unaware of the Chequers scandal were the Gortons themselves. They resumed official duties a day later without facing questions from the pesky press. Nothing appeared in the mass media because the old cricketing adage held firm: “What happens on the field stays on the field.” The policy was devised by British media barons to protect themselves from salacious coverage about their private lives in rival newspapers. The policy was transported to the colonies in Australia, New Zealand, India and Canada where editors embraced their owners’ censorship and journalists followed suit.

In Sydney where I worked for years, every newsroom was left in no doubt that the private life of the owners, Frank Packer, Warwick Fairfax and Rupert Murdoch, was off-limits. So too were the affairs of prime ministers and premiers. As an example, no one wrote about the long-running affair between much-beloved Prime Minister Ben Chifley (1945-49) and his private secretary, Phyllis Donnelly. Chifley’s Light on the Hill remained undimmed by his affaire de coeur.

How things have changed. Nowadays politicians from all sides are subjected to searching press inquiries about their marriages and sex lives. It has become part of the staple diet of Canberra’s coverage of Federal Parliament. The new rule is that politicians become fair game if their peccadillos can be shown to influence the conduct of their political careers. Its supporters declare they are upholding free speech while opponents maintain they are protecting the right to privacy. However, social media appears exempt and trashes people’s lives without fear, favour or, indeed, evidence. It has become the technological blood sport of the 21st century.

When social media became a past-time for millions of people around the world less at the turn of the 21st century it was hailed as the greatest tool ever devised for building democracy. Professor Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University was a flaring booster for the internet craze claiming it overwhelmed the tyranny of distance between continents and potentially brought people together to establish liberal capitalist democracies everywhere. Twenty years later he retracted his enthusiasm saying: “It (social media) undermined traditional media’s editors, fact-checkers and professional codes, it facilitated the circulation of bad information and deliberate efforts to smear and undermine political opponents. And its anonymity removed existing restraints on civility.” It wasn’t the first time Fukuyama got it wrong. In 1989 he published an essay The End of History  when he predicted the world had reached a social democratic, liberal capitalist equilibrium in which the previous centuries of class struggle and class conflict were outmoded. Anyone familiar with the civil wars, coups, revolts, strikes, mass demonstrations and invasions of the past decades will realise that Fukuyama is no Nostradamus.

McNicoll’s blameless verdict on John Gorton’s evening at Chequers has become the accepted wisdom for the past 50 years. He used his 1979 memoir, Luck’s A Fortune, to dispel the constant rumours of prime ministerial scandal: “That visit by Gorton to Minnelli’s room was blown up by his political enemies into something unpleasant and politically damaging,” he wrote. Gorton’s official biographer, Ian Hancock, a Liberal Party loyalist, dismissed any suggestion of impropriety between Gorton and Ms Minnelli. “The Minnelli story was hardly worth the telling,” he wrote, and then re-told McNicoll’s heavily sanitised version of events.

Waiting in the wings: William McMahon

Despite strenuous efforts to persuade the general public to accept the official story, many refused to buy it. Rumour and speculation continued in family homes, workplaces, pubs and clubs long after the event itself. Then it emerged that events at Chequers were witnessed by a group of journalists who were attending Ms Minnelli’s show to write reviews. They were plied with food and drink before half of them quit the room to type their opinion pieces for the following day’s editions.

A small group remained behind, attracted by the free booze and the possibility that the unconventional PM might say or do something newsworthy. They watched in fascination as the Prime Minister and the young showgirl disappeared behind the stage to visit her changing room.

When John Gorton returned to his table he was chaperoned by a clearly agitated David McNicoll. The reporters recalled that McNicoll began coaxing the PM and his guests rather hurriedly towards the exit. Clearly they weren’t staying for another drink, dessert, coffee or a snifter. Then one of the journos noticed something rather shocking. Blood was trickling from the PM’s nose and someone dabbed it with a serviette.

Next week: Prime Minister Gorton goes dancing again at Sydney Town Hall

© 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.

 

2 comments

  1. I saw David Mc Nicoll once or twice at Randwick races. He looked like a self-appointed advertisement for Scott Morrison’s citizenship dress. Then there was he doggerel garbage he called “journalism” that to him meant a Pulitzer Prize should be on the way.
    What a waste of oxygen. To think that frigate birds like him could influence government, any government policy.
    Indeed, the Packer inheritance of upmarket inequality has not changed.
    Nor the Murdoch gene hand-me-down.

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