Untold story of Canberra’s first coup: the political assassination of Prime Minister John Gorton – Part 4

John Gorton goes dancing again at Sydney Town Hall

SYDNEY, Saturday, 13 July 1968 – Four days after his perilous escapade at Sydney Chequers restaurant with cabaret star Liza Minnelli, Prime Minister John Gorton was on the dance floor for a very different event at Sydney Town Hall. He was a surprise attendee at the first Aboriginal Debutantes’ Ball held there. It was a social event for young women from the State’s Aboriginal community, particularly from inner-city Redfern and the southern suburb of La Perouse. Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins played a leading role the inauguration of the ball through the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs (FFA) and the City of Sydney Town Council whose members included Redfern-born Alderman Nicholas Shehadie, a former Wallabies captain married to psychiatrist Dr Marie Bashir, later to become NSW Governor (2001 to 2014) and then a Dame of the Order of Australia.

Pearl Anderson, aged 16, was surprised when a very tall white fella in a dark suit approached and asked her onto the dance floor. Her mother, Ruby Langford Ginibi, could not see her daughter’s dancing partner from the other side of the crowded ballroom. “Who’s that man dancing with Pearl?” she asked. The next day’s Sunday newspapers reported that Pearl had made history by being the first Aboriginal ever to dance with a Prime Minister. “I was so proud,” Ruby Langford said, “and later John Gorton wrote me a letter.”

Dr Ruby Langford Ginibi, Bundjalung author and mother of Pearl Anderson, pictured outside Sydney’s Long Bay jail

In her highly acclaimed 1988 memoir Don’t Take Your Love To Town Ms Langford recalled that her teenage daughter “badly wanted to go” to the Town Hall ball. “Money was short and Lance (her partner) was unemployed then, so I went to the Smith Family in Crown Street, Darlinghurst, and asked the welfare worker for a white ball gown. The only one they had was six 18 which was miles too big for her so, no problem, I got out the machine, tore the dress to pieces and remade it, adding a bow on the waistline. I was half way through this when I went broke and had to pawn my machine to get a feed for the kids. I finished the rest by hand, just in time for the ball, and I did up Pearl’s hair. Charles Perkins brought her a pair of white shoes and gave me a free ticket to the ball.

“When I arrived the 25 debs, all Aboriginal girls, were being photographed in the foyer. Pearl looked radiant in her remade dress and as the ball began I went inside to watch the girls being presented to the Prime Minister, John Gorton. Pearl was 22nd out of 25 debs as they formed a circle with their partners. Jimmy Little (the singer) was announcing. A grey-haired man walked up to Pearl and clicked his heels in salute and took her hand. He led her to the middle of the floor and the band struck up and away they waltzed.”

When the Aboriginal Advancement Programs began in October 1968 Ruby Langford revealed that her daughter Pearl was asked to model for a fashion show in the Waratah Festival held in Sydney’s Hyde Park. “When it was Pearl’s turn to model the radio announcer said, ‘We now give you the girl who danced with the Prime Minister, Pearl Anderson, and look at those lovely dark eyes’.

Lionel Rose in 1968: world champion boxer, and at the time the most famous indigenous Australian

“After the concert, Pearl took me into a huge tent where the newspapers had set up a display of the most outstanding photographs taken during the year. She told me to close my eyes and led me inside. When I opened my eyes I was standing in front of the huge photo of Pearl and the Prime Minister dancing, right next to a photo of Lionel Rose when he won the world championship beating ‘Fighting’ Harada, from Japan. I was so proud I was crying, and then people were gathering around Pearl, looking at her photo and recognising her, so she took my hand and we ran out to get away from them laughing.”

A year later Pearl was killed at the age of 17 when she was knocked down by a van involved in a traffic accident in Redfern. Other siblings died too. In 1970 her brother William drowned after suffering an epileptic fit, another brother David’s death was recorded as “misadventure” and Gordon, “Nobby”, spent years in Long Bay Jail for an allegedly violent but unspecified offence.

After recovering from alcohol and drug addiction, Ruby Langford started writing, reading and studying. Her accomplishments were astonishing. In 1994, she received an inaugural history fellowship from the NSW Ministry for the Arts, an inaugural honorary fellowship from the National Museum of Australia in Canberra in 1995, a doctorate of letters from La Trobe University in 1998 and a special NSW Premier’s Literary Award in 2006. A mighty achievement for a Bundjalung woman born in poverty at Box Ridge Mission near the Northern Rivers town of Coraki.

When Four Corners reporters Michael Charlton and Bob Raymond visited the mission reserve in 1961, a tribal elder told them: “An Aboriginal kiddie born here is not a citizen of Australia.” Almost 60 years later indigenous Australians are still not acknowledged in the Constitution.

Box Ridge Mission, Coraki, in Bundjalung country

Ruby Langford was immensely proud when she was given her Aboriginal name, Ginibi, meaning Black Swan, by one of her aunts at a tribal ceremony in 1991. She adopted it until she died on 1 October 2011, aged 76. A woman of undaunted passion, she admonished the white-settler establishment in 1992 saying: “Don’t be gobbingh-miggingh [greedy guts] and take everything from us. You white people have to learn to give something back. You cannot take forever from us because, in the end, you’ll destroy yourselves too.” Anyone following the raging controversy over the destruction of the Murray-Darling Basin will know precisely what she means.

Academic researcher Jennifer Jones was so captivated by Pearl’s story that she wrote a university paper in 2012 called “Dancing with the Prime Minister”* describing the evening and quoting subsequent press coverage by senior Sun-Herald writer Adrian McGregor (“Cinderella Pearl Still Walking on a Cloud”, S-H, 21 July 1968).

Jones wrote of McGregor’s story: “Pearl is presented as a modern young woman dressed brightly in a lemon jumper and mini-skirt who put aside her preference for go-go dancing to take up the Waltz and the Pride of Erin. Her beauty and dancing prowess attracted her Prince Charming, Prime Minister John Gorton who, out of 25 debutantes at the Town Hall chose to dance with Pearl. The gallant Prime Minister introduced her to his party, thanked her for the dance and wrote a complimentary message on her ball card.”

Pearl Anderson in the dress her mother made, dancing with PM John Gorton: a picture that made history

McGregor visited Pearl’s home in inner-city Sydney to evaluate the reality of Aboriginal life in the Emerald City. “In Fitzroy Street, a narrow street off King Street, Newtown, I met Pearl after she returned successfully from job-hunting. Pearl is a daughter Mrs Langford’s first marriage. The second eldest of nine children, she lives with her family in a weatherworn two-storey terrace. She invited us inside and we walked into a room with linoed floor, spare furniture and with no globe in the gathering darkness.”

Pearl told the reporter: “If it hadn’t been for Mum I wouldn’t have made the ball. She made my dress, bubble nylon over taffeta.” Then Ruby Langford took charge of the interview: “My husband is a labourer. We weren’t well off. Pearl left Leichhardt Junior Girls High in second year because she felt she wanted to help me by working. Two of the younger boys do paper runs after school. I did Pearl’s hair because we couldn’t afford to go the hairdresser. I borrowed the long white gloves and the stole for her. We got it together bit by bit. It wasn’t easy but where there is a will there’s a way.”

Pearl piped up: “Last week was so exciting, with Mum finishing my dress and then on the night she did my hair, my sister Dianne and another friend were there too. What a night! Mum’s been showing The Sun-Herald clipping everywhere she goes.”

In her own memoir, Ruby Langford Ginibi revealed that she later framed the photo of Pearl and John Gorton and hung it on the wall of their lounge room between two boomerangs.

But the celebrations in Newtown were in sharp contrast to the storm against John Gorton in the Liberal Party. Opponents of Gorton’s prime ministership coalesced in a frenzy, appalled by reports that their leader had danced in public with an “abo”, also known by such derogatory terms as “gin” and “lubra”. Their response was pure racism, a central feature of white Australia’s political life since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. It emerged in brief moments of moral horror and then it was drowned out by official excuse-makers who chorused: “This is not a racist country. Never. As Australians, we abhor racism. We will never tolerate racism.” And so on … the humbug was, and remains, nauseating.

Before John Gorton’s dance with Pearl Anderson at Sydney Town Hall in 1968, no Australian Prime Minister – Labor, National or conservative – had ever been on the dance floor with an Aboriginal woman. The new prime minister was throwing caution to the wind and making a clear public statement about how he saw the future of the Liberal Party and Australia. He had grown up in rural Victoria attending school and playing sport with Aboriginal classmates. As an anti-racist and long-standing opponent of the White Australia policy, he was determined to break the Liberal Party from its endemic racism. It suited his mission to modernise Robert Menzies’ pompous and turgid conservative party.

WC Wentworth MHR, far right, with a delegation canvassing support for the Yes vote in the referendum on Aboriginal recognition, 1967. L to R, Labor MP Gordon Bryant , Faith Bandler, PM Harold Holt, Pastor Doug Nicholls, Harry Penrith, Winnie Branson and Wentworth

In choosing his first Cabinet Gorton created a dual role for W.C. Wentworth, MP for Mackellar, making him Minister for Social Services and Minister in Charge of Aboriginal Affairs. Wentworth was a vocal and long-standing supporter of Aboriginal rights and his arrival in the portfolio was widely applauded. He was a descendant of the early settler family headed by D’Arcy Wentworth, who arrived on the Second Fleet in 1790 and became the convict settlement’s assistant surgeon. An incurable eccentric, D’Arcy Wentworth once held up carriages on London’s Hampstead Heath with a pistol.

His eldest son, William Charles Wentworth, the great-grandfather of Gorton’s Minister, was a different character altogether, though no less eccentric. During his impulsive lifetime, Wentworth championed many different and contradictory causes including the emancipation of convicts and the colony’s independence. He edited the colony’s first privately owned newspaper, The Australian, launched in 1824; explored the plains west of the Great Dividing Range with Gregory Blaxland and William Lawson; used his connections to obtain vast tracts of land; and served on the colony’s selectively chosen Legislative Council. Bizarrely, he suggested peerages for big landowners but backed off when it was publicly ridiculed as the attempted creation of a “bunyip aristocracy”.

In 2014 Liberal Party Prime Minister Tony Abbott revived Wentworth’s madcap plan by introducing knights and dames into the Australian honours system and awarding a knighthood to the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. His “captain’s call” made him a laughing stock and 18 months later he was deposed by his own party.

Billy Wentworth’s promotion by Gorton provoked the party’s “little England” faction led by London-born Peter Howson, the Cambridge-educated son of a British army officer. Howson was embittered by his own sacking from Gorton’s first Cabinet and it set in motion a prolonged destabilisation campaign funded by sections of the business community in Australia and London. Howson had masterminded the 1947 campaign against Prime Minister Ben Chifley’s bank nationalisation proposals so he had monied contacts, particularly in the City of London, to assail Gorton in 1968.

Although Howson’s receipt of funds from English Tories, banks and mining houses to overthrow Chifley was known at the time, it was never suggested that “foreign” interests were interfering in Australian political life. But today Australian supporters of improving relations with the People’s Republic of China are pilloried as “fifth columnists” and “traitors” by security service chiefs and “red-flagged” by spooks who interfere with their careers and promotions.

1967 referendum campaign: popular support for the Yes vote shocked the conservative side of politics

John Gorton’s unorthodox foray into the explosive politics of the status of Aboriginal Australians was driven, in part, by the overwhelming vote in the 1967 referendum. White Australians astonished politicians and editors by voting overwhelmingly in a majority of States in support of constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians. Black Australians, many of whom held ambivalent views about Holt’s referendum, were shocked too.

Gorton showed himself to be attuned to the new “vibe” in the electorate and he set about nudging Australia towards a non-racial future. The resurgent Australian Labor Party under the new leadership of Gough Whitlam could only lament from the sidelines: “It’s not fair. Gorton is stealing our policies.”

A sharp-witted political reporter noted that the new Gorton Government seemed like an “I-Did-It-My-Way” administration. The PM was so impressed by the newspaper’s reference that he chose Frank Sinatra’s current hit as his theme song and it was played at rallies all over the country, at The Lodge and even in the prime ministerial limousine.

At a meeting of senior advisers to select members of statutory Commonwealth boards, Gorton peered at a list of names drawn up by departmental officers and asked: “Who are the ones that Menzies and Holt [his two predecessors] would have chosen?” After crosses were added against certain names, the PM casually looked at the list again saying: “Well, they’re out to start with.”

Next week: Rupert Murdoch storms Fleet Street and overnight becomes “The Dirty Digger”

© 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.





One comment

  1. They were different Liberals to the current mob but many in our current community still dont seem to have worked that out. People in my older family who voted Liberal until they died could not work out where Liberals of their day went to and why the party has changed so much. Neo liberalism, globalisation, economic rationalism and sheer greed has destroyed the Liberal Party and made it a soulless shell of its former self.

    Great to see that picture of wharfies marching for indigenous rights. Many wharfies would have had indigenous heritage.

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