Untold story of Canberra’s first coup: the political assassination of PM John Gorton – Part 1

Part 1: Gorton steps onto the world stage

London, Monday, 6 January 1969

It was a typically freezing winter’s day. In the outer London suburbs misty rain was falling steadily. People rushing to work were forced to open their umbrellas and wear raincoats to stay dry. In the city, the rain was more like sleet. It stung faces and pierced woollen beanies and overcoats but didn’t appear to melt. Commuters arriving at work simply shook their coats and when they kicked their shoes at the entrance tiny flecks of ice flew off. City workers preferred the warmth of their workplace to the prospect of spending the morning in a freezing house in Wimbledon or an unheated bedsit in Hammersmith.

Back home in Australia people were sweltering on the beaches or watching the cricket at a barbecue, but I tried not to think about it. This was “Swinging London” and I was going to a demo. It all happened almost exactly 50 years ago when I was 26 years old.

The Savoy Hotel, London’s West End

In The Strand, just off Trafalgar Square, Australia’s new Prime Minister John Grey Gorton was reclining in the soft leather upholstery on the back seat of the Australian High Commissioner’s Rolls Royce when it swung into the forecourt of London’s Savoy Hotel. He was weary after his 28-hour flight from Sydney but also exultant. And why not? It was his first visit to London since becoming Australia’s 19th prime minister one year earlier and the Commonwealth’s “new boy” was the centre of attention. His itinerary included everything that a loyal subject from the Antipodes could possibly wish for: a visit to Buckingham Palace to shake hands with Queen Elizabeth II, who also shared the title of Australian head of state, and an invitation supper at No 10 Downing Street for a private chat with Prime Minister Harold Wilson, both Old Oxonians in the 1930s. Wilson studied at Jesus College, founded in 1571 during the reign of Elizabeth I, and Gorton went to Brasnose College which was given its royal charter in 1512. Wilson was Labour and Gorton was a Tory but they were connected by something stronger: Oxford’s old boy network. They got on like the proverbial house on fire and Mrs Bettina Gorton took an instant liking to Mary Wilson, an accomplished poet and avowed Labour left-winger.

When Wilson called a referendum in 1975 to seal Britain’s membership of the Common Market, he voted for the proposal but she voted against. Born in Diss, Norfolk, the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, Mrs Wilson irritated her husband by maintaining lifelong membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) although official Labour policy was in favour of maintaining an atomic arsenal.

“For every nut who carries a placard or sits in the middle of the roadway, there are 100 Australians with you. And 90% of the Australian people are behind you in what you are doing.” –  Gorton to Australian soldiers, Nui Dat  1968

Gorton’s back seat reverie was shattered when about a dozen demonstrators ran towards his limousine, waving placards and shouting anti-Vietnam war slogans. The chauffeur shouted, “Hang on”, to his passengers and hit the accelerator. AUS1 surged towards the hotel’s courtyard which had been specially furnished with a bright blue carpet and an Australian flag. London “Bobbies” quickly formed a protective cordon blocking the protesters from entering the hotel and then shoved them out onto The Strand. The clash attracted a scrum of Fleet Street photographers who had been tipped off that a rowdy “welcoming party” would greet the Aussie prime minister. Flashlights exploded in the bleak morning darkness like fireworks.

Gorton and his American-born wife Bettina (“Betty”), the Australian High Commissioner Sir Alexander Downer, who was one of Gorton’s former Cabinet colleagues back in Canberra, and Lady Downer were smuggled into The Savoy. The High Commissioner was grim-faced because his meticulously organised welcome for the PM had been ruined by a bunch of anti-war “bums”. Lady Downer went dark with fury; she instantly became Lady Bracknell, the pompous Tory social climber created by Irish literary genius Oscar Wilde in his play, The Importance of Being Earnest. Others in the official party, Foreign Affairs Minister Paul Hasluck, James Plimsoll, aka “Jim Plim”, permanent head of the Department of External Affairs, and Tony Eggleton, aka “The Maltese Falcon”, Gorton’s press secretary and chief minder, all later knighted, were horrified.

Gorton’s response was quite different. Before disappearing into the cavernous opulence of The Savoy’s reception, he stopped to survey the protesters, smiled broadly and waved to them. It was an embarrassing letdown for the demonstrators; they had been hoping to provoke a snarl, or maybe a reprise of the loutish behaviour of fellow Liberal, NSW Premier Robin Askin, who shouted “Run the bastards over” when anti-war activists blocked President Lyndon Johnson’s motorcade in Sydney’s Oxford Street in October 1966. Gorton’s larrikin smile and wave were most unexpected and somewhat unnerving. No wonder the Australian press nicknamed him “Jolly Jack”, I thought.

An early ANZAVW protest outside Australia House reported in The Times in 1966

A cheer squad dominated by junior diplomats from Australia House had been assembled to counter our jeer squad. Behaving with vociferous patriotism they hissed abuse: “You should be ashamed of yourselves”, “You have brought shame on Australia” and “Australia is in Vietnam to liberate the people from communism”. My personal favourite was: “If you support communism – go and live in Russia and don’t come back to Australia”.

I watched the unfolding anti-war street protest from the other side of The Strand but I was not a disinterested observer. On the contrary, I was an active member of the organising team, Australians and New Zealanders Against the Vietnam War (ANZAVW). Gorton’s arrival fell on Monday which was my day off from my job at The Sunday Times, owned by Canadian multi-millionaire Lord “Call me Roy” Thomson of Fleet. By remaining aloof from the demo, I was following an edict which I learned at my previous place of employment, Rupert Murdoch’s Daily Mirror in Sydney’s Surry Hills, where an unwritten rule of the news room’s culture was: “Reporters don’t take part in street demonstrations, we report them”.

Rupert Murdoch in London, 1969

The Mirror’s edict was complete nonsense, of course, because Murdoch’s newspapers very rarely covered street marches or strikes unless they harmed competitors or businesses that did not advertise in Murdoch papers. When protest demonstrations did appear in his newspapers they were either misreported, lamentably under-reported or mentioned in cable news “briefs” if they occurred in countries far from the peace-loving shores of Australia.

US President Johnson and PM Gorton, May 1968

Placards being waved by the demonstrators were uncompromisingly provocative. On his elevation to the prime ministership in January 1968, Gorton had reiterated Australia’s military support for the US war in Vietnam and endorsed the specious “domino theory” espoused by US President Lyndon Johnson: “If we quit Vietnam tomorrow, we’ll be fighting in Hawaii and next week we’ll have to be fighting in San Francisco.” Gorton allied himself with the Johnson administration and its “total war” strategy. He had little time for the anti-war protesters who flooded the streets of New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Sydney and Auckland. When the deafening chant rang out, “Hey, hey LBJ, How many kids have you killed today?”, John Gorton turned a deaf ear and soldiered on.

One of the anti-war banners outside the Savoy said, “Gorton, chief cop of a police state”, while others declared, “Gorton, racialist, fascist, murderer”, “Gorton and Holyoake (New Zealand’s premier Keith Holyoake) the fascist guns of South East Asia” and “Victory to the NLF” (Vietnam’s National Liberation Front). The slogans had been painted at the weekend by London-based Australians passionately opposed to Canberra’s adoption of US policy of invading, occupying and bombing Vietnam. Australians and New Zealanders Against the Vietnam War, with the awkward acronym ANZAVW, together with the Get Gorton Committee wanted to tell Londoners that not all Australians supported the devastating war aims of a succession of Liberal-National governments. Aussie and Kiwi activists had plastered telephone boxes, underground railway stations and public buildings with stickers that carried Prime Minister Gorton’s photograph accompanied by slogans such as: “WANTED for Racialism – White Australia policy & Slave treatment of Aboriginals”, “WANTED for imperialism” and “WANTED for repression”.

Liza Minnelli in the 1960s

But the banner which caught the attention of Fleet Street photographers outside The Savoy said, “Hands off Vietnam” and painted on the reverse side: “Hands off Liza Minnelli”. Snappers hooted with laughter as they photographed both sides of the cheeky banner.

Others stared in blank amazement and asked: “What could it possibly mean? What does Liza Minnelli have to do with Vietnam?”

The London tabloids and the news agencies didn’t ask any questions – they rushed the pictures across the world. It was my first experience of fake news.

Next week: The Minnelli connection

© 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.


  1. A great piece on our social and political history. Posted on social media Alex. People should read this. Jenny Haines

  2. It’s been many years since I was first captivated by the magical way you could tell a story. Remember the Roundhouse restaurant Alex? Since then I’ve been one of your many fortunate readers enjoying your particular view on world events.
    Today was different. I was cast right back to that time when I felt I was in the presence of a truly gifted story teller.
    Thanks for sharing,

  3. It’s only at times like this you realise how paths cross. Brought up in Diss I didn’t know Mary Wilson was from Diss. Mary was a lovely lady and I didn’t realise she only died recently aged 102. We moved from Diss to West Yorkshire and I remember playing cricket on a chilly Saturday at Harold Wilson’s old school. 4 no, the winning runs with my first ball, a square cut. Though maybe that was another game! Also in spring of 1965 I once met Marcia Williams. I was a hairy undergrad, doorstepping at No 10, wherein worked a lass Susan, Marcia’s gopher, met at an Imperial College Saturday hop. Marcia’s advice to her is unrepeatable on a decent blog like this 😉

    Keep ’em coming Alex, those were days when things happened and the news was NEWS!

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