A rattling good tale of a forgotten political assassination

John Grey Gorton, the war-wounded fighter pilot who became 19th Prime Minister of Australia

‘A Coup in Canberra: The Political Assassination of an Australian Prime Minister’ by Alex Mitchell

Reviewed by Michael Smith

John Gorton’s literary hero was Ernest Hemingway, who wrote the wartime classic For Whom theBell Tolls after spending time in Spain as a correspondent during the Civil War in the 1930s. Gorton, who once wanted to become a journalist, visited Spain while studying at Oxford and met writers, artists and workers of the Left. It was where he met his future wife, American-born Bettina Brown.

Hemingway’s novel tells of an idealistic and courageous American teacher Robert Jordan told by the anti-Franco Soviets to go behind enemy lines with Spanish guerrillas and blow up a bridge to stop the advance of Franco’s fascists. It was the nearest thing to a suicide mission and everyone knew it. Despite setbacks and certain torture and death, Jordan insisted on pushing ahead. Of course, he perished.

John Gorton was the Robert Jordan of Australian politics. As Prime Minister he relentlessly pursued policy positions, personal habits and a leadership style that offended too many enemies inside the Liberal Party and its outside supporters. There were soothsayers galore, but Gorton refused to heed the warnings. After three years as PM, a confidence motion in the party room was tied and he resigned in 1971. He was the first Liberal Party Prime Minister to be ousted by his own party. The John Gorton story was soon overshadowed by the tumultuous rise and fall of Labor’s Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

PM Gorton with Australian troops in Nui Dat, Vietnam, 1968

Now Alex Mitchell (A Coup in Canberra, Word Image) has brought to the surface an important and submerged part of Australian history – the political assassination of John Gorton. The viciousness of the campaign made more recent leadership spills seem like 20 lashes with a peacock feather.

Along the way, Mitchell takes us on a rollicking ride through the big events of the 20th century – Depression, the rise of fascism, World War Two, the Spanish civil war, the Cold War, Vietnam and Australia’s pivot from England to the US. All of them are linked to Gorton’s development, politics and personality.

Only a man with Mitchell’s background and experience could have pulled this off – decades of investigative reporting, political journalism, foreign correspondence, a respect for history and an impish eye for humour and irony.

Bettina Gorton, right – scholar and linguist – in The Lodge with Indonesian teacher Yohanni Johns

At the end of the book the reader is left wondering whether it was a political murder or suicide. Gorton was ousted because he threatened the Menzies version of liberalism, a political coup that ensured all future Liberal leaders followed the Menzies path. This book helps explain why so many intellectuals, including prominent Australians, were attracted to communism in the 1930s. And why Cambridge and Oxford, where many intellectuals gathered, were fertile recruitment grounds for Soviet spymasters.

Fascism was on the rise in Europe. Nazism was creeping forward. The UK Government and English establishment were blatant appeasers. To many anti-fascist citizens, communism was the only way to fight fascism. Later, Communism brought its own evil when Stalin’s terror was exposed and Communism lost most of its supporters in the West.

Gorton was no doubt influenced by the campus atmosphere. George Orwell, a democratic socialist, and Hemingway, who may have spied for the Soviet Union, were Gorton’s literary and political heroes. There is no evidence that Gorton embraced communism or socialism – indeed he was staunchly anti-communist in his early political life – but it would not have surprised his strongest opponents in Canberra 40 years later as he pushed policies of centralisation and economic nationalism.

Gorton was the bastard son who became a Geelong Grammar boy, Oxford scholar and RAAF fighter pilot who had his face smashed when his plane crashed. As a Minister, he launched lasting reforms in the arts and film industries and pointed Australia towards Asia.  As a larrikin Prime Minister, he annoyed his colleagues with his leadership style and thought bubbles, infuriated Premiers with his centralist ideas, raised suspicions about his scepticism about the United States and foreign investment, and raised eyebrows with his drinking, involvement with young women and reliance on his personal assistant Ainsley Gotto.  Television coverage of his departure overlaid a news footage montage with Sinatra’s “My Way”.

Ainsley Gotto, chief of staff to Gorton

Mitchell describes in detail the vicious attacks by his colleagues as they circled their prey.  The campaign developed with the inevitability of a Shakespearean plot. Gorton defied his torturers and pushed on to his demise.

This book is worth the price merely to read the text of John Gorton’s first speech, made to a local welcome home gathering for returned soldiers in 1946. The ”Mystic Park Speech” puts today’s social justice pretenders to shame with its rhetoric and appeal for community action.

Alex Mitchell has done a service by wrapping important strands of context around a man who could have been – perhaps should have been – one of best Prime Ministers.

It is told from an unashamedly Left perspective which will annoy more conservative readers. Mitchell will enjoy annoying them.

Michael Smith OAM is a former editor, foreign correspondent and investigative reporter for The Age, a Life Member of the Melbourne Press Club and creator of the Australian Media Hall of Fame. He is a media crisis management consultant.

Order A Coup in Canberra HERE

Read more of what journalists, historians and politicians are saying about the book.

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