When I said that I wished to speak with him about Billy McMahon, the old journalist on the phone began to chuckle. When I said that it was for a biography of McMahon, the chuckles became laughter and he said that I was having him on. The only way to change his mind, he said to my protests, was to write to him. ‘If you’re legit, you’ll send me a letter.’ The old journalist gave me an address and then rang off, laughing and saying as he went, ‘A biography of Billy — why would you do that to yourself?’
Good question — and one that I asked myself repeatedly in the four years that I spent researching and writing the book. For, where he has not been forgotten, McMahon is remembered with scorn and derision. He is widely regarded as this country’s worst prime minister, and his name is a byword for failure and incompetence. His reputation for intrigue and deceit is well known. Why write about such a man? Why devote time and attention to him?
My answers throughout have been the same. McMahon was a long-serving politician whose career has been defined by its abrupt and most ignominious stage: the twenty-one months in which he served as prime minister. The twenty preceding years in which McMahon served as a minister, in six different portfolios, have been overshadowed. Our knowledge of the influence he exerted, what he said at the Cabinet table, how he responded to the litany of events that shook and shaped Australia, is paltry.
Studying his career in detail and depth has allowed me to fill in the gaps of McMahon’s life, learning what he said and did during those years — and why. It allowed me to find out how he came to be Australia’s prime minister, and how he tried to grapple with its challenges and its difficulties.
Moreover, study of McMahon’s life allowed me to engage with a broad sweep of Australian history — from the rise and fall of the UAP in the 1930s to the formation of the Liberal Party and its long period in government under Robert Menzies, Harold Holt, John Gorton and, finally, McMahon. His life became a prism to study the communist scares of the 1950s and the steps that led to Australia’s participation in the war in Vietnam; to understand the fights over protection for Australian manufacturing and over state aid to private schools; it allowed me to trace the ideological shifts of the Liberal Party and the way that Australian society changed too.
There was much to study – much, much more than his derisive reputation would allow — and what I found revealed far more than the one-line dismissals of McMahon have always suggested.
I put all this into a letter that I sent to that old journalist, and eventually he replied and said we should meet. At his house, he chuckled, tapped the letter, grew serious, and told me to sit. Said the journalist: ‘We have a lot to talk about.’