It’s good to see Liberals such as Neil Brown writing about their party’s history (‘Brown study’, 20 September’). The Liberal Party has not done enough to promote its contribution to Australia. As a political historian with no formal ties to any party, I’m happy to take up the Liberal Party’s nascent cause. Contrary to what Peter Kelly writes (‘Bottom Drawer, 20 September’), I’m not a Labor Party member; I ceased to be years ago.
Brown, a former Liberal MP, is upset about my article on John Gorton being sacked from the ministry by Billy McMahon in August 1971 (‘Gorton vs McMahon: the secret memo’, 30 August). Like former Liberal staffer Kelly, he disputes my account of the party room meeting in March 1971, which saw Gorton, effectively, lose the prime ministership. My focus was the events of August, which meant a description of earlier events had to be truncated. Nevertheless, Brown chides me for repeating ‘the official story’. Heaven forbid. Was his column ghost-written by Oliver Stone?
Brown/Kelly write there was not a ‘no-confidence’ motion but a ‘confidence’ motion in Gorton’s leadership. They’re right. I made a two-letter typo. That a ‘confidence’ motion was not supported shows the party had no confidence in Gorton’s leadership. This is the larger point. Gorton saw it this way. A tied vote – in this case 33 MPs expressing confidence and 33 expressing no-confidence – signals the motion has not passed. Hence, this has been interpreted as showing ‘no-confidence’ in Gorton. But I made a typo. Apologies.
I also wrote that Gorton exercised a casting vote to break the tie, thus voting himself out of office. Brown/Kelly argue that Gorton did not make a casting vote. They’re wrong. Several authoritative sources support my account. One of these is John Howard, the party’s greatest leader since Robert Menzies and now one of its leading historians. In Howard’s new book, The Menzies Era, he writes: ‘In a dramatic gesture, Gorton presumed to exercise a casting vote, which he delivered against himself, thus surrendering the leadership of the party and the prime ministership of his country.’
What about those who were there? ‘Gorton gave a casting vote against himself,’ Liberal MP Jim Killen wrote in his memoir. Don Chipp was also present. In his memoir, he records what Gorton said after the vote was tied: ‘Well, gentlemen, it seems as if half the party has no confidence in me. I therefore have no alternative but to put my casting vote against myself and declare that I am no longer your leader.’ A third witness is Peter Howson. ‘Gorton then cast the vote against himself, saying, in effect, that the vote should always be decided in the negative,’ he wrote in his diary. Then there is Gorton’s biographer, Ian Hancock, who has also written several books about the Liberal Party. ‘Gorton quickly decided the issue by delivering a casting vote against himself,’ he writes in his biography, which Gorton endorsed. This places me in good company with Howard/Killen/Chipp/Howson/Hancock and at odds with Brown/Kelly.
Brown/Kelly also write that I was wrong to suggest Gorton’s casting vote was against the rules. There were no rules, they argue. Again, they’re wrong. Hancock writes there was ‘a one-page list of rules’ located in the whip’s office on the day of the vote. These ‘rules did not allow the chairman (Gorton) to have both a deliberative and a casting vote’. So that’s another win I can chalk up against Brown/Kelly. That makes it 2:1 in my favour, fellas.
Finally, Kelly makes gratuitous comments about one of my interviews with Malcolm Fraser, albeit published 18 months ago. He disputes Fraser’s view that Menzies was a ‘liberal’ and not a ‘conservative’. The interviewee is entitled to their view, whether or not I or the reader approves of it. This is called ‘journalism’. Kelly also wonders how McMahon’s aides-memoire could be described as ‘secret’. Well, they were secret until I secured permission to access them. As I noted, some may be unreliable. I’d be happy to show Kelly what his old boss wrote about him. But then again, comrade, I might keep it secret.
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