The oddly compelling story of a man regarded as Australia’s worst prime minister.
William McMahon was a significant, if widely derided and disliked, figure in Australian politics in the second half of the twentieth century. This biography tells the story of his life, his career, and his doomed attempts to recast views of his much-maligned time as Australia’s prime minister.
After a long ministerial career under Menzies, McMahon became treasurer under Harold Holt, and fought a fierce, bitter war over protectionism with John McEwen. Following Holt’s death in 1967, McEwen had his revenge by vetoing McMahon’s candidature for the Liberal Party’s leadership, and thus paved the way for John Gorton to become prime minister. But almost three years later, amid acrimony and division, McMahon would topple Gorton and fulfill his life’s ambition to become Australia’s prime minister.
In office, McMahon worked furiously to enact an agenda that grappled with the profound changes reshaping Australia. He withdrew combat forces from Vietnam, legislated for Commonwealth government involvement in childcare, established the National Urban and Regional Development Authority and the first Department of the Environment, began phasing out the means test on pensions, sought to control foreign investments, and accelerated the timetable for the independence of Papua New Guinea. But his failures would overshadow his successes, and by the time of the 1972 election McMahon would lead a divided, tired, and rancorous party to defeat.
A man whose life was coloured by tragedy, comedy, persistence, courage, farce, and failure, McMahon’s story has never been told at length. Tiberius with a Telephone fills that gap, using deep archival research and extensive interviews with McMahon’s contemporaries and colleagues. It is a tour de force - an authoritative and colourful account of a unique politician and a vital period in Australia’s history.
‘Mullins fills an enormous gap in our political history with extraordinary insight and clarity. He casts new light on our post-war politics. and rescues one of its most dominant figures from the throes of partisan caricature.’
Lindsay Tanner, author of Sideshow and Politics with Purpose
‘Sir William McMahon, Liberal party leader and Australia’s 20th prime minister, was a master of political intrigue. He accumulated epithets — ‘Billy big-ears’, ‘Billy the leak’, ‘a quean’, and in Gough Whitlam’s memorable quip, ‘Tiberius with a telephone’. In this commanding and exceptionally researched biography, Patrick Mullins has retrieved McMahon from historical neglect, revealing the man behind the personal and political caricature. It is a compelling portrait of an insecure, vain, deeply ambitious man, and a skilful political operator whose one great strength, his remarkable persistence, was eventually rewarded with the liberal prime ministership.
At once fascinating, revelatory, unflattering, and at times uncomfortable, Mullins never shies away from McMahon’s clear and unavoidable personal failings. His own colleagues described him as an inveterate liar, a compulsive leaker, and ‘completely untrustworthy’. Some refused outright ever to work with him.
As Mullins unravels this devastating personal and political critique, McMahon’s ascendency is all the more remarkable. But this is a story also of the Liberal Party in decline, divided and uncertain of its place in the weary interregnum between the twin titans of Australian politics — the founding Liberal leader, Sir Robert Menzies, and Labor’s Gough Whitlam.
Mullins’ exemplary research, skilful use of an innovative structure, and engaging biographical narrative shows a complete picture of McMahon for the first time. This is everything a political biography should be.’
Emeritus Professor Jenny Hocking, Monash University, author of Gough Whitlam: the definitive biography