Winner of the 2020 National Biography Award and the 2020 NSW Premier’s Non-Fiction Award.
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.
‘‘For God’s sake behave like a prime minister’, implored the journalist who had assisted William McMahon to attain that office. His faults were legion. Throughout his political career he boasted and intrigued, curried favour, and was habitually disloyal. He worked assiduously with little comprehension of his responsibilities, and was indecisive and prone to panic. Patrick Mullins’ engrossing, fine biography does much more than document all these liabilities: it explains how they enabled him to attain national leadership and left him unable to exercise it.’
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‘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