Ex-PM ridiculed but by no means ineffective

BOOK: Tiberius With a Telephone

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Ex-PM's life coloured by tragedy, comedy, persistence, courage, farce, failure: biographer.


Querulous, uncharismatic, scheming and untrustworthy: there was a lot to dislike about Sir William McMahon as a politician. Yet derided as he was, the most unlikely looking leader was a significant figure in Australian politics in the second half of the 20th century.

Now, finally, the man known in the diminutive as Billy has a published biography. In Tiberius With a Telephone, Patrick Mullin recounts the story of McMahon's life and career, and his doomed attempts to recast views of his much-maligned time as Australia's prime minister.

Having risen through the cabinets of Robert Menzies and Harold Holt, for whom he was treasurer, McMahon expected to be anointed leader after the latter drowned at Portsea. It was not to be. Kneecapped by his enemies, he had to wait three years to seize the prize after toppling John Gorton amid acrimony and division.

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.

He began phasing out the means test on pensions, sought to control foreign investments and accelerated the timetable for the independence of PNG. 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, winner of the 2020 NSW Premier's Literary Awards for non-fiction, fills that gap, using deep archival research and extensive interviews with McMahon's contemporaries and colleagues. It is an authoritative and colourful account of a unique politician.