MANIPULATIVE, terrible and fierce, yet William (Billy) McMahon was, until now, the only Australian prime minister who didn’t have a biography written about him.
The 250,000-word, 766-page biography, “Tiberius with a Telephone”, by Patrick Mullins will be launched at Paperchain bookshop, Manuka, on Thursday, November 22.
Its title makes reference to McMahon’s nickname, given to him by Labor opposition leader Gough Whitlam to describe McMahon’s endless plotting with political insiders.
McMahon (1908-1988), was the 20th Prime Minister of Australia, in office from 1971 before being beaten by Whitlan the following year. He was a minister for more than 21 years, the longest continuous service in Australian history.
He was was born and raised in Sydney, studied law at the University of Sydney and served in the Army during World War II, finishing with the rank of major. After the war he completed an economics degree before being elected to parliament in 1949. He was promoted to the ministry in 1951 and added to cabinet in 1956, holding several different portfolios in the Menzies government.
Author Mullins, 30, of Kingston, started writing the book about four years ago after finishing a PhD that involved reading every Australian prime ministerial political biography.
He says McMahon was an obvious choice for a political biography given no-one had written one before now.
“He did a lot more than people think and that needed to be explained,” Mullins says.
“His time in politics was over a huge sweep of this country’s history.”
McMahon withdrew combat forces from Vietnam, legislated for Commonwealth government involvement in childcare, established the National Urban and Regional Development Authority and, according to the author, his biggest legacy was his push for free trade.
“[But] he was also a terrible person; he undermined colleagues, he gossiped and he manipulated people,” Dr Mullins says.
In 1951 when then prime minister Robert Menzies was about to appoint a new minister, McMahon got to work and shattered the likely candidate’s chances.
Mullins says McMahon, with his “had-to-be-done attitude”, landed the job as it was “his spot”.
“It was his kind of ruthless, amoral approach to politics,” he says.
“When the Governor-General Paul Hasluck resigned he said he was tired of trying to deal with [McMahon’s] constant undermining.”
Disliked amongst his colleagues, there were a few hurdles when interviewing people who had worked with McMahon.
“One of McMahon’s staffers didn’t want to talk,” Dr Mullins says.
“He said working for McMahon was one of the most horrible experiences of his life and he wanted to forget it.
“Another one of McMahon’s staffers flat out refused to talk to me for a long time.
“[He eventually said] I’ll tell you one thing about McMahon and then you can [get lost].”
His colleagues weren’t the only people who disliked him and journalists thought very little of him, too.
One time, Dr Mullins says, McMahon even leaked a story to a journalist only to call him “shameless” in public the next day for printing it, as if he had nothing to do with it.
“But McMahon managed to get to the top, nonetheless,” he says.
He also managed to stay in politics for a long time and the scope of his career was one of the author’s biggest challenges.
“Because his career was so long and so broad I had to come to grips with so many areas of policy,” he says.
But, after more than four years, Dr Mullins has become an expert on the topic and now that the biography’s been published he has some ideas swirling around for a new non-fiction book, which (he can guarantee) will not be on politics.
“Tiberius with a Telephone” will be launched at Paperchain, Manuka, 6pm, November 22.