McMahon, Abbott and Morrison.

Has Tony Abbott surpassed McMahon as the worst of our worst?

Patrick Mullins has dared to go where no human being has ventured: he has completed a biography of Billy McMahon.

At least three writers attempted it, but gave up in despair, not because the protagonist refused to cooperate, but because he wouldn’t leave them alone.

He was, if nothing else, indefatigable. When Gough Whitlam was asked which quality he most admired in McMahon, he unhesitatingly nominated – in a rare moment of tact – his persistence.

McMahon bombarded his potential chroniclers with material, ringing them day and night, as was his wont, with new thought bubbles from what he once termed his phenomenal memory. The trouble was that when his reminiscences were coherent, they were utterly unreliable.

To his contemporaries, this was hardly surprising. Our 20th prime minister was christened, respectively, as Billy Liar and Billy the Leak – and that was from his own cabinet colleagues. One of them, the usually urbane Paul Hasluck, openly derided him as a treacherous little bastard.

When he was tossed out of office in the only election he fought as a leader, he was generally accounted the worst prime minister ever, and there had been a few duds over our brief history. So, not a promising subject for a serious re-examination.

But Mullins started with one great advantage: he never met the man. So he could claim a measure of objectivity denied to those of us who had to live through what we saw as an unnecessary delay to the change of government we all knew was coming.

A rethink, perhaps; but hardly a hagiography. “McMahon was not a great prime minister by any means,” Mullins admits with what appears to be reluctance. “Fundamentally he was overwhelmed by the office.

“But however reactionary, panicked and outclassed he was.,McMahon was able to amass a record as PM that is much more substantial than has been acknowledged.”

Well, perhaps, although I don’t remember it that way – I was too busy laughing, and, like most the rest of the country, enjoying it. From that perspective at least, the McMahon years were happy, with a sense of anticipation embraced by the slogan It’s Time.

But I can agree with Mullins on one point: his record can be seen as putting the petty squabbles of the more recent occupants of the Lodge to shame.

Our current leader, the vacuous marketeer, would certainly be among them without the salvation of the COVID pandemic. And commentators are now reconsidering the league table: has Tony Abbott surpassed McMahon as the worst of our worst?

Some obviously believe so. When he was announced as a special trade envoy to the country of his birth, an act of commercial treachery for an Australian prime minster, even the many of the Poms were outraged.

One, the shadow trade secretary Emily Thornberry, described him as “an offensive, leering, cantankerous, climate change denying, Trump worshipping misogynist.”

And whatever Billy McMahon’s many and egregious faults, he was never denounced with such contempt.

 

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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