He was born in Melbourne, Victoria, the son of an orchardist from Kerang, and educated at a prestigious private school and at Oxford University, where he completed an MA. In 1935 he married Bettina Brown, an American. In 1940 he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force, and achieved acclaim as a fighter pilot. He survived two serious crashes, one of which required extensive reconstructive surgery and left his face shattered for life.
In 1949, Gorton entered Parliament as a Liberal Senator, and served in various positions under Robert Menzies and Harold Holt, including Minister for the Navy, Minister for Education and Minister for Public Works. He was an energetic and capable minister, and began to be considered leadership material once he moderated his early extremely right-wing views.
When Harold Holt died in December 1967, it was widely assumed that his deputy, William McMahon, would be the next Prime Minister. But the Country Party leader, John McEwen, vetoed McMahon. In the subsequent ballot, Gorton defeated Paul Hasluck to become Liberal leader. He became the first Senator to be Prime Minister, but he immediately resigned from the Senate and was elected to the House of Representatives at the by-election caused by Holt's death.
Gorton was initially a very popular Prime Minister. He carved out a style quite distinct from those of his predecessors - the aloof Menzies and the suave Holt. Gorton liked to portray himself as a man of the people who enjoyed a beer and a gamble, with a bit of a "larrikin" streak about him. Unfortunately, this reputation later came back to haunt him.
He also began to follow new policies, pursuing independent defence and foreign policies and distancing Australia from its traditional ties to Britain. But he continued to support Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, which became increasingly unpopular after 1968. On domestic issues, he favoured centralist policies at the expense of the states, which alienated powerful Liberal state leaders like Sir Henry Bolte of Victoria. He also fostered an independent Australian film industry and increased government funding for the arts.
Gorton proved to be a surprisingly poor media performer and public speaker, and was portrayed by the media as a foolish and incompetent administrator. He was unlucky to come up against a new and formidable Labor Opposition Leader in Gough Whitlam. He was also involved in unpleasant speculation about his drinking habits and his involvements with several women. At the 1969 elections, Gorton lost most of the massive majority in the House of Representatives he had inherited from Holt.
After the election, Gorton was challenged for the Liberal leadership by David Fairbairn, but so long as McEwen's veto on McMahon remained in place, he was fairly safe. McEwen retired in January 1971, and his successor, Doug Anthony, told the Liberals that the veto no longer applied. With the Liberal Party falling further behind Labor in the polls, a challenge was launched in March, with the resignation of Defence Minister Malcolm Fraser, who told Parliament that Gorton was "not fit to hold the great office of Prime Minister."
Gorton called a Liberal Party meeting, and when a motion of confidence in his leadership was tied, he resigned, and McMahon was then elected leader and thus Prime Minister. In a surprise move, Gorton contested and won the position of Deputy Leader, forcing McMahon to make him Defence Minister. This farcical situation ended within a few months when McMahon sacked him for disloyalty.
After Labor won the 1972 elections, Gorton served in the Shadow Ministry of Billy Snedden until after the 1974 elections, when he was dropped. When Fraser became Liberal leader in 1975, Gorton resigned from the party and sat as an independent. He denounced the dismissal of the Whitlam government by Sir John Kerr, and unsuccessfully stood for the Senate at the 1975 elections as an independent.
Gorton retired to Canberra, where he kept out of the political limelight, although he quietly rejoined the Liberal Party. His wife died in 1983, but he remarried in 1993. In his old age he was rehabilitated by the Liberals: his 90th birthday party was attended by Prime Minister John Howard, and the publication of a new biography restored his reputation. He died in his ninety-first year from pneumonia and respiratory failure in a Sydney hospital.
Prime Ministers of Australia
Leaders of the
Liberal Party of Australia