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A tribute to Australian Prime Ministers

Wed 11th May 2022

The Prime Minister is the head of the Australian Commonwealth Government and following the Federation on 1st January 1901, thirty people have served.

The nation's longest serving prime minister was Robert Menzies who spent over 18 years in office and the shortest term was served by Frank Forde who stepped in for just one week. Edmund Barton was the first prime minister to serve Australia and John Howard is the last prime minister to have served out a full term in office.

Senator Ryan (second row third from left next to Paul Keating and Kim Beazley) in the first Hawke ministry.
Senator Ryan (second row third from left next to Paul Keating and Kim Beazley) in the first Hawke ministry.

Over the last 121 years we have seen a diversity of politicians step up to the parliament plate, some we've admired, some we've respected and some who failed to hit a home run. However there is no denying that through their policies, reform and sheer determination, they have each contributed to Australia's political and cultural history. We pay tribute to five Australian Prime Ministers who have since passed, each with their own unique footprint in history.

Bob Hawke | 23rd PM 1983 to 1991

9 December 1929 - 16 May 2019

Bob Hawke farewells crowds at the Sydney Opera House in 1983 after giving an ALP policy speech for the upcoming 1983 Federal election. Picture: Ray Strange
Bob Hawke farewells crowds at the Sydney Opera House in 1983 after giving an ALP policy speech for the upcoming 1983 Federal election. Picture: Ray Strange

"The essence of power is the knowledge that what you do is going to have an effect, not just an immediate but perhaps a lifelong effect, on the happiness and wellbeing of millions of people and so I think the essence of power is to be conscious of what it can mean for others."

Bob Hawke was Australia's longest serving Labor prime minister with 8 years in office. He built much of his success and immense popularity as Trade Union President from 1970 to 1980, joining the Australian Labor Party as a student during this time. He rose through the ranks quickly becoming the party's national president from 1973 to 1978. He went on to lead his party to a landslide victory over the Liberal Party in 1983. Considered one of Australia's greatest prime ministers, Hawke was a colourful larrikin who achieved consensus with Labor unions and businesses to stabilise wage growth and successfully lowered the rate of inflation, improving Australian businesses to better compete in global markets.

Malcolm Fraser | 22nd PM 1975 to 1983

21 May 1930 - 20 March 2015

Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, addresses Liberal rally at Victoria Square in Adelaide during the Federal election campaign of 1975 following Mr Whitlam’s dismissal.
Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, addresses Liberal rally at Victoria Square in Adelaide during the Federal election campaign of 1975 following Mr Whitlam’s dismissal.

"Reconciliation requires changes of heart and spirit, as well as social and economic change. It requires symbolic as well as practical action."

At 25 years of age, Malcolm Fraser was the youngest ever member of parliament when he was elected a Liberal member of Parliament in 1955. As Minister of the Army 1966 to 1968 (under Harold Holt), Minister of Education and Science from 1968 to 1969 and 1971 to 1972 and Minister for Defence from 1969 to 1971, Fraser was certainly ready for his new leadership role of the Liberal Party in March 1975. In November of the same year, he became caretaker Prime Minister after Gough Whitlam's Labor government was dismissed. The Fraser government then went on to win the largest landslide of any federal election a month later, and remained Prime Minister for the next 7 years.

A firm supporter of Australia's defence commitments with the ANZUS Pact alliance, Fraser had a big influence on shaping relationships with countries in the British Commonwealth as well as East and Southeast Asia. He went on to serve 28 years in the federal parliament and in his post-Prime Ministerial years, went on to become an important figure in human rights and refugee issues.

Gough Whitlam | 21st PM 1972 to 1975

11 July 1916 - 21 October 2014

Little Pattie with Gough Whitlam in 1972.
Little Pattie with Gough Whitlam in 1972.

"Poverty is a national waste as well as an individual waste. We are all diminished when any of us are denied proper education. The nation is the poorer - a poorer economy, a poorer civilisation, because of this human and national waste."

Gough Whitlam served as a navigator in the RAAF during WWI and reached flight lieutenant rank. When he returned from the war he finished his bachelor's degree becoming a barrister in 1947. He went on to become leader of the Labor Party from 1960 to 1967 and became Australia's 21st Prime Minister in 1972 - his Labor government was the first in more than 20 years. Whitlam while serving, successfully ended military conscriptions and removed all references to race, colour or religion in Australia's immigration policy. He reformed areas of 'self-determination' for all Indiginous Australians and on 16th August, 1975 he famously returned traditional lands in the Northern Territory to the Gurindji people.

In 1975, the 'Dismissal' culminated whereby Whitlam declined to request a general election and as a result Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister and appointed Malcolm Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister.

Whitlam was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1978, later becoming Australian ambassador (1983-86) to UNESCO.

William McMahon | 20th PM 1971 to 1972

23 February 1908 - 31 March 1988

John Gorton (left) with future Prime Minister William McMahon (right) in 1968.
John Gorton (left) with future Prime Minister William McMahon (right) in 1968.

Wiliam McMahon had a degree in Law and practised as a solicitor in Sydney before enlisting in the Australian Army in 1939. Back home he had various ministerial posts in the Liberal government before heading the Treasury from 1966 to 1969, becoming Minister of Foregin Affairs from 1969 to 1971. McMahon was leader of the Liberal Party in 1966 and became prime minister in March 1971. He was 63 at this time and remains the oldest prime minister to take office. The next election rolled around in December 1972 which saw his party defeated.

John Gorton | 19th PM 1968 to 1971

9 September 1911 - 19 May 2002

Gorton, with US president Richard Nixon in 1969, withdrew some troops from Vietnam in 1970.
Gorton, with US president Richard Nixon in 1969, withdrew some troops from Vietnam in 1970.

"For we believe that to meet our needs at home we must be prepared to accept-insofar as our power allows-our responsibilities abroad. We cannot choose one, and reject the other. We must try to meet both our responsibilities or we may meet neither."

John Gorton was Australia's 19th Prime Minister and became so in one of the most odd circumstances. He replaced Harold Holt who had disappeared while swimming at Cheviot Beach, Victoria in 1968. His departure as Prime Minister was equally as odd, having declared himself out of office following a confidence motion in his leadership resulted in a tied party vote in 1971.  Following this he was appointed Minister of Defence but was sacked for disloyalty after only a few months. He spent his later years as a political commentator.

John McEwen | 18th PM (Caretaker) 1967 to 1968

29 March 1900 - 20 November 1980

John McEwen being sworn in as the 18th Prime Minister of Australia December 1967
John McEwen being sworn in as the 18th Prime Minister of Australia December 1967

Leader of the Country Party from 1958 to 1971, McEwen was the 18th Prime Minister from 1967 to 1968 in a caretaker role following the disappearance of Harold Holt. This role came near the end of what was a 37 year career in parliament.    Only a short stay as Prime Minister, he was in fact deputy Prime Minister for 12 years under Robert Menzies, Harold Holt and John Gorton governments. McEwen was a farmer in Victoria's Goulburn Valley in the 1920s and was one of only three Australian Prime Ministers to be awarded Japan's Order of the Rising Sun, First Class.

Harold Holt | 17th PM 1966 to 1967

5 August 1908 - 17 December 1967

Mr Holt in 1966.
Mr Holt in 1966.

"(his) ability to establish relationships with men of different backgrounds, attitudes and interests was his essential decency. He was tolerant, humane and broadminded. His suavity of manner was no pose. It was the outward reflection of a truly civilised human being. He was in a very real sense a gentleman."  Gough Whitlam.

Harold Holt became Australia's youngest minister in 1939 following a junior role under Prime Minister Robert Menzies. Holt was a Cabinet Minister for 32 years before he reached Prime Minister level in 1966. Remembered for his unusual disappearance while swimming in rough waters while swimming off the Victorian coast in December 1967, he was considered one of the hardest working cabinet ministers.

The Holt Government is responsible for dismantling the White Australia policy and took Australia out of the sterling area. He engaged more with Asia and the Pacific and expanded Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war and maintained a closer relationship with the US.

Together with HC 'Nugget' Coombs, Holt was instrumental in forming the Australian Ballet in 1962.

By Kirsten Jakubenko

Sources:

  • https://www.naa.gov.au/explore-collection/australias-prime-ministers/robert-hawke
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Robert-Hawke
  • https://www.naa.gov.au/explore-collection/australias-prime-ministers/malcolm-fraser
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Malcolm-Fraser https://www.naa.gov.au/explore-collection/australias-prime-ministers/gough-whitlam
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gough-Whitlam https://www.naa.gov.au/explore-collection/australias-prime-ministers/william-mcmahon
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-McMahon
  • https://www.naa.gov.au/explore-collection/australias-prime-ministers/john-gorton
  • https://www.naa.gov.au/explore-collection/australias-prime-ministers/john-mcewen
  • https://www.naa.gov.au/explore-collection/australias-prime-ministers/harold-holt
  • https://www.naa.gov.au/explore-collection/australias-prime-ministers/robert-menzies