Skip to main content

Sir John Gorton GCMG AC CH

1911 – 2002

The Rt Hon Sir John Gorton GCMG AC CH (1911–2002) was the nineteenth prime minister of Australia and the only senator yet to have served in the office. Educated at Shore, Geelong Grammar and at Brasenose College, Oxford, before entering politics he had worked as an orchardist and been a fighter pilot with the RAAF, serving during the Second World War in Singapore, Darwin and Papua. After unsuccessfully seeking election to the Victorian state parliament, he stood on a joint Country and Liberal Party ticket for a federal senate seat and was elected in the Menzies landslide of 1949. Retaining his seat through the next four senate elections, he was Minister for the Navy from 1958 to 1963 and during the 1960s held several other portfolios including Works and Education, and was Leader of the Government in the senate during 1968–1969. Candid, brusque and irreverent, with cigarette perpetually in hand, he won the leadership of the Liberal Party after the death of Harold Holt and was elected Liberal prime minister of Australia in 1968. Considering himself ‘Australian to the boot heels’, he initiated the withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam and restricted opportunities for overseas control of Australia’s natural resources. It was hoped that he would be able to stand up to the aggressive new Labor leader, Gough Whitlam, but, with his support for issues such as abortion law reform and the decriminalisation of homosexuality, his most damaging opponents were to be conservatives from within his own party. Gorton resigned as prime minister in 1971 after a party motion of confidence resulted in a tied vote (Gorton had in fact voted against himself in the ballot). He resigned from the Liberal Party after Malcolm Fraser won the leadership in 1975, and ended his career as an Independent. Though he courted controversy as prime minister, Gorton was well liked by voters and is remembered for his individual, ‘ordinary bloke’ approach. He died at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, in September 2002, a few months after a 90th birthday dinner at which he received messages from the likes of the Queen, Sir Edward Heath and Henry Kissinger, and three former Labor prime ministers.

Updated 2018