William McMahon Biography

(20th Prime Minister of Australia)

Birthday: February 23, 1908 (Pisces)

Born In: Redfern, Australia

Sir William McMahon was an Australian politician who became the 20th Prime Minister of Australia; he served as Prime Minister from March 1971 to December 1972. Being a member of parliament for over 21 years, he became the longest serving minister in the history of Australian Government. He began his career as a lawyer and went on to join the Australian army during World War II. His political career began when he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1949. With his hard work and enthusiasm, he rose in prominence and held several important portfolios in the Robert Menzies government. As Minister for Labour, he passed The National Service Act of 1964. Later, when Harold Holt became Prime Minister, he became the deputy leader of the Liberal Party and was appointed Treasurer. After Holt’s death, he wanted to contest for the Liberal Party leadership but he failed to win the confidence of John McEwen, leader of the Country Party. He continued as a Treasurer in the new John Gorton’s government but was eventually demoted to Minister of External Affairs, following another failed attempt for leadership. In 1971, Gorton resigned and he won a vote against Billy Snedden to finally become Prime Minister 3. In 1972, he suffered defeat in the hands of the Labor Party and decided to give up the Liberal Party leadership. Thereafter, he continued in Parliament as a backbencher for another decade. He was knighted in 1977.
Quick Facts

Australian Celebrities Born In February

Also Known As: Sir William McMahon

Died At Age: 80


Spouse/Ex-: Sonia McMahon (m. 1965)

father: William McMahon

mother: Mary Ann McMahon

children: Deborah McMahon, Julian McMahon, Melinda McMahon

Born Country: Australia

Prime Ministers Australian Men

Died on: March 31, 1988

place of death: Potts Point, Australia

Diseases & Disabilities: Skin Cancer

Cause of Death: Skin Cancer

More Facts

education: University Of Sydney

awards: Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George
Companion of Honour

Childhood & Early Life
William McMahon was born on February 23, 1908, in Redfern, Sydney, New South Wales to Mary and William Daniel McMahon. He was the third among five children. His paternal grandfather, James ‘Butty’ McMahon, was the founder of one of the largest freight companies in Sydney.
His mother passed away when he was a little boy. Thereafter, he was brought up by his mother’s kin, specially his uncle Samuel Walder (Lord Mayor of Sydney, 1932). Growing up, he stayed in places like Beecroft, Kensington, Gordon, and Centennial Park, sharing the homes of different relatives.
His siblings were raised separately and he had very little contact with them. James, his older brother, died of Spanish flu, in 1919. Later, at the age of 18, he lost his father and inherited a considerable amount of wealth from him.
He studied at a private school in Killara, Abbotsholme College. Later, he attended the Sydney Grammar School. Being a mediocre student, he couldn’t pass the leaving certificate at Sydney Grammar. However, he managed to pass a matriculation examination and enrol at St. Paul’s College, University of Sydney in 1927. He studied law there and graduated in 1930.
Although he didn’t perform well academically, he was good in sports such as boxing and rowing. He was also an emerging socialite, spending much of his inheritance on horse races.
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Early Career
After graduating from university, William McMahon joined a major law firm called Allen, Allen & Hemsley as a solicitor. It was here that his interest in politics was awakened, under the influence of Sir Norman Cowper. In 1939, he became a junior partner in the firm and during this time, he also developed an interest in economics as he was assigned to different prominent banks.
In April 1940, he joined the Citizens Military Force as a lieutenant. By October 1940, he was transferred to the Australian Imperial Force. Two years later in 1942, he was promoted to Captain. In 1943, he was promoted again, this time to Major but was declared medically unfit for overseas service owing to his partial deafness. His military career ended on October10, 1945.
Thereafter, he travelled extensively all over Europe to study the effects of World War II. When he returned, he went back to the University of Sydney to study Economics; he graduated in 1949. Earlier a mediocre student, this time he topped his class and even won two proficiency awards in the final year.
Political Career
At the December 1949 federal election, William McMahon was elected as the Liberal member for Lowe; a seat he would hold on for the next 32 years. Very soon, he established himself as a diligent, enthusiastic member with sound knowledge of economics. After the election of 1951, he became the Minister for the Navy and Minister for Air in Robert Menzies government.
In 1954, he was appointed Minister for Social Services. In 1956, with the support of minister for trade, John McEwen, he was made Minister for Primary Industry. The expectation was that he would support all decisions by McEwen as he had no knowledge of agriculture, but instead, he worked hard and often outshined the senior minister.
In 1958, he became the Minister for Labour and National Service, a portfolio he held till 1966. This elevated his position within the Liberal Party and made him one of the senior cabinet members in New South Wales. From 1964 to 1966, he became Vice-President of the Executive Council of the Waterside Workers' Federation.
In January 1966, Harold Holt replaced Menzies as Prime Minister and McMahon won the deputy leadership of the Liberal Party. As deputy, he chose the portfolio he most wished for, that of the Treasurer. Soon, he was appointed a governor of the International Monetary Fund (1966–69) and chairman of the board of governors of the Asian Development Bank (1968–69).
After Holt’s disappearance in December 1967, Governor-general R. G. Casey appointed McEwen as interim prime minister. However, McEwen was not keen to serve in a Coalition headed by McMahon.
McMahon wanted to fight for the party leadership, but instead had to withdraw in support of Senator John Gorton. Later at the November 1969 Federal election, he challenged Gorton’s leadership. Gorton emerged victorious and demoted him from Treasury to the Department of External Affairs.
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In March 1971, Gorton gave up his office after a tied vote of confidence. McMahon defeated Billy Snedden for the party leadership, thus becoming Prime Minister; Gorton became the deputy leader.
As Prime Minister
William McMahon took over prime ministership at a time when the Coalition was increasingly becoming unpopular, after being in power for over two decades. He faced resistance from within the cabinet and he removed from office James Killen, Tom Hughes, Gorton, and Leslie Bury.
Over the next one and a half years, he found himself challenged time and again by leader of the opposition Labor Party, Gough Whitlam. Whitlam was a powerful orator and often attacked him in parliament, forcing McMahon to defend himself. To make matters worse, the rising inflation reflected badly on his economic judgement. Finally in the 1972 election, the Liberal Party-Country Party Coalition was removed from power.
Later Parliamentary Career
On December 5, 1972 McMahon completed his term as Prime Minister. Later that month, Billy Snedden was elected as his successor. As a mark of respect, he was given a place in Snedden's new shadow cabinet.
Following the 1974 election, he returned to the backbench for the first time in two decades. In 1977, John Abel challenged him in vain for Liberal pre-selection. After being re-elected, he became the joint Father of the House of Representatives with Clyde Cameron. Following the election of 1980, he became the sole Father of the House.
He continued in parliament till January 4, 1982. In the final years, he often offered his take on economic and political matters, gave advices and was critical of both the government and the opposition.
Major Works
As Minister for the Navy and Minister for Air, McMahon visited the troops in Korea and approved Sir James Hardman’s efforts to reorganise the Royal Australian Air Force. As Minister for Social Services, he helped build more rehabilitation centres to facilitate jobs for disabled people.
As Minister of Labour and National Service, he introduced the National Service Act (1964) that authorised recruitment for army services. This came at a time when Australia was preparing to send forces to South Vietnam and the Borneo State of Malaysia; thus, the government intended to increase its army strength.
He looked into official matters of the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF). He initiated an inquiry into their efficiency and employment, made laws to reduce their authority over recruitment, and made deregistration of the union theoretically possible. From 1964 to 1966 he became Vice-President of the Executive Council.

As Minister of Labour, he frequently disagreed with the leadership of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). He tried to lessen their influence as they were controlled by the Communist Party.
As Treasurer, he introduced four budgets, gradually reducing the deficit from $644 million in 1967-68 to $30 million in 1969-70. The budgets increased major spending on defence, drought aid, pension benefits and grants to the States. They also included new Commonwealth programs for the health, education and housing of Aborigines, and for school libraries.
During his Prime Ministership, he created the Department of the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and the Australian Wool Corporation. He also arranged full Australian membership of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Family & Personal Life
On December 11, 1965, 57 year old McMahon married 32 year old Sonia Rachel Hopkins, an occupational therapist and film production assistant, at St Mark's Church, Darling Point. They had three children; Melinda, Julian and Deborah. Julian McMahon grew up to become an actor and model.
All his life, he suffered from partial deafness. This was eventually cured surgically but his voice was badly affected. A fitness enthusiast, he enjoyed playing golf, squash, and swimming. He was always fashionably dressed. In February 1985, he had surgery for skin cancer.
He was interested in theology even as a teenager and regularly read on the subject throughout his life, often citing the works of William Temple. He would openly speak about the connection between their religious and political beliefs.
After retirement, he spent most of his time working on his memoirs, which he wanted to title ‘A Liberal View’.
In his final years, he had to undergo several surgeries for his skin cancer. He died on the morning of March 31, 1988 at St Luke's Private Hospital, Potts Point. His remains were cremated at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium. A state memorial service was held at St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney on April 8, 1988.

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