Tiberius with a Telephone by Patrick Mullins

‘All stories have dual landscapes.’

Sir William McMahon, GCMG, CH (23 February 1908 to 31 March 1988) was the 20th Prime Minister of Australia.  He served as prime minister between 10 March 1971 and 5 December 1972.  Sir William was elected to the Australian Parliament in 1949, and left Parliament in 1982.  He served as a minister continuously for a period of 21 years and 6 months.

Given this period of service, Sir William was a significant figure on the Australian political landscape during the second half of the 20th century.  In this biography, Patrick Mullins tells the story of Sir William’s life, his political career and his attempts to recast views of his prime ministership. Sir William is often identified as one of the main contenders for the title of ‘worst ever Australian Prime Minister’.  Should he be?

‘In politics, the story and the fact are not always the same.’

This is one of the best political biographies I have read.  Mr Mullins had neither access to Sir William’s papers or the support of his family when writing this book.  While it is no hagiography, it provides a good record of the events of the period.  I especially liked the way in which Mr Mullins moved between accounts of events while Sir William was in the Australian Parliament and events surrounding his doomed attempts to publish an autobiography.

‘When I publish my autobiography and tell of the things I had to put up with,’ he said, ‘none of you will believe it.’

This is more than a biography of Sir William McMahon: it is also a comprehensive account of politics in post-World War II Australia, of some of the challenges Australia faced as the Menzies era ended.

And the title?  We can thank Gough Whitlam for that:

‘He [McMahon] was determined, like other Little Caesars, to destroy the Right Honourable member for Higgins [John Gorton]and he sat there on the Isle of Capri plotting his destruction—Tiberius with a telephone.’

I’d recommend this book to anyone seeking more information about the Australian political landscape after World War II.  It’s both well-written and easy to read.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



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