Australia’s 20th Prime Minister Billy McMahon was born on February 23 1908. Decades later, his wife would deny rumours about Sir William McMahon’s sexuality, telling a newspaper, “My Billy’s no poofter.”
Despite the lamentable state of Australian political leadership in the 21st century, McMahon remains the most popular choice for Australia’s worst PM. He was also intensely disliked — and not only by his opponents. It’s difficult to find a quote about him from fellow Liberals that doesn’t drip with venom.
How then did he become Prime Minister?
The prime ministership is not a popularity contest. People attain the position through their skill as political combatants. Sometimes we luck out. The ablest partisan also proves an able national leader. Sometimes not. We end up with Labor proposing Mark Latham for the job.
William McMahon became Australia’s 20th Prime Minister through a combination of hard work and ruthless political cunning.
Apparently a lazy student and inclined to a life of leisure after inheriting a fortune at 18, McMahon transformed when he entered politics. He worked hard, very hard. McMahon threw himself into his work and administered his portfolios well. Testament to his ability, he served as a minister for over 21 years, longer than anyone else in Australian history.
Following the retirement of longtime Prime Minister Robert Menzies and the disappearance of his successor during an ocean swim, William McMahon was next in line to become Prime Minister. However, two things stood between him and the job — his reputation for dishonesty and his perceived homosexuality.
Devious, nasty, dishonest
Renowned Australian political journalist Laurie Oakes described McMahon as “devious, nasty, dishonest. He lied all the time and stole things.”
Oakes said the wealthy McMahon once tried to steal a tape recorder from the radio station where the journalist worked. McMahon claimed he owned the device despite the radio station’s name being engraved on it.
Speculation about McMahon’s sexuality began long before he became Prime Minister. A confirmed bachelor, he decided to marry in his fifties following advice from Menzies that he would need a wife and children to win the role. Within a year, he had a wife — and a baby on the way. But the rumours continued.
Does it matter if our 20th Prime Minister was gay?
Yes, because as a senior politician and then as Prime Minister, McMahon exerted tremendous influence at the pinnacle of a system that excluded and persecuted LGBTIQ+ people.
In 1972, a television journalist asked him about homosexuality. (Video below.) After first trying to avoid the question, the then Prime Minister said he hadn’t given the matter a great deal of consideration.
“If you look at the law, the police don’t go out of their way to persecute people who unobtrusively in their homes practice homosexuality. But if it becomes obvious or they become a nuisance or they’re likely to pervert others, then I think the police are right in taking action.”
For two decades after McMahon said this, gays continued to face charges around Australia for private, consenting adult sex acts in the privacy of their own homes. Police also harassed gays at what they described as ‘homosexual meeting places’, which did not only include beats but also bars and other venues.
McMahon then agreed with the interviewer that he firmly opposed the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Gay rights activists of the time probably knew more about McMahon than his fellow politicians. Opposition to decriminalisation from the allegedly closeted PM invited their ridicule.
Activist David Widdup stood against him in the 1972 election with the slogan, ‘Vote for the acknowledged homosexual candidate!’
The following year, after losing the election to Labor’s Gough Whitlam, McMahon complained to students at Canberra’s ANU that Whitlam called him a ‘notorious homosexual’ and a ‘c_nt’.
“I can’t be both,” he insisted.
No wonder they called him Silly Billy!
Later in 1973, former Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton and Whitlam Minister Moss Cass co-sponsored a federal motion calling for the repeal of anti-gay laws.
The motion was critically important for gay rights in Australia. The laws against male homosexuality were state laws. However, the motion would pave the way for decriminalising gay sex in the ACT and Northern Territory. And it would place pressure on state governments to consider reform.
The motion passed the house and then began the long, slow roll-out of gay law reform around the country.
But not with McMahon’s help. He scampered from the house ahead of the vote.