Monash University academic James Walter once wrote that it is common for biographers to dive into their work, encounter the typical, everyday issues of biography, and afterward to engage in a sort of ‘anguished methodological essay’ that only manages to repeat, with minor variation, what Lytton Strachey has already pithily suggested in the preface to his Eminent Victorians. Far be it for me to do otherwise in a talk that comes nearly a year after the publication of Tiberius with a Telephone, my biography of the former prime minister Billy McMahon.
Commonly derided as Australia’s worst prime minister and recalled (if at all) with embarrassment and scorn, McMahon had been largely overlooked by biographers and historians before me: his life had not been the subject of a biography, and his government had not been the object of any sustained study. The derisory regard for McMahon and the absence of any academic work on him occluded what was an extraordinarily long career near the apex of Australian political life. In addition to being prime minister for twenty-one months, McMahon was a minister for more than two decades, held an enormous variety of portfolios (including Treasury and Foreign Affairs), and exerted a significant influence on the course of Australian politics in the mid-twentieth century. This included, but is not limited to, his influence during leadership battles, wrangles over tariff policy, and Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Moreover, the absence of a biography and sustained study allowed the government he led to be defined by the one that followed, and for his government’s modest achievements to be all but built over at a substantive and narrative level.
My biography of McMahon was undertaken, in no small part, with the aim of putting into practice what I knew and viewed as important in political biography. It was practice-led from start to finish, in full awareness of the issues and conflicts I was likely to encounter. In this talk, I will reflect — hopefully, sans anguish — on my reasons for undertaking the biography, the issues and conflicts that I encountered, and what this suggests about the biographical process, the biographical form, and its dual (at times, duelling) duties. I will also discuss the slipperiness of fact and the persuasiveness of narrative and how, in light of what I found, a biography of McMahon lent itself to a chronicle of Australian politics in the mid-twentieth century.
Patrick Mullins is a Canberra-based academic and writer. He is adjunct assistant professor at the University of Canberra, where he obtained his PhD in 2014. His first book, Tiberius with a Telephone, a biography of former prime minister William McMahon, was published by Scribe in 2018. His second book, The Trials of Portnoy, will be published by Scribe in 2020.