Rewarding, if reducted, portrait of a political titan
John McEwen: Right Man, Right Place, Right Time
By Bridget McKenzie,
Connor Court, 180pp, $24.95 (PB)
review by ROSS FITZGERALD
Thirty-seven years a Country Party politician and 23 days the prime minister, John ‘‘Black Jack’’ McEwen was our longest-serving trade minister, where his primary commitment was protecting key elements of the economy.
An orphan who became a farmer, McEwen was born in Chiltern, Victoria, in March 1900. This brief biography of him is written by Bridget McKenzie, a Nationals senator for Victoria since 2010.
And although McKenzie denies it was her intention, this little book is somewhat of a hagiography, as the title suggests.
John McEwen: Right Man, Right Place, Right Time also leaves out important material about McEwen’s often controversial life and times. As McKenzie admits, it neither details his contribution, along with Labor luminaries HV Evatt and Frank Forde, to the founding of the UN, nor his blunt refusal of the American demand for Australia’s entire wool clip during the Korean War, which led to our wool boom of the 1950s.
Additionally, it doesn’t elucidate McEwen’s 1939 white paper on Aboriginal Australians, which aimed to extend Australian citizenship, or explain his role in helping dismantle the White Australia policy and championing a non-preferential immigration policy.
What McKenzie does do is to reflect on six key themes in McEwen’s political life. Conveniently, they all begin with P.
The first chapter, Protectionist or Pragmatist?, usefully focuses on how ‘‘Black Jack’’ drove the economic and trade policy known as ‘‘McEwenism’’. The next five chapters are Place, Party, Patriot, Power and Prime Minister, with the last exploring how from December 19, 1967, to January 10, 1968, McEwen held the highest office in Australian political life.
McEwen’s succession to the Lodge, after the drowning of Harold Holt, followed one of the most notorious episodes of Australian political history. This was when McEwen refused to serve under the notoriously devious senior federal Liberal Party politician William McMahon.
McKenzie plausibly argues that McEwen’s brief prime-ministership provided the stable leadership the nation needed at that time. Less convincingly, she maintains that McEwen’s influence on economic and trade policy is enduring and that, despite being derided by the right and having been dismantled by the left, McEwenism “is now being recognised for its pragmatic approach to successful economic and social policy”.
As a sign of how far he had come from his humble origins, Sir John McEwen died in the palatial Melbourne suburb of Toorak in 1980. This year, which marks the 100th anniversary of the Country/National Party, a statue of McEwen was erected in Canberra.
Physically, McEwen was striking. Six feet in height, which was tall in the 1950s and 60s, he was, as McKenzie notes, “square-jawed, with piercing crystal blue eyes that were so brilliantly captured by the artist Sir William Dargie in (McEwen’s) official parliamentary portrait”. Hanging alongside Australia’s other prime ministers, it shows, McKenzie thinks, “not only McEwen’s visionary gaze and the gnarled old hands of a farmer, but also his unflinching character”.
McKenzie argues that the adjectives often used to describe McEwen appear contradictory. “On the one side is the dour, choleric, incredibly determined hard man of politics.” On the other, she says, “is the compassionate, patient, humorous, and generous mentor”.
Although the two aspects of McEwen’s personality seem difficult to reconcile, McKenzie maintains that “the forging of these traits, with all their internal contradictions … were the essential qualities that propelled McEwen to be a PM”.
McKenzie is right when she claims that McEwen was “indisputably a very serious man known for his stern outlook, dark often furrowed brow that seemed never to deviate and rarely to crack into a smile in public”. The latter applied even in photographs of what McEwen regarded as happy occasions, including his marriage to his long-time partner Annie and to his much younger second wife Mary. Such was McEwen’s temperament that it was Robert Menzies who coined the nickname “Black Jack’’.
This is a helpful reintroduction to John McEwen, a federal parliamentarian and policymaker par excellence who, especially during the time he led the Country Party from 1958 to 1971, was something of a political titan.
But as McKenzie herself concedes, for a full-length biography, Peter Golding’s Black Jack McEwen: Political Gladiator (MUP) remains the preferred option.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Australian, December 31, 2020, p 8.