The life and stories of William McMahon (2018)


The oddly compelling story of the man regarded as Australia’s worst prime minister.

Winner of the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, 2020

Winner of the National Biography Award, 2020

Long-listed for the Walkley Book Award, 2019





William McMahon was a significant, if widely derided and disliked, figure in Australian politics in the second half of the twentieth century. This biography tells the story of his life, his career, and his doomed attempts to recast views of his much-maligned time as Australia’s prime minister.

After a long ministerial career under Menzies, McMahon became treasurer under Harold Holt, and fought a fierce, bitter war over protectionism with John McEwen. Following Holt’s death in 1967, McEwen had his revenge by vetoing McMahon’s candidature for the Liberal Party’s leadership, and thus paved the way for John Gorton to become prime minister. But almost three years later, amid acrimony and division, McMahon would topple Gorton and fulfil his life’s ambition to become Australia’s prime minister.

In office, McMahon worked furiously to enact an agenda that grappled with the profound changes reshaping Australia. He withdrew combat forces from Vietnam, legislated for Commonwealth government involvement in childcare, established the National Urban and Regional Development Authority and the first Department of the Environment, began phasing out the means test on pensions, sought to control foreign investments, and accelerated the timetable for the independence of Papua New Guinea. But his failures would overshadow his successes, and by the time of the 1972 election McMahon would lead a divided, tired, and rancorous party to defeat. 

A man whose life was coloured by tragedy, comedy, persistence, courage, farce, and failure, McMahon’s story has never been told at length. Tiberius with a Telephone fills that gap, using deep archival research and extensive interviews with McMahon’s contemporaries and colleagues. It is a tour de force — an authoritative and colourful account of a unique politician and a vital period in Australia’s history.


‘‘For God’s sake behave like a prime minister’, implored the journalist who had assisted William McMahon to attain that office. His faults were legion. Throughout his political career he boasted and intrigued, curried favour, and was habitually disloyal. He worked assiduously with little comprehension of his responsibilities, and was indecisive and prone to panic. Patrick Mullins’ engrossing, fine biography does much more than document all these liabilities: it explains how they enabled him to attain national leadership and left him unable to exercise it.’ 
— Prof. Stuart Macintyre, University of Melbourne

‘Mullins fills an enormous gap in our political history with extraordinary insight and clarity. He casts new light on our post-war politics. And rescues one of its most dominant figures from the throes of partisan caricature.’
— Lindsay Tanner

‘This is, as others have remarked, biography at its best: diligently researched, with detail nowhere else examined, and a demonstration of fine judgement concerning the crucial interplay between personal disposition, role demands, and historical context.’ 
— Prof. James Walter, Australian Book Review

‘The book is a significant work – exhaustive and considered. […] An engrossing read. From McMahon’s mediocrity Mullins has made a monument.’ 
— Nick Mattiske, Insights

— Richard Ackland, Saturday Paper

‘A fine account of a vile politician in the dying days of old conservative Australia.’ 
— David Marr, Guardian

‘Sir William McMahon, Liberal Party leader and Australia’s 20th prime minister, was a master of political intrigue. He accumulated epithets — ‘Billy big-ears’, ‘Billy the leak’, ‘a quean’, and in Gough Whitlam’s memorable quip, ‘Tiberius with a telephone’.
In this commanding and exceptionally researched biography, Patrick Mullins has retrieved McMahon from historical neglect, revealing the man behind the personal and political caricature. It is a compelling portrait of an insecure, vain, deeply ambitious man, and a skilful political operator whose one great strength, his remarkable persistence, was eventually rewarded with the liberal prime ministership.
At once fascinating, revelatory, unflattering, and at times uncomfortable, Mullins never shies away from McMahon’s clear and unavoidable personal failings. His own colleagues described him as an inveterate liar, a compulsive leaker, and ‘completely untrustworthy’. Some refused outright ever to work with him.
As Mullins unravels this devastating personal and political critique, McMahon’s ascendency is all the more remarkable. But this is a story also of the Liberal Party in decline, divided and uncertain of its place in the weary interregnum between the twin titans of Australian politics — the founding Liberal leader, Sir Robert Menzies, and Labor’s Gough Whitlam.
Mullins’ exemplary research, skilful use of an innovative structure, and engaging biographical narrative shows a complete picture of McMahon for the first time. This is everything a political biography should be.’ 
— Prof. Jenny Hocking, Monash University

‘This is the most detailed investigation and explanation of what happened […] Completing a biography of this scope is an enormous undertaking, and Patrick Mullins does it with considerable skill […] Mullins conveys the turmoil, the atmosphere of crisis, the bickering and the bloodletting that marked this extraordinary period of Australian political history.’ 
— David Solomon, Inside Story

‘So why did Mullins, a young political historian, pen a 776-page biography of William McMahon? And why is this book about such an apparently unlikely and unlikeable subject already emerging as a classic of its genre, just weeks after release? To find out the reader should first go to the book. The pages are well written and authoritative. They add up to a precociously confident historian’s distillation of material from a remarkable range of sources.’ 
Andrew Clark, Australian Financial Review

‘A welcome addition to prime ministerial biography […] An engaging and informative read.’ 
— Troy Bramston, Australian

Tiberius with a Telephone is relentless in its quest to understand a man who seems out of his depth in Canberra and, at times, uncertain why he’s even there. Importantly, it shows when a government is bereft of real leadership and ideas, how quickly things can go wrong.’ 
— Jeff Maynard, Herald Sun

‘[Patrick Mullins] provides a detailed and, at times, sympathetic account of the difficult issues McMahon faced as he struggled to shape events. But he is brutal in his depiction of McMahon’s dishonesty, dithering, vanity, cunning and capacity for political self-harm […] His biography is an engaging exposition of a neglected politician and his complex era.’ 
— Duncan Hughes, Sydney Morning Herald

‘[Patrick Mullins] has certainly engaged in wide-ranging and meticulous research on his subject.’ 
— Michael Sexton, Australian


‘Bill McMahon: an eccentric economic reformer?’, conversation between Patrick Mullins, Paul Kelly, and John Howard, Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney, 21 November 2018

Interview with Philip Adams, Late Night Live, ABC Radio

Interview with Amy Mullins, Uncommon Sense, Triple R FM

‘Writing biography in the 21st century’, Sydney Institute

Interview with Tom Switzer, Between the Lines, ABC Radio National

With Paul Kelly and John Howard, ‘Bill McMahon: an eccentric economic reformer?’, Centre for Independent Studies


‘Justifying the profane: ethics and biography’, Australasian Association of Writing Programs, 2016

‘In the land of locum PMs, be careful how you fortify them’, Sydney Morning Herald, op-ed, 7 December 2018

‘On this day: William McMahon becomes prime minister’, Museum of Australian Democracy, Canberra, 10 March 2016