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McMahon, the man behind
the Federal Budget
By JONATHAN GAUL
ANLY the players
change oh the green-carpeted floor of the 'House of Representatives. The play goes on. For an hour on Tuesday night it will be the turn of. the Treasurer, Mr McMahon, to hold the political spotlight as he pre sents his first Federal Budget.
When Ihe buzz of (he packed galleries hushes as Mr McMahon gels to his feet at eight o'clock on Tuesday he will present the results of the weeks of hard, slogging work that has gone into the 1966-67 Budget.
But for the new Treasurer the occasion must also be the climax of ambitions and dreams that go back beyond his 17 years in Federal politics to his days as a solicitor in Sydney when he began to speak the economic jargon of which he is now the country's official exponent.
Only 20 men have become
Federal Treasurer since Feder ation and 10 of them have also been Prime Ministers.
Only one — William Mc Mahon — has had the qualifi cations of an Economics degree.
Treasury is William (most refer to him as Billy) McMahon's fifth portfolio since he became a Minister in 1951. After six months he says of it: "I like it best because I feel I have trained myself for this kind of portfolio, and be cause I speak the lingo — and because i have had consider able university and practical experience in this field".
The other side of his liking for Treasury flows from his belief that it is one of the most political of Cabinet portfolios, after the Prime Ministership.
The interest in politics "which led McMahon to stand
for the Sydney suburban electorate of Lowe in 1949, and has brought him to the Treasury and Deputy Leader ship of the Liberal Party, was stirred as a child.
His parents died when he was young and he was brought up mainly by Sir Samuel Walder, a Lord Mayor of Sydney and one of the Vice Presidents of the old United Australia Party. He remembers
helping in campaigns m those early years, an early immer sion in politics which made his later political carccr seem
a natural step.
At Sydney Grammar he played halfback and rowed m the eight, developing an in terest in sport which cost him a broken nos.e in boxing at Sydney University and which keeps him at the age of 58 a keen squash player and golfer.
As a law student, he was articled to a Sydney firm prominent, in constitutional and civil liberties cases, and was impressed by the lawyer's duty to protect the individual against the State — something which has been retained as one of his fundamental beliefs.
His Law degree conipletcd, he practised as a solicitor^ in Sydney and gained practical experience in economics with the Commonwealth Bank and the Bank of New South Wales. • These years overlaid an in terest in problems of economics on his curly experi ences of politics and his event ual career began to take shape.
The war intervened.
He spent more than five years in the Army in a staff posting because of a hearing defect, since corrccted. Dis charged as a major, he turned to the scientific side of poli tics, visiting the United States during a three-year period when much of his time was devoted to a study of communism and socialism. Tn the s,ame post-war years he completed a four-year Econ
omics course in two years.
It was the capacity for this kind of sustained efTort which stood him in good stead, later, earning him a reputation as second only to Mcnzics in the grasp of his own and other portfolios in the Cabinet
room. p ,
The electorate of Lowe, which he won in 1949, was a product of the 1948 redis tribution resulting in a mix ture ranging from Liberal Strathfield to Labor Mort
In ihe 1951 election the Labor candidate was John Burton, former Secretary of External Affairs and unsuc cessful candidate for the ACl seat who resigned as High Commissioner for Ceylon to contest Lowe. McMahon won by 5,000 votes and has held the seat fairly comfortably since, except for a narrow squeak in 1961 when DLP preferences gave him a majority of less than 700.
The 1963 election for the Hou.se of Representatives re stored his majority and this was confirmed by the figures for Lowe in the Senate elec tion the following year.
From 1951 till 1958 he held successively Navy and Air. Social Services, and Primary Industry, presiding over such changes as the re construction of the RAAF on Command lines, liberalising
The Treasurer, Mr McMahon
of the means test, and the five year wheat agreement.
It was a steady if unspec lacular climb. At the end of 1958 he succeeded Harold Holl in Labour and National Service, having gone into the inner Cabinet of 12 nine months after it was introduced at the beginning of 1956. The new portfolio was more com plex than the earlier jobs, liable to become quickly pcr •sonal and political in dealings with the ACTU and the hard heads of the WWF.
An interesting guide to his views of Liberalism was given at the inaugural meeting of the Victorian Group of the Australian Institute of Political Science in 1953, when he read a Paper on the Liberal Party.
He said then that many of his political views were based on four assumptions of the characteristics of human nature and how, they influ ence political action. Briefly, and without giving the ac
companying explanations here, they were: the Christian idea of the individual as the central feature of society; that man alone possesses the capacity to think and act purposefully, the Doctrine of Original Sin, implying limitation of individ ual power; and the Doctrine of Free Will, implying in the widest sense Parliamentary Democracy and the market
At the same time he en dorsed Keynes' view of the need for differential rewards and incentives for effort and took the view that Capitalism was sufficiently flexible for its dynamic forces to be har nessed for the common good through reformation rather than radical or revolutionary change. He saw as criminal lunacy the deslruclion of the Capitalist mechanism to pro duce theoretical equality and social justice.
Of the Parliamentary Lib eral Party at that time he
said: "There is no line of
apostolic succession in tne. Party with a special Minister or. Member trained and ready to carry on a ritual or accepted line of policy. Personality predominates. What one Prime Minister would attempt might be quite beyond the wish or capacity of bis succcssor .
He believes that the fate of an Australian Government lies with its appeal to the 12 or 15 per cent of the electorate which is politically unattached and can swing its vote quickly.
Three years ago, McMahon
was asked if he was a c01]'
servativc. "No" he replied, I have few idols". Contempor ary legend has it that Sir Robert Mcnzies was not
•among the few.
Be that, as it may McMahon believes there have been and will continue to be profound changes within the Parliamentary Liberal Party since Sir Robert stepped down. These days it is obliged to be much more of a team and its members arc given much more opportunity to ex press themselves* freely than before, and those expressions
are more welcome.
' His ideals have not changed but he realises that, some of them are lost battles. For ex ample, he is a federalist, but believes that philosophical and constitutional attitudes have changed so much in Australia in the past 10 to 15 years it is not worth pressing the
In Treasury he has found a hard taskmaster and Tues day night will show in part to what extent he has proved equal to it. Harold Holt used to retire, to Bingil Bay without a telephone to prepare the Budget Speech.
McMahon installed himself
in an office in the Treasury building with officers on hand at short notice. He spoke to every officer who prepared the Budget submissions — more than 100 of them.
He has a high regard for the intelligence and integrity in the top men at the Treasury but. one suspects that if he be lieves a submission is wrong he does not hesitate to say so. He will also take an initiative in policy, as instanced by the $15 million grant for the lagging housing sector of the economy earlier this year.
The impression has been fostered that this has led to friction with his officers but McMahon finds that, oncc a decision is taken, a rapport is established that he believes works extraordinarily well.
One of his aims is to take advantage of the opportunities for administrative staff work and reduce the volume con fronting Cabinet by isolating political and economic, issues for its decision.
The new Treasurer has other plans for streamlining procedures. Whatever the political pulse-takers make of the Budget, there can be no doubt that McMahon has not only achieved hia goal but has a firm grasp on it.