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Sir John "Black Jack" McEwen, GCMG, CH (29 March 1900 – 20 November 1980), was an Australian politician and 18th Prime Minister of Australia.

McEwen's stern demeanour earned him the nickname "Black Jack" (Sir Robert Menzies called him "Le Noir").

Early life

McEwen was born at Chilternmarker, Victoriamarker, where his father was a pharmacist. He was educated at state schools and at 15 became a junior public service clerk. He enlisted in the Army immediately upon turning 18 but the First World War ended while he was still in training. He commenced dairy farming at Stanhope, Victoriamarker, near Sheppartonmarker.

Political career

McEwen was active in farmer organisations and in the Country Party. In 1934 he was elected to the House of Representatives for the electorate of Echuca, switching to Indi in 1937 and Murray in 1949. Between 1937 and 1941 he was successively Minister for the Interior, Minister for External Affairs and simultaneously Minister for Air and Minister for Civil Aviation. In 1940 when Archie Cameron resigned as Country Party leader he contested the leadership ballot against Sir Earle Page: the ballot was tied and Arthur Fadden was chosen as a compromise.

When the conservatives returned to office in 1949 under Robert Menzies after eight years in opposition, McEwen became Minister for Commerce and Agriculture, then Minister for Trade and Industry. He pursued what became known as "McEwenism" - a policy of high tariff protection for the manufacturing industry, so that industry would not challenge the continuing high tariffs on imported raw materials, which benefitted farmers but pushed up industry's costs. This policy was a part (some argue the foundation) of what became known as the "Australian Settlement' which promoted high wages, industrial development, government intervention in industry (both as an owner- Australian governments traditionally owned banks and insurance companies and the railways and through policies designed to assist particular industries) and decentralisation. In 1958 Fadden retired and McEwen succeeded him as Country Party leader.

When Menzies retired in 1966, McEwen became the longest-serving figure in the government, and he had an effective veto over government policy. When Menzies' successor, Harold Holtmarker, was officially presumed dead on 19 December 1967, the Governor-General Lord Casey sent for McEwen and he was sworn in as Prime Minister, on the understanding that his commission would continue only so long as it took for the Liberals to elect a new leader. Approaching 68, McEwen was the oldest person ever to be appointed Prime Minister of Australia, although not the oldest to serve - that was Robert Menzies.

It had long been presumed that the Treasurer (finance minister), William McMahon, would succeed Holt as Liberal leader. However, McEwen sparked a leadership crisis when he announced that he and his Country Party colleagues would refuse to serve in a government led by McMahon.

McEwen is reported to have despised McMahon personally, and it is very possible that he disliked McMahon because of his rumoured homosexuality, which has been the subject of persistent rumours in Australia. But more importantly, McEwen was bitterly opposed to McMahon on political grounds, because McMahon was allied with free trade advocates in the conservative parties and favoured sweeping tariff reforms: a position that was vehemently opposed by McEwen, his Country Party colleagues and their rural constituents.

Another key factor in McEwen's antipathy towards McMahon was hinted at soon after the crisis by the veteran political journalist Alan Reid. According to Reid, McEwen was aware that McMahon was habitually breaching Cabinet confidentiality and regularly leaking information to favoured journalists and lobbyists, including Maxwell Newton, who had been hired as a "consultant" by Japanese trade interests. This version of events was confirmed years later by the former Canberra lobbyist Richard Farmer, following the release of sealed Cabinet papers from the period.

McEwen's implacable opposition forced McMahon to withdraw from the leadership ballot and opened the way for the successful campaign to promote the Minister for Education and Science, Senator John Gorton, to the Prime Ministership with the support of a group led by Defence Minister, Malcolm Fraser. Gorton replaced McEwen as Prime Minister on 10 January 1968. Gorton created the formal title Deputy Prime Minister for John McEwen, confirming his status in the government. McEwen retired in early 1971, finally freeing the Liberals to replace Gorton with McMahon, which they did within two months.

At the time of his retirement, McEwen had served 36 years and 5 months and was the last serving parliamentarian from the Great Depression era and the last parliamentary survivor of the Lyons government.

Sir John died in 1980, in Melbournemarker, aged 80, by which time Malcolm Fraser's government was abandoning McEwenite trade policies.


McEwen was awarded the Companion of Honour (CH) in 1969. He was knighted in 1971 after his retirement from politics, becoming a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG). The Japanese appointed conferred the Grand Cordon, Order of the Rising Sun in 1973.


On 21 September 1921 he married Annie Mills McLeod; they had no children. In 1966, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE). After a long illness Dame Ann McEwen died on 10 February 1967. At the time of becoming Prime Minister in December of that year, John McEwen was a widower, being the only Australian Prime Minister who was single during his term of office. On 26 July 1968 McEwen married Mary Eileen Byrne, his personal secretary; he was aged 68, she was 46.

See also


  1. Lloyd, C. J. "McEwen, Sir John (1900 - 1980)," Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 15, pp. 205-208.
  2. Australian Dictionary of Biography

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