1969 Liberal Party of Australia leadership spill

The Liberal Party of Australia held a leadership spill on 7 November 1969, following the party's poor performance at the federal election on 25 October. Prime Minister John Gorton was re-elected as the party's leader, defeating challengers William McMahon and David Fairbairn.

Liberal Party of Australia
leadership spill, 1969

7 November 1969
Candidate John Gorton William McMahon David Fairbairn
First Ballot 34–40 (est.) 20–25 (est.) 5–6 (est.)

Leader before election

John Gorton

Elected Leader

John Gorton


The Liberal–Country coalition lost a combined 16 seats at the 1969 federal election, and the Labor Party (under Gough Whitlam) won the two-party-preferred vote. On 2 November, National Development Minister David Fairbairn announced his intention to challenge Gorton for the leadership of the Liberal Party.[1] He was joined the following day by Treasurer William McMahon, who had been deputy leader since 1966.[2] Deputy Prime Minister John McEwen, the leader of the Country Party, announced that his party was willing to work with any of the three candidates; this lifted the veto he had applied to McMahon at the previous leadership ballot in January 1968.[3]


The election on 7 November was set for 10 a.m., but delayed by an hour as five MPs travelling from Melbourne were delayed by a faulty aircraft. With Speaker William Aston presiding, the 65 members of the Liberal partyroom took 49 minutes to elect a leader. Gorton won an absolute majority on the first ballot, but the final results were kept secret, with the ballot papers burnt immediately after being tallied.[4] Alan Reid of The Daily Telegraph estimated Gorton had won 34 votes,[3] while The Canberra Times estimated 38 votes;[4] Gorton's supporters claimed up to 40 votes.[3] The deputy leadership was also declared vacant, and McMahon was re-elected over Immigration Minister Billy Snedden and Postmaster-General Alan Hulme with about 35 votes.[4]


After the challenge, Fairbairn resigned from cabinet and McMahon was demoted to Minister for External Affairs. McMahon challenged Gorton again in March 1971, and was successful.[3]


  1. Struggle for PM's post sharpens, The Canberra Times, 3 November 1969.
  2. McMahon in race for P.M., The Canberra Times, 4 November 1969.
  3. Summer of ’69: lessons from a Liberal spill, Crikey, 2 February 2015. Retrieved 5 November 2017.
  4. Result a secret, The Canberra Times, 8 November 1969.
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