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Best of our new years: Gorton was packin’ heat in Rabaul

2010 - John Gorton at Rabaul airport  1970 - he was packin' heat
John Gorton at Rabaul airport in 1970 - he was armed


SYDNEY - 1970 was a year of high drama in the Gazelle. There was anger and violence. The Mataungan Association had stepped up its struggle over land rights and was causing the Australian Administration much grief.

Then in July, prime minister John Gorton landed at Rabaul Airport for an official visit.

I was there as a journalist for Radio Rabaul, and stood amongst the chanting crowd as Gorton stepped on an airport trolley to try to give a speech. But the PA system failed.

Gough Whitlam later wrote: “[Gorton] was greeted by an audience of 10,000 who were as hostile as our 11,000 [on Whitlam's earlier visit] had been enthusiastic." Classic Whitlam.

Before Gorton disembarked, Tom Ellis, then head of the Department of the Administrator, gave him a handgun. Gorton secreted the pistol in his jacket pocket, a foolish if typically gung-ho act. It's likely lives would have been endangered had the Mataungans suspected the Australian prime minister was armed.

And now we learn that Gorton would have used the concealed pistol if he had to. Many years later, former Labor minister Clyde Cameron interviewed Gorton for posterity. The transcripts of the tapes have just been released by the National Library of Australia.

Gorton and Cameron were uninhibited in their discussion, knowing they would be long dead by the time the interview became public. Gorton told Cameron he would have shot any "rampaging Tolais" if they had threatened his wife.

“As the Prime Minister’s plane landed, the mood of the crowd being addressed by Mataungan leaders was reaching fever point,” District Commissioner Harry West later recalled.

“Then the loudspeaker system failed. As planned, vital wires were cut by undercover police and reasonable calm prevailed, but the situation was tense until Mr Gorton left Rabaul. A navy patrol boat was positioned to evacuate him, if necessary.”

Earlier, before leaving Australia, Gorton had a secret meeting with one of the Mataungan leaders, John Kaputin, now an eminent PNG diplomat.

Peter Hastings later wrote: “We met Sir John in Canberra. It was not a successful meeting. Sir John wanted a precise Western style description of Mataungan ideology, its political aims and timetable - an impossible task. Mr Kaputin faltered. Evoking incongruous images of the Winter Palace, the prime minister ended up inadvertently calling him ‘Mr Kropotkin’.”

Gorton’s biographer, Ian Hancock, referred to Sir John as “the first Australian prime minister who felt it necessary to carry a revolver to a public meeting”. Others probably wished they had, but felt it was more politic not to.


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Robert Kankan

Any video documentary of this event?

There were TV news cameras from Australia recording the event, Robert, so it's highly likely footage exists. I've had a quick search of the Australian archives with no luck. A more diligent search would probably find something - KJ

John Highfield | Facebook

An amazing day on that tarmac. As the Tolai mounted their objection on the other side of the police and riot personnel lines, as I recall Gorton lessened tensions by inviting John Kaputin and Oscar Tammur to the platform to address the mob.

Had any of us known that Gorton was armed we probably would have been a lot more nervous.

It was a counterpoint to the other little-reported incident on the Gorton visit.

On first arrival at the media/staff accommodation at the Hotel Papua in Moresby, a journalist's room was flooded (Laurie Oakes from memory) on the ground floor.

Explanation - an all-too hastily plumbed-in bath in the room above on the first floor - the existing shower being insufficient for Gorton's Private Secretary - Ainsley Gotto!

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