On a spring evening 40 years ago this month Australian viewers, over two consecutive nights, were subject to the highs and the lows of political broadcasting. On a Monday night they saw Gough Whitlam give his immortal ''It's Time'' speech live from Blacktown Civic Centre to rapturous applause. He opened his policy speech with John Curtin's salutation ''men and women of Australia''. He carved out one of Australia's finest speeches.
The next night, in contrast, was pure Mogadon . In a pre-recorded television address Billy McMahon announced in a reedy, sing-song voice: ''Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, this forthcoming election is all about policies …'' And on he went at a steady pace interspersed by film clips and graphics. It spawned a thousand schoolboy impersonators.
Former cabinet minister James Killen thought it ''an appalling performance'', bereft of inspiration or appeal. Whitlam watched McMahon's broadcast in Melbourne, telling his supporters: ''My wife and I have made the same great sacrifice that all of you have made. We're staying tonight down the road at The Waltzing Matilda, and there couldn't have been a better place to watch Billy boil.'' McMahon's minders reasoned that the format would suit their man's style and be more compact and professional.
In an election where foreign ownership, economic management, decentralisation, the big cities and social welfare were mooted as issues, the performance of McMahon became front and centre. McMahon was jaunty and upbeat throughout the campaign, oblivious to the fact that his popularity had plummeted from 55 per cent to 25 per cent. His head, described ''like a Volkswagen with the front doors open'' did not bear comparison with Whitlam's. Australians do not like to see their leader reduced to a comedy act.
It was amplified by the fact that the 1972 election campaign was one where television played a key role. David Frost was called in to interview the two contenders. There was considerable mirth in Canberra when McMahon told Frost ''I have never, ever told a lie''. Half of McMahon's cabinet were highly critical of him.
Even an ally, Peter Howson, wrote in his diary: ''He is not good at building up a team spirit; he doesn't really know how to delegate; he likes to feel that he's doing everything himself.'' McMahon had not even told the deputy prime minister, Doug Anthony, the date for the election and got himself in a twist about the date himself : ''What I have never done is fix a date until I have made up my mind what the date is likely to be.''
A week from polling day McMahon said he did not trust his cabinet to make the right decisions. It was little wonder that Bob Menzies felt that another week of campaigning would have decimated the Liberal Party.
McMahon was a hand with the telephone; it was his surrogate dagger by which he had orchestrated the coup against John Gorton 18 months earlier. ''Tiberias with a telephone'' Whitlam called him. This campaign was also one where politicians discovered the effectiveness of talkback radio. McMahon's penchant for the phone resurfaced in this election campaign when, interviewed from a distance, his voice was more bearable, more commanding. Whitlam preferred the broadcasting booth to preserve the timbre of his voice. It was a campaign made famous for McMahon's reliance upon the autocue, which at that time was an unsophisticated hand-driven device by which he read his speeches. It was comedy in the making.
Whitlam could not resist having a dig at the faceless technician turning the handle: ''I'd like you to consider: who's the man with his finger on Mr McMahon's autocue? If the gadget fails, if the plug comes out, the whole meeting will come to a standstill. This is going to be government by teleprompt.''
Killen recalled pure comedy at an election gathering in Brisbane: ''William McMahon walked to the autocue and started to read. The noise grew and grew. He didn't break off. He kept dutifully to his script. The technician behind the curtain turned a knob up and up''. McMahon began to speak louder and quicker in response. According to Wayne Errington and Peter Van Onselen it was John Howard, working on campaign duties, on the autocue. In his memoirs Howard recalled ''some erratic and hilarious moments''on the campaign, but did not allude to the autocue. Whether he was the operator that night remains unclear.
Struggling perhaps to keep a straight face, Whitlam frequently intoned ''Mr McMahon is no laughing matter''. It did not help that the ALP had released campaign buttons and T-shirts emblazed with ''Stop Laughing at Billy!''. The federal ALP secretary, Mick Young, warned his colleagues: ''Lay off the McMahon jokes. You're creating sympathy for the little bloke.'' Sympathy only went so far with the electorate; the comedy act was replaced by a grand tragi-comedy.
Alex Millmow is a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Ballarat.