John McEwen, as a young boy, around the time he left Chiltern and live with family in Wangaratta
David James McEwen and his wife, Amy owned this property from May 1895 to December 1898. Their son John ‘Black Jack’ McEwen was born soon after (29 March 1900) in their newly built house at 73 Main Street, Chiltern. He would later go on to be Australia’s 18th Prime Minister, temporarily replacing Harold Holt, who had disappeared (and never found) off the coast of the Mornington Peninsula. Following the election, he serviced under John Gorton in the newly-created position of Deputy Prime Minister.
73 Main Street, Chiltern. This is the birthplace of John McEwen, and the home David James McEwen built while living in 24 Oxford Street.
A young man, embarking upon politics
John McEwen left school at 13 but continued his education at night school while working as a switchboard operator for a pharmaceutical firm. After passing an examination for the Commonwealth Public Service at 15 he started work in the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor's office. McEwen enlisted in the 1st Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in August 1918, but the war ended before he set off for service overseas. He was granted a soldier settler block of 35 hectares at Stanhope in the Goulburn Valley, Victoria, where he cleared land and established a dairy farm and later moved into sheep farming. He led a campaign to establish a cooperative dairy factory and became its chairman of directors.
John McEwen, who took over the role of Prime Minister in 1967 after Harold Holt disappeared while swimming in heavy surf, had been leader of the Country Party for nine years, and Minister for Trade since 1956. He was the interim Prime Minister for only 23 days, and was replaced by the Liberal Party's new choice - John Gorton. McEwen is well known as the architect of a high tariff policy established in the 1950s to protect Australian industry.
He was elected as the County Party member for Echuca (later Indi) in 1934, serving until he retired in 1971. He served as Minister for the Interior (1937-39), External Affairs (1940), Air (1940-41), Commerce and Agriculture (1949-56) and Trade and Industry (1956-70). McEwen was Deputy Leader of the Country Party (1941-58) and Leader (1958-71), becoming also Deputy Prime Minister.
John McEwen being sworn in as Prime Minister, after the disappearance of Harold Holt
Sir Ivor Hele, (1912-1993) sketched this portrait of Sir John McEwen in 1970
Gorton created the formal title Deputy Prime Minister for McEwen, confirming his status as the second-ranking member of the government. Prior to then, the title had been used informally for whoever was recognised as the second-ranking member of the government – the leader of the Country Party when the Coalition was in government, and Labor's deputy leader when Labor was in government. Even before being formally named Deputy Prime Minister, McEwen had exercised an effective veto over government policy since 1966 by virtue of being the most senior member of the government, having been a member of the Coalition frontbench without interruption since 1937.
McEwen retired from politics in 1971. In his memoir, he recalls his career as being "long and very, very hard", and turned back to managing 1,800 head of cattle on his property in Goulburn Valley. In the same year, Clifton Pugh won the Archibald Prize for a portrait of McEwen. While he had softened in his "unequivocal support for protection" by the time of his retirement he had given way to free-traders with regards to agriculture. However, he felt differently about manufacturing, as it was essential to National power:
"My own view has always been that it would be ridiculous to think that Australia was safe in the long term unless we built up our population and built up our industries. So I have always wanted to make Australia a powerful industrialised country as well as a major agricultural and mining country. This basic attitude meant that I was bound to favour broadly protectionist policies aimed at developing our manufacturing sector."
At the time of his resignation, he had served in parliament for 36 years and 5 months, including 34 years as either a minister (1937–1941 and 1949–1971) or opposition frontbencher (1941–1949). He was the last serving parliamentarian from the Great Depression era, and hence the last parliamentary survivor of the Lyons government. By the time of his death, Malcolm Fraser's government was abandoning McEwenite trade policies.
He married Ann McLeod in 1921 (who died in 1967) and then married Mary Byrne (his private secretary) in 1968. Neither marriage produced any children. McEwen suffered from severe dermatitis for most of his adult life. He recounted that "for literally months at a time, I would be walking about Parliament House with my feet bleeding and damaged." The pain became unbearable in later years, and he began refusing food in order to hasten his death; he died of self-imposed starvation on 20 November 1980, aged 80.
Sir John McEwen served as Australia's 18th Prime Minister for just 23 days, but would be our first Deputy Prime Minister from 10th January 1968 to 5th February 1971