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John Gorton

Australia's 19th prime minister

Sir John Gorton, Australia’s 19th prime minister and the first to champion the local film industry, died after prolonged illness at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney on Sunday May 19. He was 90.

Prime minister from January 1968 until 1971, Gorton came to office after the disappearance, while ocean swimming, of then-Prime Minister Harold Holt. Early in Gorton’s short term, in response to lobbying from a film industry waiting to happen, he established a film committee to advise on kickstarting the industry. It recommended setting up a three-part starter package including an experimental film coin bank for emerging filmmakers, a film and TV school and a film fund to finance features and TV.

It wasn’t until after Gorton’s term that the recommendations were instituted and only then after the now-roguish back-bencher lobbied the incumbent William McMahon.

First project from the Experimental Film Fund was an anti-Vietnam War docu; it later bankrolled Tim Burstall’s “Stork” and Esben Storm’s “27A.” The Australian Film Development Corp. — now called the Australian Film Commission and charged primarily with developing projects — was set up to administer funding for features and TV. Its first 35mm film was “Sunstruck,” which employed many emerging industryites.

And in 1973 the Australian Film Television and Radio School accepted its inaugural class, which included directors Gillian Armstrong, Phillip Noyce and Chris Noonan, all key players in Australia’s subsequent film renaissance. Bruce Beresford, in 1976 cast Gorton (as himself) in scribe David Williamson’s election night drama “Don’s Party.”

Gorton is survived by his second wife, Lady Nancy Gorton; a daughter; two sons; 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.