Divisive agents of the prime minister or an innocent supper club?
An unusual aspect of the museum’s Killen collection is a large group of ties, selected from several hundred in his wardrobe when Lady Benise Killen donated Sir James’ memorabilia to the museum. Mostly they reflect his corporate identity: the clubs, firms, societies and parliamentary groups he visited or belonged to. Taken all together, they offer an interesting way to visualise the many connections of Australia’s longest-serving Defence Minister.
One in particular reminds us of a mostly-forgotten aspect of life on the backbench of the Liberal Party in the Gorton era. Depending on whom you believe, the Mushroom Club was either ‘a group of twelve members hand-picked by the PM, ostensibly to get to know the backbench … but it’s having the effect of splitting the party in two’ (Peter Howson), or it was ‘nothing more than a dining club which met once a week for dinner, inviting as a guest a Minister who may have had a rough time of it in the House, or a member of the staff of Parliament’ (Jim Killen). Killen treasured his Mushroom Club tie, having been a guest of the club. But then Killen was a Gorton loyalist, whereas Howson was candid in recording how he worked to unseat him as prime minister.
There are several versions of how the Mushroom Club got its name. Killen attributes it to Fred Chaney’s comment that ‘private members are but mushrooms, kept in the dark and appropriately fed.’
Sir James Killen, Killen: Inside Australian Politics (North Ryde, NSW: Methuen Haynes, 1985). Killen (1925-2007) was a Liberal Member of Parliament from 1955 to 1983 and served as a minister in the Gorton and Fraser governments. The museum holds his entire working library in its original shelf order, and a substantial collection of his political memorabilia.
Peter Howson, The Life of Politics: The Howson Diaries, edited by Don Aitkin (Ringwood, Victoria: Viking, 1984). Howson (1919-2009) was a Liberal Member of Parliament from 1955 to 1972 and served as a minister in the Menzies, Holt, Gorton and McMahon governments. His diary is one of the few such accounts to have been published in relation to the Australian Commonwealth Parliament.