Tiberius with a Telephone: The Life and Stories of William McMahon

2020 - Shortlisted


Judges' Comments

How many politicians deserve a biography of 250 000 words? William McMahon is not the obvious candidate, but Tiberius with a Telephone is a substantial and surprising achievement, making a credible case for McMahon’s significance. Patrick Mullins has produced a sweeping comedy of manners reminiscent of Anthony Powell in its sophisticated handling of political and social context alongside its very readable style and feel for the absurd. He marshals the apparently trivial incident to reveal so much of how politics was done through the 1950s and 1960s.

McMahon is neither hero, nor villain. Instead Mullins has painted a satisfying picture of a complicated, driven, flawed, yet unexpectedly sympathetic figure. McMahon’s own sense of self, so often at odds with just about everyone around him, is nevertheless given its due: a conscientious political actor who many regarded as lacking conscience. Mullins cleverly interweaves McMahon’s life and times with an account of McMahon’s futile efforts to write his story: the result is a biography that not only tells much of its subject but of the nature of biographical writing itself.


About the author

Patrick Mullins

Patrick Mullins is a Canberra-based writer and academic. He holds a PhD from the University of Canberra, where he is adjunct assistant professor in the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research. His first book, Tiberius with a Telephone, a biography of former prime minister Billy McMahon, was published by Scribe in 2018. His second book, The Trials of Portnoy, about the end of literary censorship in Australia, was published by Scribe in June 2020.