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August 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

The Chipp On Liberal Shoulders

August 30, 2006

by Jack Waterford - Canberra Times

The death of Don Chipp, founder nearly 30 years ago of the Australian Democrats he has only slightly predeceased, inevitably invites obituaries which reflect upon his failed creation and the manner, and the reasons, why it fell apart. Just as interesting, however, is how much his 1977 ratting on the Liberal Party - on the grounds of what he saw as its increasing illiberalism - actually further isolated its moderates and made it the conservative party which it is today.

It's partly in the perceptions, then and now, of course. Who, now, would think of Malcolm Fraser as the arch-Tory, reactionary, hardline enforcer of party dogma, the person seeming to make it impossible for moderates to be heard or tolerated? Fraser is now seen within his old party as impossibly wet, particularly on social issues, and of an era, like the Menzies one, to which only lip service is paid.

The Liberal Party Don Chipp left was not yet greatly affected by the revival of classical economics or libertarianism, and even natural conservatives such as John Howard - not yet Treasurer - were not yet much infected by the proselytising of new conservative radicals such as John Hyde, by fundamental beliefs in markets, or by ideas of scaling back the power and the reach of the state. Even its instinctive wish to promote Liberal policies was handicapped by the caution of Fraser, and his concerns that going too fast or too far would accentuate the divisions - and questions of Liberal legitimacy - caused by the 1975 Dismissal. Whitlam was still the Labor leader.

Yet Chipp personally, and many other small-l liberals in the party, felt themselves marginalised, not least by the autocratic Fraser. In his resignation speech, he said that he was "disenchanted with party politics as they are practised in this country and with the pressure groups which have an undue influence on the major political parties. The parties seem to polarise on almost every issue, sometimes seemingly just for the sake of it, and I wonder if the ordinary voter is not becoming sick and tired of the vested interests which unduly influence political parties and yearns for the emergence of a third political force, representing middle-of-the-road policies which owe allegiance to no outside pressure group. The move will have to come from those people in Australia who believe in the encouragement of free enterprise, who believe it has not had a fair go from interfering governments who regularly change, without warning, the conditions under which they operate.

"It must come from people who believe in true justice for the workforce and compassion for those in need, but who believe that actions must be taken to prevent social problems from occurring, rather than trying to cure them and hide them once they have arrived."

Chipp's third-force party was a creature of liberalism, not at all necessarily different from the party of an Alfred Deakin, a Robert Menzies or a John Gorton: strong on free enterprise but fiercely opposed to monopolies and believing in government's right and duty to interfere in markets to secure the public interest. Not fundamentally hostile to trade unionism but deeply (and rightly) suspicious of many entrenched trade union leaders and the way they exercised power: strong on politics of worker participation. Equally opposed to what they saw as Fraser's "law of the jungle" approach to resolving industrial conflict, but equally opposed to Labor's Big Brother concepts. Nationalist and post-Whitlam, in the sense that Aboriginal advancement, multi-culturalism, administrative law reform and human rights were part of the mix, but more doubting that everything would be solved by more social workers, more welfare benefits, and more bureaucrats. To the right of centre on economic, administrative and regulatory issues, including over the size and scope of government; to the left of centre on social issues, not least on an emerging trendy issue, the environment. With an appeal particularly pitched not only to the small businessman but also to the general managerial classes. A strong streak of idealism pitched particularly for the young.

Don Chipp's Australian Democrats were not conceived as a party of the Left, as it ultimately, almost deliberately, became after Chipp went on to win seats in the Senate and acquire a balance of power. Rather, it self-consciously sat in the middle between the two major parties, claiming not only a capacity to "keep the bastards honest" but also to negotiate better outcomes by taking the rough edges off either party's policies, as well as some capacity to slow, to force inquiry, and to put its own issues on the agenda.

But there were always pressures on it to move leftwards, not least as Labor itself moved to the centre and Labor found its own critic (and partial ally) on the Left in the shape of the Nuclear Disarmament Party and then the Greens. It turned out, it seemed, that there was only limited space for any third or fourth parties, and that competing in that constituency was likely to be more fruitful than seeking to steal votes from either Labor or Liberal.

Yet, at the beginning, it was the Liberals from whom Chipp and his party were stealing votes, perhaps the more so as Chipp's seeking to stake out the liberal ground was perceived to make the old Liberals more conservative. In fact, Chipp was unsuccessful in luring other liberal moderates directly from the parliamentary ranks: many of his natural allies and friends thought it better to stay in and fight.

Over the period, however, natural moderates, such as, say, Ian McPhee, saw themselves more marginalised in the party councils. Natural political players, including John Howard, were developing new positions on issues such as the economy, regulation and industrial relations, de-emphasising old ones, particularly on general social policy, and performing neat feats of figure skating between being socially and morally conservative and regulatory while strongly libertarian on market issues.

At the federal level, the moderates, say Philip Ruddock, Amanda Vanstone and Robert Hill had very little influence on Howard by 1996. Moreover, not one of these had any natural charisma, personability or capacity to attract an idealistic following, particularly a young following, out in the grass roots. The moderate flowers wilted or were trampled in the party's councils.

Could it have been different had Chipp - a natural populist and instrinsically decent man - had stayed in and fought?

Formally, the Liberal Party had insisted that there was considerable room under the party umbrella. Increasingly, however, the old Liberals felt left out, as did some old party constituencies who were appalled by the cynicism, indifference or frank opportunism of the party on what had once been regarded as core liberal values.

On achieving government, Howard was "inclusive" with his moderates, but seemingly cynically so, particularly in giving them portfolios, such as education, health, immigration, welfare and the environment, where the riding orders were to cut expenditure and general government involvement. There was little scope for expressing their own ideals, and those who prospered - such as Vanstone and Ruddock - have done so by seeming to have repudiated every principle for which they once stood.

Meanwhile, the Democrats had faced virtually every crisis, whether of dabbling disastrously with realpolitik - as with the GST - becoming an umbrella for loonies and enthusiasts as well as natural moderates, and finally, seeking to outgreen the Greens, sacrificing any hope of constituencies from the right or centre.

Could a Chipp who had stayed in the Liberal Party and fought have developed constituencies which might have prevented a Tampa? Civilised some of the illiberalism on human rights, Aboriginal affairs or industrial relations?

Perhaps, but perhaps not. The way that Australian Liberals went was much the same as with right-of-centre parties around the world, just as, more or less, the way Labor went mirrored the way left-of-centre parties went. Nowhere else in the world have classical liberals prospered. Chipp, probably, never had enough energy or follow-through for his contribution to have made the vital difference.



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