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September 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Don Chipp Was The Right Man In The Right Place At The Right Time

September 7, 2006

by John Warhurst - Canberra Times

Don Chipp's recent death has led to his role in the formation of the Australian Democrats being overplayed somewhat.

Commentators have inevitably tended to play down the contribution of others and to neglect the general circumstances of the birth of the new party.

It is no criticism of Chipp to say that he was the right man in the right place at the right time. He was a key ingredient but not the only one. The time was one of Liberal Party unrest and of breakaway centre parties.

Rather than taking the great man in history approach, more attention needs to be given to the general context. In doing so it can be asked why the Howard decade has so far produced a decline rather than a strengthening of the centre party.

The decade that ultimately produced the Democrats was notable for the Vietnam War. Domestic reaction first produced the Liberal Reform Group, based in Sydney around businessman Gordon Barton, and then the Australia Party.

The Australia Party tradition not only brought the participatory ethic that has come to be identified with the Democrats but also senators such as the Melbourne businessman John Siddons and Colin Mason.

The same decade also was notable for the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government. This reinvigorated the Liberal movement, based around former premier Steele Hall in South Australia, and gave it a sketchy national existence.

Janine Haines, the Democrats second leader, came from this background. She had worked for Hall and actually entered the Senate for the Democrats before Chipp by replacing Hall when he returned to the Liberal Party.

So when Chipp decided to resign from the Liberal Party headed by Malcolm Fraser early in 1977, the party system was already unsettled. The leaders of the Australia Party and the New Liberal Movement had been on the lookout for some time for a high-profile figure to lead them.

They realised that was what they needed to succeed. The Australia Party had had one unsuccessful experiment with the Tasmanian senator Reg Turnbull as parliamentary leader.

They had also spoken to other potential leaders, such as former prime minister John Gorton, who, it must be remembered, was disillusioned enough with his party to stand as an Independent for the Senate in the ACT at the 1975 elections.

The disruption of these years therefore produced several minor parties, defections from the right to the centre, and eventually someone with the ready-made characteristics to lead them successfully.

The last decade has been a different story. Yet with the benefit of hindsight there are striking similarities between the two periods.

The general similarity has been that the ranks of the Liberal Party have again been unsettled. The war against terrorism and the Afghan and Iraq wars parallel the Vietnam War.

However, the domestic impact has not been felt in the centre, but on the left. The political beneficiaries of dissent from these wars have been the Greens rather than the Democrats.

The community dissent about the treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees has been considerable. It has certainly caused distress in Liberal Party ranks: in the parliamentary party, among important Liberal figures and among some Liberal voters.

But this dissent, equivalent in many ways to that between 1966 and 1977, has somehow failed to produce the ingredients for strengthening the centre.

It could quite easily have been a different story. The big difference has been that, unlike Chipp, the restless Liberal parliamentarians have stayed in place and the non-parliamentary dissenters have rejected the impulse to get involved directly in parliamentary politics.

There have been several possible candidates to play the part of a modern day version of Chipp.

However the Howard Government, unlike the Fraser government, has been able to keep potential dissidents inside the party. Senior Liberal progressives, such as Robert Hill (whose father Murray was in the Liberal Movement) were pulled in rather than pushed out.

More junior Liberal dissidents, such as Petro Georgiou, Bruce Baird and Judy Moylan, have engaged in negotiation and brinkmanship within the party room but have not stepped outside of it.

Even if they had they may not have had the profile to take up leadership of a new party, despite the ministerial experience of Baird (at the state level) and Moylan.

Another possibility was the direct involvement of past Liberal heavyweights disillusioned with Howard, including former prime minister Malcolm Fraser and former party president John Valder, among others.

They tended to confine their role to public criticism and to encouragement of others from the sidelines. Valder did get involved in the anti-Howard Not Happy, John! campaigns, but this was guerilla warfare rather than serious party politics.

Fraser certainly had more than enough stature to be another Chipp. He was at least another Gorton. What a remarkable turn of events it would have been if he had ended up in the Democrats 25 years later.

But he probably had too much baggage and was perhaps already too old by that time (only five years younger than Chipp) to lead the third force. While he has become an attractive centrist figure in Australian politics in his later life, his role in the dismissal of Whitlam may have also limited his appeal.

The lateral thinking possibility remains, nevertheless, that Liberal dissent will eventually generate a resurgence of centrist politics and that rather than dying or surviving in its present form the Democrats will somehow emerge as one ingredient of a new party, much as they stood on the shoulders of the Australia Party and the Liberal Movement thirty years ago.


John Warhurst is professor of political science at the Australian National University.

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