Death of Don Chipp

I received a message late tonight that Don Chipp, founder of the Democrat party had died last evening in Melbourne. He had recently turned 81, but while he was open about his deteriorating health in recent years, it is still a shock to hear news like this come thorough. He gave a speech at the opening of the most recent Democrat national conference in Melbourne back in May and he was as fiesty as ever, albeit a little bit wavery on his feet.

He also appeared on TV talk shows, including ABC’s Talking Heads show last year and Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope in 2004.

I only met him a handful of times, but there was no doubt he was one of those few people who could flick on a smile and an engaging comment as easily as flicking on a switch. It’s an ability I wish I had sometimes, even though I sometimes find it faintly disconcerting to watch close up. It also looks to me like it would be unbearably exhausting, but it didn’t seem to have that effect on him.

He certainly had a truckload of charisma, more so than all but about 3 or 4 politicians I’ve met. His unmatched effort in founding a nationwide party almost from scratch and helping build it into a stable, long-term political force in Australian politics is pretty much unmatched – particularly given it was a time when third parties were seen as an irrelevant, invasive species that should be exterminated as soon as possible.

Given his amazing achievement in kickstarting such a long-term successful party as the Democrats, it is easy to overlook his earlier life. He was a talented sportsperson, playing a few VFL games for Fitzroy (forerunners of today’s Brisbane Lions), as well as a talented sprinter. He was the CEO of the Olympic Civic Committee, preparing Melbourne for the games in 1956.

Of course, he was also a Liberal MP and Minister for many years through the 1960s. This was brought home to me when I attended the launch of his final book – “Keep the Bastards Honest” – back in 2004. It had people like Andrew Peacock and his wife, Michael Kroger, John Button, Ron Barassi, Steve Vizard, as well as the MC John Singleton and Andrew Denton, who gave a very good speech. He still had his social and Melbourne links to that end of town that other Democrats just never had.

One of the legacies of Don Chipp and the Democrats is being so successful at carving out clear political ground separate from the two major parties that was so fertile it allowed other parties to flourish as well. Some have been reasonably successful so far (Greens), some flared spectacularly and then disappeared (One Nation and also Nuclear Disarmament Party) and for others its a bit too soon to tell (Family First).

The other major legacy has been the transformation of the Senate from a house of somnabulism or obstruction, to a house of constructive review. This shorthand view of the Senate’s role as a check and a balance on the actions of government has sunk quite deeply into the public’s understanding. As long as the government’s current control of the Senate proves to be just a tempoary aberration, then that reputation will survive the short-term damage currently being made to it.

I didn’t really get interested in party politics until after Chipp’s retirement, and it was Janine Haines’ equally idiosyncratic style which influenced me more to try out the party in 1989. However, the big thing of interest to me in Don’s party was the strong ethos of participatory democracy, and the ability of all Parliamentary Members to hold a conscience vote on key issues. Those characteristics were often belittled over time as naive and unworkable in a modern political party, and sadly the party’s enactment of them and commitment to them diminished slowly through much of the 1990s. It’s true that a modern political party probably couldn’t operate with such an ethos, but then becoming like a modern, professional structurally-disciplined party was possibly moving the party away from who it really was and the role it was there to play.

You can read the full text of Don Chipp’s speech to the Parliament resigning from the Liberal Party in March 1977 by clicking on this link, prior to his decision to help form the Australian Democrats soon after. Some of the areas of concern he lists sound sadly similar today, including a government push for uranium mining, an inadequate, illusory non-proliferation treaty, bungling and red tape for asylum seekers from IndoChina, and the breaking of promises to continue the Australian Assistance Plan and to back solar research.

A few years ago during my time as Leader of the Democrats, the party set up the Don Chipp Foundation to honour and help maintain his legacy and to “promote fiercely independent and public debate.” Click on the link to have a look – donations are now tax deductible. (disclosure: I am a non-paid Director on the Board of the Foundation)

UPDATES: I imagine there’ll be a few profile and opinion pieces on Don Chipp in the mainstream media and the internet over the next few days. I’ll put links to some of them here as a bit of a record and tribute.

Chipp had strong, though not always accurate, opinions to the end. He thought Mark Latham was a certainty in 2004 because he couldn’t believe the people would re-elect a prime minister who’d gone to war on a lie. Chipp was a singular politician who belonged to neither left nor right. His guiding principle was English philosopher John Stuart Mill’s insistence that majority opinion should always be questioned.

But he admitted he’d got his promise to keep the bastards honest wrong by over-simplifying the problem and concentrating on the politicians. The real bastards were the millions who reacted to a problem with another beer and a hateful “She’ll be right, mate”; the shareholders who supported uranium mining because of the profits; the bankers who welcomed foreign takeovers because they were good for profits; the unions who encouraged forest destruction because it pleased their members; lawyers who opposed simplifying workers’ compensation because that would threaten their holiday homes. “These are the real bastards, and they are represented in Canberra with sickening fidelity by members of the Liberal, National and Labor parties,” he wrote soon after quitting politics.

    • This piece includes a few tributes from other political leaders. I’m pleased to see Malcolm Fraser has made some relatively generous comments about Chipp, despite the deep enmity between the two stemming back to at least the time John Gorton was deposed as Prime Minister back in 1971. By contrast, Bob Hawke’s comments, while possibly accurate, seem to be focused as much at having a shot at the Democrats as they are at praising Chipp.
    • To show that it wasn’t just selective reporting making Bob Hawke look like a jerk, this report from the ABC quotes him saying “I don’t think it’s anything too much to say that there is a coincidental timing almost between the passing of Don Chipp and what I think is the death throes of the Democrats“. Contrasting Hawke and Chipp provides a good case study in how a politician’s legacy and the genuineness of their statements can sometimes be better assessed by what they do after they leave Parliament.
  • UPDATE 2: A long-term Democrat has forwarded this quote that Don Chipp wrote in the first issue of the party’s Journal in June 1977:

    The problems ahead of Australia and of the world are of staggering dimensions. As Aurelio Peccei has said they cannot be dealt with without chaos and destruction unless there is a change in the hearts and minds of men – a quantum leap forward in our culture. We have no illusions that a political party can itself make that change.

    But what we can do, and I believe that this purpose should underlie all our policies, is to set a legislative, social and economic framework in which kindness, generosity and wisdom can compete on better than equal terms with the greed, materialisms and mere cleverness which characterises so much of our present society.

    UPDATE 3: It has been announced that a State Funeral will be held in Melbourne on Saturday, 2 September, starting at 11am, at St Pauls Cathedral, corner of Flinders & Swanston Streets in the city. Members of the public are welcome to attend. In lieu of flowers, donations are requested for Parkinson’s Australia or Oxfam Australia.

    UPDATE 4: Apologies for linking to myself, but you can click here to read a piece I have written for the Bulletin – I was originally just going to repackage this blog piece for the article, but somehow it ended up quite different, so it’s worth a read as well (if I do say so myself).

    UPDATE 5: Click here to read The Australian’s obituary.

    UPDATE 6:

    UPDATE 7:

    UPDATE 8:

    A reader sent through the ending from Chipp’s speech to the Democrats’ National Conference in 2003 – (a speech which had to be read out as he was too ill to attend at the time). It is one those quotes which some people would find naff, whlie others would find it uplifting. One of Chipp’s great talents was that he could deliver words in a way which made them uplifting.

    Our way of life is worth saving. I am indebted to the unlikely source of Ernie Sigley for the following reminder.

    If you woke up this morning feeling healthy you are more blessed than the million people who will not survive this week.
    If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation, you are different from 500 million people in the world.
    If you can attend a church service without fear of harassment, arrest, torture, or death, you are more blessed than more than 3 billion people living today.
    If you have food in the refrigerator, cloths on your back, a roof overhead and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of all human beings of this world.
    If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish somewhere, you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.
    If you can read this you are luckier than over 2 billion people in this world who cannot read at all.

    So ….<

    Live – like it’s heaven on earth.
    Work – like you don’t need the money.
    Love – like you’ve never been hurt.
    Sing – like no-one’s listening.
    And …
    Dance – like no-one’s watching!

    So, Lets Dance!

    UPDATE 9:

    Some articles and obituries from the Fairfax press and the Canberra Times:

    UPDATE 10:

    A personal tribute from Sid Spindler, former Democrat Senator and senior advisor to Don Chipp in the 1980s.

Like & share:


  1. I pay my respects to Don Chipp and his legacy. I joined the Party in Darwin after attending one of the legendary public meetings held in 1977.

    While serving on the ADs National Executive the most valuable insight I learned from Don was to listen to people and understand why they hold their opinions and how they came to hold them – one might not agree with their conclusions but you understand ‘where they are coming from’ and hence show ‘compassion’ in our dealings with other people.

    The founding ethos of the ADs of ‘honesty, compassion and tolerance’ is still one I hope we all can aspire to and achieve the ADs founding political slogan of “Let’s Get Australia Together”.

    Vale Don Chipp – from a Foundation and Life member of the Australian Democrats.

  2. I also pay my respects to Don Chipp and his legacy.
    its just a shame we dont have more ppl like him.

  3. Heard your chat on local ABC this morning Andrew and thought you did well in reminding listeners that the Senate, as house of review, has only been around for the last 20 or so years, thanks to the Don Chipp legacy.

    Now that Australia has a power drunk Howard in charge of both houses, I still think that “keeping the bastards honest” is as relevant today as it was when AD first campaigned on that slogan.

    BTW, I thought you sounded honest,committed and genuine.

    Hope when the next election comes around, the voters will reverse the current Senate imbalance.

  4. Chipp made a valuable contribution to politics, not the least challenging the old left/right political divide.

    No mean feat, indeed.

  5. I’m sorry to hear of Don’s passing. He was a great man and even though I feel some of his opinions in recent times have been a bit off target I respect him for his integrity and for what he achieved in his time.

    His legacy is the Australian Democrats and I only hope they once again can live up to his expectations and get back to being what they were created to be.

  6. To Don’s family and friends I am very sorry for your loss.
    Like Fay I was a member of the Dems and a member of the Nat Exec. I believe that Don’s legacy is one that will endure and that the party he helped to establish will survive and continue to do the wonderful work it has always done in the Senate.
    Now is the time to morn the loss of a great Australian and to put aside petty differences and to get back to what really matters…”keeping the bastards honest”.

  7. Chipp, Whitlam, Killen, Cairns, Uren, Grasby, Georges.

    When I was a teenager and ignorantly curious about what politics was, these men were the examples.

    It saddens me that the dinosaurs of parliamentary debate are becoming extinct.

    These men of differing political persuasions embodied an intelectual respect for each other and the world that made conflict both educational and fascinating. An epoch pre-existing wedge and consensus politics.

    I don’t agree with any of them but I have learnt much from them all. I can’t remember much of their parliamentary debates, though I have heard them all (except Grazby, but i have read his book “six Australin Battlefields”) speak since leaving office. As a teenager I was locked up in the Brisbane watch house with georges and Uren and hundreds of others for marching against Joh. it is their personalities that are profound, their curiosity and openness somehow combined with an arrogant thick skinned determination.

    It seems the parliament has devolved from these grand dinosaurs to mud dwelling leaches in just a few decades.

    I do not think the Democrats were the vision of just one man. However just one man read the times correctly and articulated a vision that resonated with many. However the passing of this man has left a silence as the community no longer hums with a need for the democrats. His end symbolises the end of the original vision of the Democrats. Times change. Whether the party is put back to the earth with it’s founder at the next election, or if it reinvents itself with its original essence but also with a born again direction and vision, either way The Elder’s passing marks the end of an era.

    What flowers will spring from the grave, fertilised by the decomposition of the old into the refertilisation of the new?

  8. For a younger generation to have a real sense of who and what Don Chipp was and what he stood for, it is not a bad idea to think of the recent responses of the small but resolute group of ‘small l’ liberals, under heavy pressure in federal parliament over immigration. Under serious duress, the likes of Moylan came through- an event Chipp would have appreciated.
    Had Chipp been in this parliament he would have probably have been in that group.
    In the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, as army minister and customs minister, he promoted a more moderate, conciliatory and less confrontational response to Conscription and Vietnam debates, that contrasted with the hardline approaches of the likes of the RSL.
    His calm and rational response to a hysterical debate over cannabis use was also a blessed relief.
    His major differences to many politicians, was that he both “thought outside the box” and had a gift for communication. This inevitably left him with a short shelf-life within the regimented life of big-party politics.
    But these unusual characteristics made him the right person to actualise at federal level the tendencies and concept of a “middle” party to act as a break on extremist or expedience- driven politics emanating from the big parties.
    Inevitably the Democrats support was filled by both small-l liberals exiled from Howardist-style politics on the right and a more cosmopolitan type of ALP voter who no longer had a place in the machine-politics of the ALP.
    That the big parties only did themselves harm alienating valuable people capable of lateral thinking and alternative viewpoints and ideas, concerning formulation of policies increasingly developed by remaining entrenched vested interests, only further ensured the success firstly of the Democrats and later the Greens.
    Unfortunately this led to the downside of the fragmenting of political forces of the centre and the left,who, refusing to put aside hair-splitting and have time to sense the danger posed by “Big End/Big Media” Howard forces sniffing blood; finally allowed the Senate to fall to the Right, for the first time in thirty years.
    The concept has served the nation well over the last generation, and surely Deakinite liberals and Democrats, responsible ALP types, Greens and nationalistically-inclined groupings will finally, in the wake of the “rock-bottom” of 2004, think more deeply and at last make informal alliances that benefit the country-unless it is already too late.

  9. With the greatest respect to Don and yourself Andrew, I am glad that he didn’t live to see the Democrats die electorally.

    There is no doubting that Don broke ground for other minor parties, for good or bad. For that alone we owe him a lot.

  10. Pingback: Larvatus Prodeo
  11. Zane, There is no doubting that Don broke ground for other minor parties, for good or bad. For that alone we owe him a lot.

    Maybe at the national level, but the New Liberal Movement were well established in South Australian politics and had branches across many of the states. They just lacked a presidential leader with a public profile (especially after Steele Hall went back to the Liberal party).

    Same for the Centre-line and Australian parties; both had an established regional branch structure.

  12. I am a young person who is eternally grateful for Senator Chipp’s life, work and legacy he has left behind.

    Australia would not be the nation it is today if Don Chipp and the Democrats were not around. Don and his party of which I am a part of turned a rubber stamp house of Parliament into the Senate, a house of review, a house of accountability, a house of conscience.

    The Democrats now have now been set a task. The task is to carry on Don’s legacy. The party needs to make a come back in the name of Don Chipp’s legacy, in the name of democracy, in the name of the Senate.

    I am proud to be part of Australia’s original and best environment party, a party that will continue to stand up for the environment, honesty in politics, accountability, human rights, diversity, social justice and democracy.

    The party created by a man of great integrity, courage and charisma. Don Chipp.

  13. Don Chipp MP

    I first met Don Chipp in 1978. I was between jobs and was working as a casual waiter at Jacksons Restaurant in Melbourne exclusive suburb Toorak. At the time i was on extended leave from the Victoria Police and Waitering was a palliative to being a cop. Anyway i think that was their first meeting of sort.
    Overe the years I respected Don chipp for his views and folloed them religeously.
    Even though his deathwas reasonably imminent I like many others find myself grief stricken by his departure to another place.

    Barry Rutherford

  14. Pingback: Christian Green
  15. I think most of us would be thankful to have achieved a fraction of what Don Chipp did in his life. He was an amazing man in so many ways. I’m so sorry he has gone.

  16. We have the fortune to glimpse a window that was not there yesterday,
    and will not exist tomorrow.
    Every breath you take is a miracle within a moment that is yours alone;
    A moment that can barely be shared and will ultimately go unremembered.
    So you must cherish the hours,
    they are the only eternity you will know.

  17. Australia has lost a great public figure; one whose real influence on our history has yet to be appreciated. I never met him face-to-face but he did have an impact on my own political standpoint.

    The Australian Democrats have not yet died electorally …. and it may be one of the few political parties to survive the coming troubles.

  18. There are too few with the vision and courage of Don Chipp to pursue fairness and tollerance, so may those of us who aspire to a small fraction of that greatness find the strength and will to continue on.

  19. I have a book in front of me. It’s inscribed;

    “Paul, be caring, be loving, allow yourself to be loved … and you will be a happy man”. (signed) Don Chipp, Oct 1990.

    I think Don could have added ‘be honest, fair to people and try to understand everyone’, and that would have described himself.

    While out in Hawthorn and Malvern campaigning today, many people expressed their sorrow at his passing. In fact, over the past 16 months of campaigning, very many people have spoken fondly of their own contact with the humble and inspiring Don Chipp.

    It was telling that Latline’s beautiful tribute to Don Chipp tonight followed an interview with a QC opposing the presumption of innocence and basic civil liberites.

    What a striking demonstration of how far downhill Australia has gone without Don Chipp, and with the Party’s reduced influence.

    How much the Democrats are needed; now more than ever !

    To Laura, Greg and all his lovely family, my best wishes.

    Paul Kavanagh
    Sad and proud Democrat

  20. Re Paul Kavanagh’s post, the individual referred to was no doubt Peter Farris,QC (a one-time spook?). This deplorable individual was at odds with Lasry QC and a couple of academics, as well as Thomas’ brother, who by contrast presented an articulate source for the opposite position to Farris’ essentially deceitful one.
    I’m tempted to assume that Paul will have have felt alarmed also at the segment on the perversion of FOI and commercial-in-confidence, during the same 7.30 Report and in particular observed the performance of the now-pathetic Costello, who was still on his high horse back nine months ago.

  21. Although I joined the Australian Democrats in 1990, I met Don Chipp only once at the 2003 national conference in Melbourne. He remains a one-off unique Australian citizen in his own right. The best way to honour him and to remember his contribution is for each of us to take even just one of his many qualities on board and implement this quality in the ongoing life of private and public conscience so that even now he is gone from us his spirit lives on in us. God bless.

  22. Pingback: Max Baumann
  23. I’ve already pelted off a few cranky emails at all the journalists and commentators who have presented ‘obituaries’ for Don Chipp, which have really just been masked attacks on the Democrats, more predictions of death, more ignorance of the work we are still doing.

    Meh it’s so depressing! I hate the media.
    Bob Hawke – Meh

    BTW – I’ve just discovered your blog while wasting time at work – nice one AB :)

Comments are closed.