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.
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.
- To start, here is a piece by Don Woolford from AAP. Here’s one part in it I found particularly pertinent:
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.
- Links to a range of other stories from News Limited papers:
- one from Adelaide Now,
- one by Michael Harvey in the Herald Sun,
- a few snippets of Chipp’s own words over the years in this piece in The Australian,
- a long piece by Mike Steketee in The Australian which includes some less than positive, but reasonably fair assessments of the Democrats’ recent history and future prospects,
- two more pieces in The Australian – one by Patricia Karvelas and one by Cath Hart and Matthew Franklin,
- an item by Michael Madigan in The Courier-Mail
- Michaelle Grattan has written a fairly thorough opinion piece, as well as a shorter more biographical piece;
- Mungo MacCallum has a tribute in the Sydney Morning Herald;
- Tony Stephens writes in the Herald about ‘the scourge of bastards’.
- Jack Waterford in the Canberra Times;
- former Democrat MLC, Norm Kelly, assesses the future of the Democrats and the ongoing need for a third force;
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.
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.
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.
Dance – like no-one’s watching!
So, Lets Dance!
Some articles and obituries from the Fairfax press and the Canberra Times:
A personal tribute from Sid Spindler, former Democrat Senator and senior advisor to Don Chipp in the 1980s.