Gather the folks, break the bread, tell the stories – the Don Chipp funeral

The cavernous interior of St Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of Melbourne was filled to capacity. Former Prime Ministers and Governors-General, military brass, diplomatic corps, other past and present political luminaries, past and present Democrat Senators, past and present Democrat members, including some from the old Australia Party days that preceded the Democrats, along with many other members of the general public were there together 1000 strong. Central to proceedings were Don Chipp’s family, whose contributions to the service were a living representation of the core value and message that ran through the day – the belief in love above all else. Love of family, love of friends, love of people and the creation we inhabit.

Many speakers noted on the day the impossibility of summarising such an amazing life, so too it is hard to summarise the Service that honoured his life.

There were TV monitors placed throughout the building displaying a series of photos from throughout Don Chipp’s life. As the time for commencement of the service drew near, the music of Zorba the Greek started playing, while the photos kept being flashed on the screens. As the music reached its culmination, the screens showed Don Chipp from the 1984 election campaign as he said with conviction “you – men and women of goodwill, you can change the world.” The gathering broke into spontaneous applause – and then the Service began.

All four of Don’s children from his first marriage – Melissa, Debbie, John and Greg – spoke of their memories and feelings of Chipp the man, the father and the passionate advocate, as did his brother Alan, now the sole survivor of four brothers who grew up in suburban Northcote in the 1920s and 30s. Other tributes were given by Natasha Stott Despoja and Andrew Denton, along with a very good homily by the Rev Dr Bill Brown. The main Bible reading was Chapter 13 of Corinthians 1, which was read in a duet style by his two youngest daughters, Juliet and Laura, who spoke the final words together – “now faith, hope and love remain – these three, but the greatest of these is love.”

Many themes and words kept repeating – love, passion, honesty, fairness, courage, endeavour, compassion, and love again.

The contributions from his children and brother were varied but all of them were achingly beautiful and filled with love as they each spoke of their treasured memories. Melissa speaking of the games they would devise when she was a child, where he always ensured the rules were fair and that people would play by the rules, while always playing to win. John describing him as a super man with a super power – the power to make someone feel truly special. Debbie recalled his career advice that any job would be fine as long as it was a job which allowed you to help people and have a positive impact on people’s lives. Greg recalled his father’s belief in the importance of justice and of intellectual honesty. While all the speeches were good in their own way, I found Alan’s the most moving and insightful of all, perhaps because he could take a broader perspective of Don’s life and knew him from before as well as after politics. He spoke of his brother’s courage and his willingness to risk unpopularity for what he believed to be right.

There were analogies with footy teams, political parties, religious beliefs, all wrapped up in the recognition that the ‘game’ was always more important than the team. Don Chipp’s pride in the Democrats was recognised, and how his support for and pride in the party continued even during the difficult times, the impact of which is inevitably magnified in a smaller party. Don Chipp was a Liberal MP for 16 years. He was a Democrat Senator for less than 9 years, and of course he had many other achievements both before and after his time in Parliament, but I believe it is the Democrats for which he will be remembered above all else.

After all the sombreness and earnestness, Andrew Denton completely shifted the tone by reading a poem – more like an ode really – which he originally composed for and read at Don Chipp’s 80th birthday. It was cheeky and sometimes bawdy – no doubt perfectly suited to an 80th birthday party, but not the sort of thing usually heard echoing off the sandstone walls of a cathedral during a State Funeral, causing Denton to apologise in advance for any offence caused. However, Don’s wife Idun asked Denton to re-read it for the funeral, and (after what I expect would have been a brief moment of “I can’t do that?!”) he accepted the request and the honour. It used the word “erections” in the context of Chipp’s role in relaxing censorship laws as Customs Minister in the 1960s, had a few digs at Malcolm Fraser, and described lustful fantasies about the Queen, but it was wonderful, it was irreverent and it was Chipp.

I spoke to him briefly after the service and congratulated him for having the courage to read it, as I doubt I could have. He said being asked was an honour he couldn’t and wouldn’t want to refuse. I hope he won’t mind me mentioning that he also said he felt a bit sorry for Malcolm (Fraser) to have to sit in a funeral and listen to things like that said about him, but after all the service ‘was for Don, not for Malcolm’.

Speaking of Malcolm Fraser, I must say I am very impressed at the dignity he continues to show in his position as a former Prime Minister. Ironically, just before the Denton poem I was thinking how nice it was that he didn’t have to sit there and be sledged in the way he was when he attended (former Liberal Prime Minister) John Gorton’s funeral. Whilst the Denton poem was mainly in jest and not at all like the full frontal attack Fraser copped at Gorton’s funeral, it still can’t be fun to sit and listen to that sort of thing in front of a thousand people (which is not in any way to criticise Andrew Denton). He has repeatedly resisted the temptation to respond to various digs and criticisms, and his comments about Don Chipp both before and after the service were respectful and appropriate as paying genuine tribute. Unlike some others, he didn’t damn with faint praise or use it to have cheap shots at the Democrats, even though he would probably feel more justified than just about anybody to do just that.

The service was about Don Chipp, so it feels a bit wrong to focus on some of the ‘who’s who’ who attended. But their presence was part of the occasion and they were also markers to some of the many memories of Don’s life. It also showed that he wasn’t just a successful professional politician – there are a number of those. He was a successful politician who was genuinely respected across the political spectrum – there are not so many of those. Among those from the political sphere who made the effort to attend were:
• former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser – a man often portrayed as Chipp’s mortal enemy and a key factor is the disillusionment that led him to try setting up a third party,
• former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, who was quoted in The Age acknowledging the key role Chipp’s Democrats played in some of the key tax reforms of the 80s – “A lot of the policies from the ’80s, which shaped the new Australian economy, were done between him and me on the basis of understanding and unerring trust”,
• former Governors-General, Peter Hollingworth and Zelman Cowan,
• former federal Liberal leader Andrew Peacock, a long-standing friend of Chipp’s who was a fellow ‘rising star’ with him in the 1960s,
• former federal Liberal MP and current shadow Attorney-General in Tasmania, Michael Hodgman, who told me he was present with Chipp when he was composing his speech resigning from the Liberals in 1977;
• former Democrat Senator and Leader Janet Powell, the woman who filled his vacancy in the Senate and ended up leaving the Democrats after internal party upheavals in 1991 and later aligning herself from the Greens;
• Jean Jenkins, another former Democrat Senator who after leaving the Senate ended up being caught up in major party upheavals in WA in 1994 and expelled, later joining the Greens and standing as a candidate;
• former Democrat Deputy Leader, John Siddons, who left the party in 1987 and ran as a candidate for the United Australia Party, and later rejoined the Democrats in the 1990s.
• All four current Democrat Senators, plus former Democrat Senators Michael Macklin, Jack Evans, Sid Spindler, Vicki Bourne and Karin Sowada, former Democrat State MPs Kate Reynolds and Lis Kirkby and current ones Sandra Kanck and Arthur Chesterfield-Evans.
• It was also very special to see Ian Haines, the husband of the late Janine Haines who succeeded Chipp as Leader of the party, who ignored his own health problems to travel from Adelaide to pay his respects;
• current politicians including the Premier of Victoria, Steve Bracks, federal Treasurer Peter Costello, Labor Shadow Minister Martin Ferguson, other Liberals Judith Troeth and Petro Georgiou and Family First senator Stephen Fielding.
• I saw former Victorian Labor Senator Barney Cooney in the crowd, and I’m sure there were many others I didn’t see or recognise, particularly from eras prior to mine.

After the service, a lot of past and present Democrats got together in a nearby room to talk and reminisce. I was especially pleased to see Janet Powell and Jean Jenkins amongst them, as there were some unpleasant times in the past and it is good when the bitterness can be set side or left behind. When I finally left and went into the airport lounge to wait for my flight home, I was surprised to run into Paul Keating talking with Karin Sowada and Vicki Bourne, and was fortunate to be able to listen to him talk briefly about that period of the 1980s and some of the things he said to Chipp when they were planning changes such introducing fringe benefits and capital gains taxes. Keating read out part of the quote he gave to The Age which they didn’t use, which included recognising that Don Chipp successfully achieved one of the most difficult things possible in Australian politics – starting a new political party.

When I first heard of Don Chipp’s death, I felt mildly astonished that such an amazing spark and passion for life could possibly be extinguished. After today’s Service, I realised I was wrong. Don Chipp’s spark – his passion for life and love and justice – has not been extinguished at all. It lives on in the thousands of people he touched and the millions of lives he changed for the better. It is there to give some extra spark and passion for all of us who are still in the arena of life, if we have the courage to use it.


These links go to some coverage of the funeral from mainstream media:

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  1. Andrew – thankyou. This tells us so much more about the man and all that he stood for than the many obituaries I’ve read.

    And Theodorakis’ music from Zorba – how utterly appropriate.

  2. Thank you very much for this information. It was Don who first inspired a young 18 yr old to enrol to vote when I received a hand written letter 20 yrs ago. this small gesture began what would transpire into a life long passion for politics. At 18 I believed that if the leader of a political party would listen to me, I really could make a difference. Unfortunately I soon realised that there were not too many Dons out there.
    I imagine there are many more people that he also inspired like this. I wanted to go on Saturday, but could not, so thank you for sharing the details with us.

  3. What a beautiful piece. As you well know, I am having some issues of disillusionment at the moment, and reading about such an influential man, a man of such integrity, is something which goes a very small way towards bringing me back into the land of idealistic optimism.

    Maybe one person can make a difference?

  4. Andrew

    Thank you for these thoughtful and re-assuring observations. Your last sentence serves as a reminder on why I see no alternative to voting for the Australian Democrats.


  5. Andrew

    Thank you for this comprehensive report on the funeral and the many people who have been influenced by Don Chipp.

    While I attended Don Chipp’s meeting in the Adelaide Town Hall in 1977, I did not join the Democrats immediately.

    When I became National Returning Officer, Don was still the leader. I must have conducted my first count for the National Leader after the 1983 or 1984 Federal election. At that time, the Democrat’s still had innovative internal elections and the Leader and Deputy Leader were elected in the same ballot (a procedure that needs to be re-introduced). The National Ballots Officer told me that I needed to ask each candidate about which position they would take if elected. In my naivety, I rang Don and asked him if he would be prepared to take the Deputy position if so elected. There was deathly silence!!

    Despite this beginning, over the years I had several friendly phone calls from Don, usually when he wanted to find out how an internal election was going, as he was still very interested. He usually voted in most elections, though last year I did use my discretion and included his vote even though there was no signature or other hand writtten identifcation.

    Deane Crabb
    National Returning Officer

  6. Dodgyville:
    And a bad year – we lost Rick Farley too.

    Let’s hope Don Chipp enters the school books soon so he can inspire young Australians from beyond the grave.

  7. Thanks for this excellent summary of the service, Andrew, and sorry for never chatting at the gathering afterwards. I am a bit rusty with interacting with so many members (having gone semi-active with other things in life lately) and there were plenty of familiar faces there.

    One consequence of the day was that I discovered I can still be a bit silly in the presence of public figures. I had assumed I was totally blaze about meeting current and former ADs senators but then I realised that Karin Sowada was there. I had never met her, simply seen her mugshot in old newsletters, had always admired her role in the Senate, and had a sudden case of ‘celebrity gitters’ in approaching her, along with another impressed member, to say hello.

    Thanks once more for your writing, and your excellent blog.

  8. Andrew, you’ve captured the atmosphere of Don Chipp’s funeral perfectly. For me, you’ve preserved that landmark day.

    To see the Keatings, Krogers and the many anonomous admirers together filled me with pride. Like you, I felt a surge of respect for Malcolm and Tammy – dignified, stalely, reassuring and comforting.

    I couldn’t help thinking that the funeral showed what this lucky country is capable of – teeming with humanity, empathy and goodwill. Then I think of the Howard alternative.

    What a country that welcomes the public to a State Funeral to sit amongst the VIPs. What, no bag search in this paranoid age ?

    I felt what, for me, is an unusual sense of patriotism.

    It’s a brillinat society that can feature John Farnham, the haunting St Paul’s choir and a jazz band in a single service. That can tolerate bawdiness in a heavenly Cathedral.

    And the Democrats; where all around sat compassionate, inspiring and womderful Party members, supporting Natasha deliver the moving and heartfelt tribute on our behalf.

    What deep and genuine affection and strength shown by Don’s family.

    It was a rare honour to be there, as it was to be at Melbourne Town Hall in 1977. The Party must continue.

    Paul Kavanagh

  9. After Don’s funeral I talked about him with Elisabeth who sells the ‘Big Issue’. Elisabeth proudly took out of her wallet a card with hand-written note, presented to her by “my friend, Don Chipp”.

    Elisabeth has carried that precious note with her for years, after chatting to Don one day in the city.

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