I received a message late tonight that Don Chipp, founder of the Democrat party had died Monday 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 feisty 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 three or four politicians I’ve met. His 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 it’s a bit too soon to tell (Family First).
The other major legacy has been the transformation of the Senate from a house of somnambulism 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 temporary 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 (pdf 56KB) to the Parliament resigning from the Liberal Party in March 1977, 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”.
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