Errol Simper, “A penchant for parties,”
The Australian, July 28, 1986, p. 9.
Why do they do it — those aspiring politicians who choose the hard road to power by setting up their own political parties rather than joining the mainstream ones? ERROL SIMPER reports
They have been saying, for just about 200 years, that Australians are apathetic about things, particularly about politics.
People have said it and said it. But they can’t have been paying attention because if the number of new political parties is any guide, Australia is bursting with people who want to change their world.
Not that they do. Those first cheerful, enthusiastic headlines which tend to greet splinter parties are usually in demoralising contrast to the number of MPs sitting in parliaments who do not come from the mainstream parties.
Over the years the new parties have come — and they have gone. It is difficult, the Australian Democrats aside, to remember their names. And who knows what will happen even to the Democrats when Don Chipp bows out?
Each election, each crisis, each issue, throws up a crop of parties. And each election night — or even the passing of a few short weeks — tends to bring down the crushing sword of annihilation.
The Engineered Australia Plan Party, which stood for the Senate in 1983, disappeared after letting it be known it believed engineering skills could create full employment.
The Peace On Earth Party did not do very well. The New Party believed quite passionately that education policies had to change; it disappeared somewhere. The Socialist Workers’ Party was keen on nationalisation.
There was the Integrity Team, the Freedom Socialist Party, the Rural Australia Party and the Uninflated Party, the latter founded by an Indian restaurateur who said his “ism” was “perfectionism”. And there have been many, many more, most of which weren’t around long enough to leave an imprint of any kind.
The latest of the more serious parties (and to be fair, Call To Australia and the Australian Family Movement have won seats in NSW and the ACT) is the Advance Australia Party, headed by Don Macdougall, the 53-year-old former head of the Tupperware kitchen goods empire.
Advance Australia will certainly be unique in that Mr Macdougall says it will be “politically neutral”.
It will advocate a 20 per cent flat tax rate for everyone and will favour the introduction of drug rehabilitation centres where addicts can get free drugs.
Mr Macdougall was with Tupperware 20 years and is not exactly an unknown. More famous still is the former cricket great, Greg Chappell, long touted as a political animal. He told a newspaper recently he might just be about ready for a political role, though not necessarily with any of the major parties.
But why do they do it, or even contemplate it? If you are serious about politics it surely makes sense to join Liberal, Labor or National, or even the Democrats, do your damnest to get pre-selection, then make a career of it.
With a bit of luck you could be prime minister. Bob Hawke did it very quickly and from the comparative obscurity of the position Simon Crean now holds. Many a commentator would have rated Malcolm Fraser fairly low on a list of prime ministerial candidates until the Senate Supply row in 1975. John Gorton was in the Senate when he got the nod. Barrie Unsworth is the Premier of NSW without as yet having even held a Lower House seat.
With such unlimited horizons, why fiddle about with what many would dub as peripheral nonsense? Why go to all the trouble of founding a new party when the Establishment is ripe for plunder?
John Siddons has done it twice. Back in the early seventies the now Senator Siddons took over as national convener of the Australia Party from Gordon Barton. When the party evaporated, Mr Siddons turned his attention to helping Don Chipp and Robin Millhouse get the Democrats established.
Senator Siddons says many of today’s new parties are either “frivolous” and not to be taken seriously, or else indirectly encouraged and even funded by the major parties in an attempt to split the vote.
“But it wasn’t a frivolous exercise when I first became involved,” he says. “I got fed up with the DLP directing preferences to the Liberal Party. The Australia Party, by its directing preferences to Labor, acted as a counterbalance to the DLP. And I think most serious political commentators would acknowledge that we enabled Whitlam to win in 1972.”
He says establishing a new party is “immensely hard work” and that new parties have virtually “no hope of getting anywhere.”
“When we began the Democrats we have two well-known figures in Don Chipp and Robin Millhouse (a former leader of the South Australian New Liberal Movement) to give us credibility, but it still required enormous effort to get things going,” he says. “And we are still a minor party.”
“I think any new party has to go through four main phases. There is the initial enthusiasm, then a period of disillusionment when you are largely ignored by the media. If you survive that — and most don’t — then you become a problem to some people and get subjected to the severest of criticism.”
“If you survive that, then you’ve probably arrived. But it is immensely hard and requires just about every second of your time. It takes tremendous dedication.”
In the early seventies [sic] the Sydney advertising executive and radio personality, John Singleton, founded the Workers’ Party. He did it, he says, because Gough Whitlam “didn’t seem to me to be the full quid” and because “nobody could tell me Billy Snedden was a viable alternative”.
More than a decade later Singleton looks back on the Workers’ Party as “sheer lunacy” and “the biggest waste of time and money I ever got into”.
“I don’t regret it,” he says. “I don’t think I regret anything. But it really was total bloody lunacy. I reckon we ended up with about the same number of votes as we had paid-up members.”
“If I helped anyone I helped Malcolm Fraser get in, and what a disaster he was. What a dreadful failure. He ended up adopting most of Whitlam’s policies anyway.”
Don Mcdougall says Advance Australia is ready for the challenge. He says one full-page advertisement in The Australian announcing his party brought around 8000 replies and he likens his political support so far to a “tidal wave in the middle of the Pacific”.
“I believe we are coming in at the right time,” he says. There is a groundswell out there. The swinging vote, once 5 or 6 per cent in Australia, is now standing at around 48 per cent according to some surveys.”
“Australians of all kinds are backgrounds are acutely aware this country is being strangled by taxation and bureaucracy. Our mounting foreign debt means we are digging a hole for our kids. Another three years of this (Federal) government and Australia will be reduced to a grey, boring place, run by bureaucrats, where those who are left will just do as they’re told.”
“It’s not the Australia my parents left me and it’s not the Australia we want to pass on to our kids.”
And the setbacks he will inevitably receive; the dedication Senator Siddons says he will require?
“I’m aware of all that and I’m happy to keep going as long as we have the feeling it’s all going to work,” says Mr Macdougall. “But look, if things change, I’m not going to jump off the bridge.”
“If the support dries up I’ll take the attitude: ‘Okay, you must just let the country go the way people obviously want it to go. I’ve tried. At least I’ve tried.'”
The raison d’etre for many minority parties has, traditionally, been a single issue. If you can’t get the Establishment to take your particular problem to the people as part of its platform then take it to them yourself seems to be the theory behind it.
The latest — so far as is known — single-issue party is the Defence and Ex-Services Party of Australia, which will campaign for the Senate at the next election on the platform of care and concern for veterans and a strong national defence.
Policies so far accepted include support for the Australian flag, what is left of the ANZUS Treaty and for United States bases here. It also wants a reintroduction of national service, though only for service within Australia.
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