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Don Chipp: larrikin, censor, and party founder

You’d be brave to try and get between a microphone and a Democrat politician this morning following the death of party founder Don Chipp yesterday in a Melbourne hospital. They’re lining up to praise a man whose status as larrikin legend of Australian politics is far more secure than the future of the party he founded.

Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett, who knew Chipp a little, has this generous obituary on his blog. Interestingly the PM, who is facing his own problems with party discipline, is much more circumspect in his comments, which are reported in this morning’s Age:

Don Chipp was a very colorful figure in Australian politics,” he told reporters in Adelaide. “To me, the most endearing thing about Don Chipp was, to the very end, he was passionate and committed to the causes in which he believed … He was a believer and whether you agreed with his beliefs or not is not really the point, he held them very passionately, he put them very strongly.”

SBS has posted perhaps the most comprehensive obituary, which includes this excellent explanation of Chipp’s ambivalent feelings about the phrase that will forever be attached to his name:

He famously coined the expression, “To Keep the Bastards Honest” when explaining why the new party was necessary. It was one of the most well known political slogans of the past 40 years but later Mr Chipp had come to believe that he’d failed to deliver on the promise, saying he hadn’t even defined who the bastards are. Soon after quitting politics he did define the ‘real bastards, saying they 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. 

And here’s another little-known yarn that might provide some balance to the larrikin hero cliche, about Chipp’s changing attitude to censorship.

In 2004, Don Chipp told Andrew Denton that censorship is evil. “It’s the beginning of the beginning of the big brother state,” he reckoned. But our Don wasn’t always such a crusader for the right of the people to read what they choose. John Gorton made him minister for Customs & Excise in 1969  — the year the government declared Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint a prohibited import.

The novel’s Australian publisher was Penguin Books, led by feisty King Islander John Michie. He took the government on, ordering copies in deep secrecy from a local printer (unusual in those days when books from foreign authors arrived here by ship). Rather than store the books in Penguin’s warehouse in Ringwood, just out of Melbourne, an obvious target for the Vice Squad, Michie organised a fleet of trucks to keep copies of the book on the move. Chipp was outraged, and the publisher often told how the minister, leaning across a desk, red-faced, shouted, “I’ll see you in jail for this Michie.”

And indeed Penguin and booksellers brave enough to put Portnoy’s Complaint on sale were taken to court in NSW, Victoria, WA and Qld. Cabinet records from WA say:

The unsuccessful prosecution for the sale of the controversial book Portnoy’s Complaint led the Minister of Police to recommend that Cabinet amend the Indecent Publications Act. The prosecution failed due to a phrase in Section 5 of the Act that stated, “nothing in this Act relates to any work of recognised literary merit”. This was despite the Magistrate’s view that the book was “patently and often nauseatingly obscene”. Cabinet decided that a draft Bill should be prepared to provide that the censorship of films and publications and the relevant Acts be administered by the Chief Secretary.

The main case was in Victoria against Penguin. Patrick White in black coat and homburg, gave evidence for the defence. The prosecution put it to him that the frequent use of the words f-ck and c-nt might detract from a work’s literary merit. Not at all said White, “they are the kind of words a man would say.”

It was the beginning of the beginning of the liberalising of censorship laws. Things change and so, obviously, did Don.

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