Don Chipp’s political odyssey makes an interesting story, as today’s obituaries testify.

But it’s also interesting to look at the political forces that produced the Australian Democrats, and ask whether something similar could happen again.

Back in the 1960s, it was received wisdom that “splitting” mostly affected the ALP. It had suffered three major splits — in 1916, 1931 and 1955 — with the more conservative group each time leaving and aligning itself with the non-Labor parties.

The Liberal Party never split so dramatically, but over a decade or so it split in three stages, eventually producing the Australian Democrats.

First, in the late 1960s, opponents of the Vietnam War led by Gordon Barton left to form the Australia Party. Then in 1973 the party’s South Australian division split, with the formation of the Liberal Movement; most of its members later returned to the fold, but a remnant stayed out. Then in 1977 a disaffected Don Chipp was able to bring these two strands, as well as his personal supporters, together in the Democrats.

Despite their inglorious end (when was a party’s end anything but inglorious?), the Australian Democrats have been the most successful third party in the last 50 years. With their disappearance, and the Liberal Party’s shift to the right under John Howard, there is clearly a gap on the spectrum for a party appealing to the educated liberal-progressive middle class. (In time the Greens may fill it, but they are still some way off.) So could someone else play Don Chipp’s role today?

Notice two things about the process that produced the Democrats.

Firstly, the importance of ideological issues, especially the Vietnam war, which also influenced Chipp’s later anti-nuclear obsession (two of Labor’s splits were also about foreign policy). Second, the importance of Chipp’s standing as a senior Liberal parliamentarian: he had more than just conviction; he had experience, inside knowledge and credibility.

I’d like to be proved wrong, but I can’t see a Liberal figure who could play that role today. The Iraq war was more patently illegal than Vietnam, but it failed to provoke any serious dissension in the ranks.

And while there are a few rebels on the left, none of them seems to have Chipp’s combination of status, charisma and frustrated ambition.

Noteworthy also is the fact that the splitters were always a small minority. Most of the Liberal Party’s left, despite their hatred of Malcolm Fraser, stayed put. All the evidence is that their devotion to power has strengthened, not weakened, in the intervening years.

Peter Fray

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