Since the death of Don Chipp much has been written and spoken about the foundation of the Australian Democrats — but little or nothing has been said about the cause which prompted it.
All credit for the formation of the Democrats can be placed at the feet of John Malcolm Fraser. It is trite to observe that had Fraser not refused to have Chipp in his first Cabinet, Chipp would never have started the Australian Democrats.
As is the nature of such things, Chipp would never have felt so offended about the character and nature of mainstream politics to have resigned a ministry in 1997 and started the Australian Democrats.
The history of ministers resigning on matters of fundamental principle is rare in Australian politics and the last federal Liberal minister to do so, at least to my memory, was Bob Ellicott, who was able to return to a lucrative practice at the Sydney bar.
Whether Chipp had the slightest idea that Fraser would not appoint him to the Ministry following the 1975 election is not clear. Given that Fraser had announced that Chipp was to be the Health and Social Security Minister, in Chipp’s presence at a very large public meeting just one week before the election, presumably Chipp believed him.
To some of us sitting around the table of the Federal Executive of the Liberal Party at the time, it came as no great shock. It was certainly very clear to me in the period leading up to the 1975 federal election that Fraser held great personal animosity towards Chipp. I thought at the time it was most unlikely Chipp would survive this ill will.
The great contrast between the power of Labor and Liberal Prime Ministers is that with caucus electing the Ministry, a Labor Prime Minister is invariably stuck with some incompetents and no-hopers. Equally he is restrained from overlooking people of merit on the basis of personal dislike. On the other hand, a Liberal Prime Minister does not have failures foisted on him but he has the luxury of overlooking quality people because of personal dislikes.
I thought Chipp’s health policy was perfectly sensible, however Fraser did not. Chipp proposed means tested compulsory private health insurance for all who could afford it with the government variously subsidising or paying the full premiums for the remainder.
In respect to his portfolio, Fraser was often critical of Chipp, much of it in my view contrived. However of more consequence to me was Fraser’s claim that there was a very serious ‘leaker’ in Shadow Cabinet and if the person responsible could be caught he would be sacked. I personally had little doubt that Fraser was referring to Don Chipp. Our subsequent friendship aside, for my part I had absolutely no evidence Chipp was the culprit.
The only occasions I had to question Don Chipp’s judgment were our frequent meetings when he was my opponent on the Old Parliament House tennis courts. He apparently had no understanding of the principle of parallax error.
I have however in my time seen leaders leak so as to compromise and discredit some hapless innocent victim. I do not of course for a moment suggest Malcolm Fraser would use such a tactic. Whatever the reason Fraser reneged on his public commitment to appoint Chipp and effectively sacked him from his portfolio to which Chipp had been appointed by Fraser in the interim government between November and December 1975, the consequence was the formation of the Australian Democrats.
The profound consequence for the Fraser government was that from October of 1980 until Fraser’s defeat in March 1983, the Democrats held the balance of power in the Senate.
But whether the wasted years of the Fraser government might have been otherwise is highly dubious, as Don Chipp was to observe years later. In those two and a half years of his Prime Ministership, Fraser did not once speak to the leader of the third force in Australian politics in whose hands his legislative program was daily held.