This week brought the news that Georgina Downer has been preselected as the Liberal candidate for the seat of Mayo (recently vacated by the Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie, who was taken in the great Section 44 purges of 2017/18). Should she be successful in the upcoming byelection, Downer — a research fellow with the right wing think tank the Institute of Public Affairs — will be the fourth consecutive generation of the Downer family to serve prominently in Australian politics.
Australia is, it turns out, more seduced by dynastic authority than we like to think.
Georgina carries probably the heaviest family history with her — state premiers, federal ministers, high commissioners and a couple of knighthoods for good measure. Her great grandfather Sir John Downer served two non-consecutive periods as premier of South Australia prior to federation, before joining the first batch of federal senators in 1901. His son Alick was minister for immigration in the Menzies government, and went on to become high commissioner to the United Kingdom for nearly a decade from the early 1960s to the early 1970s.
His son, Australia’s own Boy Mulcaster Alexander Downer — before taking up the family trade of high commissioner of the United Kingdom, and settling into his curious second life as a leftist agent of Hillary Clinton — was the shortest serving leader in the history of the Liberal Party, before becoming minister for foreign affairs for the entirety of the Howard government. He held the seat of Mayo for 24 years, which his daughter will now contest.
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Surely if any leader in Australian history could claim to derive their authority from the “charismatic” portion of Max Weber’s model, it would be Bob Hawke, right? But even he came through a dynasty. His father Clem was briefly general secretary of the Australian Labor Party in South Australia, before finding his calling as a minister of the Congregational Church for nearly 60 years.
His uncle Bert was a remarkable political dilettante — first, at age 23 he became the youngest MP in South Australian history, being elected to house of assembly in 1924. After losing his seat in 1927, he headed west, eventually winning the seat of Northam and serving as a minister in the governments of Phillip Collier, John Willock and Frank Wise. In 1953 he became Western Australia’s 18th premier; and stayed on as opposition leader after Labor was defeated in the 1959 election, eventually leaving parliament in 1968.
As we’ve noted elsewhere, our new Attorney General Christian Porter (who also held the role for the WA state government) comes from a long line of Liberal Party figures. His grandfather, Sir Charles Porter was an MP in the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government between 1966 and 1980, serving as minister for Aboriginal and Island Affairs from 1977. Charles’ son Charles “Chilla” Porter followed his career as an Olympic medal-winning high jumper with a long stint as director of the WA Liberal Party across the 1970s and 1980s.
And Christian is not shy about bringing that up, doing so in each of his maiden addresses to parliament:
[The Liberal Party] is the party which my father served as a state director, and which my grandfather created in Queensland, upon Menzies’ instruction, and which he served as a state director in Queensland and later as a minister of the Crown.
Martin Ferguson has a, shall we say, diverse CV, having been ACTU president and a senior member of the Labor government from 2007 to 2013, before taking on a role as chief union basher at the Minerals Council.
Martin’s brother Laurie was a Labor MP for 26 years, finally packing it up in 2016 — this is in addition to serving six years in the NSW Legislative Assembly from 1984 to 1990. Their younger brother Andrew also held the not entirely apolitical role of NSW Secretary of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (Construction and General Division).
Their father Jack himself had a decades-long political career, ending in 1984 after an eight-year stint as NSW’s deputy premier. It’s said Martin and Laurie do not at all get along, despite living next door to one another for quite some time. A common story in NSW Labor circles is that Martin went and mowed his lawn while Laurie was getting married in the backyard next door.
But wait, there’s more! Stay tuned for part two soon.