Ingeborg van Teeseling

Don Chipp: The centrist Liberal who championed the conscience vote

Don Chipp was a politician who looked to vote on the issue, not party politics. An unabashed centrist, he promoted the value of remaining true to your station. Oh, how we need him now.



With all the sniping that is going on in the Liberal Party now, it might be good to remember that this is not the first time the Honorable Members have taken it out on each other. In the 1970s the person who had to bear the brunt of the abuse was Don Chipp, the man we would come to know by his insistence that he was in politics to “keep the bastards honest”. But in 1969, he was the Minister for Customs and Excise in the Gorton government, and because he believed passionately in the Liberal idea of individual freedom, he started abolishing the censorship that had been dogging Australia for years. Suddenly Playboy was allowed to be sold, books like Lolita and Lady Chatterley’s Lover arrived on legal bookshelves and Australians were able to watch previously-banned films. If that wasn’t enough to upset his less libertarian colleagues, Chipp started keeping strange company in the 1970s. In 1976, for instance, he spoke at a Citizens for Democracy meeting at Sydney Town Hall, on the same bill as Patrick White, Faith Bandler and Frank Hardy. Later he would write that the “Liberals thought it was intolerable that any member of the Party should appear with ‘those people’.” It was time to go, Chipp knew, and in 1977 he became the leader of a new party, the Australian Democrats. Of course, it didn’t end there. Once a maverick, always a maverick. Our number 18, to be precise: “If I stab, I stab from the front, never from the back.”

And it had all started so harmlessly. Born in 1925 in a working-class neighbourhood of Melbourne as the first son of a fitter and turner, Don Chipp was a restless boy, but not very different from his contemporaries. The family was Protestant; followers of Jesus, as Chipp would later say, not of the Church. Soon he gave up on the Church altogether, because he “found it difficult to find Christians there.” Even then it was his inbuilt hypocrisy radar that got the better of him; the fact that there were people who found slightly naughty books morally more problematic than the killing that went on in wars supported by Australia; that grated with him. But for the moment he had other things to do. Play footie, for instance. Aussie Rules for Heidelberg, Fitzroy and later Prahran, where he was a member of the 1951 Premiership side. He was also a finalist in the Stawell Gift Footrace and in 1955 Chipp put that knowledge and love of the sporting world to good use as chief executive officer of the Olympic Civic Committee, which was preparing for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. In the 1980s he would joke that he had taken so many knocks to the “bloody head” in Aussie Rules that this had made him “stupid enough to be a perfect political candidate.”


Chipp advocated consensus. Not boring compromise, but “sensible and productive consensus” that would “rid our parliament of vicious party discipline” and start finally solving the problems of the nation.


It was not so much politics itself that was a problem for Don Chipp, but the party discipline. In 1962, as a newbie in Canberra, he greatly disturbed Liberal leader and Prime Minister Robert Menzies by telling him that he was not going to vote in favour of a bill that would allow the continuation of capital punishment, something he was very much against. Although Menzies accepted his principled stance, over time it became more and more difficult to follow his conscience. And that was especially difficult when it came to sending Australian boys to war. To Andrew Denton, Chipp explained that “for a while I became a creature of the machine, doing things I didn’t want to do. But finally I realised that it’s not worth it. You may as well go out and dig a good honest hole. Power can be a dangerous thing. You can never forget what the little bloke in the street is doing. If you do, you are finished.” This became a problem when he started dealing with Australian censorship. The first thing he realised was that even the list of banned books was banned, and that censors were often less than rational. “There was a children’s book by Enid Blyton, that was barred because on page 84 it read that ‘Noddy walked down a country lane and felt a little queer’. It was ridiculous. I thought, and think now, that censorship is evil, because this is where the Big Brother state starts.”

Chipp was also convinced that there was a lot of hypocrisy going on: “I know people in Canberra who are against abortion and in favour of strict censorship. They talk about morality a lot, but at the same time they screw everything that moves. And sometimes it doesn’t even have to move.” To the great delight of the Australian public and the disgust of the establishment, Chipp had a theory about what lay behind the double standards, and he was not shy in voicing it. “Wowsers don’t like sex because they’re no good at it. That is why they don’t want others to have the fun they can’t have.” The politician himself had no such problems. In fact, he was also vocal about the fact that he rather fancied the Queen and had “sexual fantasies” about her. It was all a bit much, especially when he also made known that he saw no reason to outlaw the Little Red School Book, a Danish pamphlet for teenagers that not only openly talked about sex and drugs, but also challenged the authority of parents and teachers. It had been banned in lots of countries, but Don Chipp left it on the shelf, despite fears from others that it would “erode the moral fabric of society and invite anarchy.”

So, in 1977, after years of Liberal infighting, Chipp left the party and became the leader of the Australian Democrats. Explaining his decision to the people, he said that he had “become disenchanted with party politics as they are practiced in this country and with the pressure groups which have an undue influence on the major political parties. The parties seem to polarise on almost every issue, sometimes seemingly just for the sake of it, and I wonder if the ordinary voter is not becoming sick and tired of the vested interests and yearns for the emergence of a third political force, representing the middle-of-the-road policies which would owe allegiance to no outside pressure group. Perhaps it may be the right time to test that proposition.” Doesn’t that sound like it could be said today?

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One of the first decisions Chipp made for his party, was that every member was allowed to vote according to their conscience, whether that would divide the party or not. Because “only when every member of the Australian Parliament is able to exercise his or her free vote, will Australians be able to claim a true democracy.” It earned the Democrats the “ridicule” of the other parties and the media, but Chipp was not for turning. The quality of Australian democracy was something that was high on his agenda. Proportional representation was one of the aims of his party, and so were citizen-initiated referenda, where normal people were allowed “to instruct politicians to place certain items on the national agenda and vote on them.” But most of all, Chipp advocated consensus. Not boring compromise, but “sensible and productive consensus” that would “rid our parliament of vicious party discipline” and start finally solving the problems of the nation.

As a “genuine third force”, rooted in the “belief that idealism was the only real basis for politics in a civil society,” the Democrats could be, Chipp hoped, the example to the class. When they started behaving too much like the old guard, he left, retreating into local politics, writing and public speaking. Those speeches were often as thought-provoking and anti-establishment as his political career had been. Here he is, for instance, addressing a human rights conference:

“Everybody has the right to break a law which is morally repugnant, provided they are prepared to take the consequences. If a government is evil, we have a natural right to use every non-violent method to overthrow it… We would be horrified at the prospect of our society being full of unreflectively obedient people… In a democratic society, if people perceive injustice, it is expected that they will try to remedy the situation.”

During the last years of his life, Don Chipp suffered from Parkinson’s disease and he died in 2006. But not before he had warned us that “one sad fact is certain: the bastards are back in business, only they are better at it now.” I think it was a call to arms as much as a lament, and we owe it to the man to at least think about what we can do about this sorry state of affairs. That is our debt to Don Chipp, Australian maverick number 18.



Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website, and runs, telling people's life stories.

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