The contributions of Don Chipp AO to Australian political life and to the maintenance and strengthening of our democracy are many. Born into a typical Australian family in Melbourne in 1925, he developed into a talented athlete in a surprising range of sports: boxing, Australian Rules football, cricket and particularly running. He played in the Prime Minister’s XI and came a close second in the Stawell Gift. At a very young age, and when the nation was in danger, he enlisted into the Royal Australian Air Force. It was an unlikely twist of fate that there he was invited to join a debating team, which allowed him to discover his talent for public speaking: a talent which was to serve him well in his future career.An accountant, his work in preparing Melbourne for the 1956 Olympics brought him into Liberal Party circles. He was endorsed for the Higginbotham by-election in 1960 at a most inauspicious time – a credit squeeze had made the government unpopular- but he held the previously safe seat by a small margin.
He was soon to demonstrate an independence of mind and attachment to principle which was to be his hallmark throughout his political career. In 1961 he somewhat tremulously informed the Prime Minister and doyen of the Liberal Party, Sir Robert Menzies, that he, a neophyte back bencher, would be voting against a government bill imposing capital punishment. He was to be pleasantly surprised when that great liberal elder statesman indicated that he not only admired a stand on principle, but that young Mr Chipp was perfectly free to vote where his principles took him.
Prime Harold Holt chose him to be Minister for the Navy in 1966 during one of the more unsettling times for the Senior Service, the consequence of a tragic loss of 82 sailors in a collision between HMAS Voyager and an aircraft carrier, as well as the resulting inquiries.
He was initially out of favour with the next Prime Minister, Sir John Gorton, but no doubt identifying kindred independent spirits, they soon warmed to one another other. Mr Chipp was then given the normally tranquil customs and excise portfolio. But this was a time of major social change, and the rigid censorship hitherto applying in Australia was under challenge. Don Chipp was more liberal than his predecessors, and significantly relaxed censorship. This was unwelcome to those who believe censorship should be based on objective moral values, rather than what they would see as the shifting sands of community standards. Chipp’s view on this was to prevail, as it would in most Western countries.
The final assessment of this experiment is yet to be made. For a short time, Australia suddenly changed from being among the strictest countries in the Western world to being among the most liberal. Don Chipp even prevailed over the wishes of the then Prime Minister, Sir William McMahon, who believed The Little Red Schoolbook should be banned.
When the Whitlam Government was elected in 1972 – by a comfortable majority but certainly not the landslide that is sometimes suggested – Chipp went into opposition, but not for long. Unable to secure supply, Sir John Kerr dismissed the government on November 11, 1975, and the caretaker Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser chose him to join the cabinet. But after the landslide victory on December 13, 1975, Malcolm Fraser, more conservative than now, surprisingly declined to invite him to continue in the new ministry.
After a period on the back bench, Don Chipp decided to leave Liberal Party. In his explanation to the House of Representatives on March 27, 1977 he said he had become disenchanted with the way politics was practised in Australia.
He criticised what he saw as the polarisation, the pressure groups, the cheap point scoring and the endless pursuit of votes at any price. So he became the leader of a new party, the Australian Democrats. Notwithstanding earlier polling, the Democrats only gained two senate places in the election that year, but this was to grow to seven at the height of its influence. He continued as party leader until 1986, but was to express some regret about the direction the party was then taking.
Then in 1988, he was elected to the Constitutional Convention on the Victorian ticket of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. Again he demonstrated that he was the possessor of an eclectic range of strong opinions and beliefs, and that he had the courage and the capacity to express these with a passion unusual in Australian politics. Never one who could be typecast, his unwavering support for our constitutional system, and the role of the Crown in it, was living testimony to his personal integrity and strong evidence of the enduring strength of our democratic institutions across the political spectrum.
From his speeches at the convention, and his various interventions in the referendum debate, no one could doubt his continuing and steadfast allegiance to our oldest institution, and one above politics, the Australian Crown. He saw the crown as absolutely central to the constitutional system, and an indispensable part of our Federal Commonwealth. It is curious that his election to and role at the convention, and his strong attachment to the Australian Crown have been ignored in most of the reports and obituaries published hitherto in the media.
Australians are a people who recognise greatness, although few will agree with everything that someone in public life has achieved. Don Chipp made a significant contribution to public life in Australia, and he did so because his principles guided him. Across the nation, Australians of all walks of life are mourning his passing, honouring his memory, and extending their sympathy to his widow and to his family. May he rest in peace.