The death over the weekend of former Country/National Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Doug Anthony, breaks the last link but one with the federal Coalition’s first zenith.
Anthony, aged 90, was with Ian Sinclair one of the last two survivors of Sir Robert Menzies’s last ministry. He was deputy to three Liberal PMs – Gorton, McMahon and Fraser, and served in Cabinet with a fourth, John Howard (and under whom his own son Larry was a minister warming his and his own father’s old seat of Richmond).
It’s a cliché to say we will never see his like again, but it certainly is so. Groomed by the legendary Country party leader John “Black Jack” McEwen as his successor and supported loyally by Sinclair, Anthony oversaw the broadening of his party from a narrow-based grouping of agrarian socialists to the National Party of the Howard years, blessed with leaders Tim Fischer, John Anderson and Mark Vaile, who realised the way to safeguard the future of primary industry and regional Australia was to embrace wholesale economic reform and free trade that grew domestic and international markets for their products, not least Japan and China.
That the Nats since have regressed in stature and thinking must have been gall to Anthony, and we can only hope that some his great skill as Trade minister in the McMahon and Fraser years rubs off on his newly appointed successor in the portfolio, Dan Tehan.
For those who remember the Fraser government, one of its few warm and fuzzy images is of Doug Anthony as acting PM every summer, effectively running the country from a caravan near a beach in his electorate, with a card table for a desk and the head of government nattily attired in old shirt, beach shorts and thongs. The very thought of it made Australians more comfortable and relaxed about life and being Australian a way that the aloof, workaholic, humourless and socially awkward Easter Island statue that was Malcolm Fraser could ever do.
Former Liberal director Brian Loughnane told The Australian that Anthony was a good coalitionist. That may be so, but he never forgot he was a Country Party member, and pressed regional Australia’s interests within the Coalition. But he certainly had great influence over the destiny of successive Liberal leaders. As McEwen’s deputy in 1969, Anthony was part of McEwen’s decision to lift his party’s veto on the political pipsqueak Bill McMahon ever becoming PM and, having become leader himself just before John Gorton self-destructed to be replaced by McMahon, Anthony didn’t reimpose it despite his and McMahon’s mutual contempt. In 1975 he welcomed his personal friend Fraser rolling Billy Snedden, and in 1983 favoured Andrew Peacock’s succession to the Opposition leadership.
And why could he have such decisive influence? Because he delivered results for the Coalition. In 1972, when the Liberal vote slumped and eight seats were lost, the Country party achieved a two per cent swing and lost none. In 1983’s Bob Hawke landslide the now Nationals slightly improved their vote and lost only two seats while the Liberals suffered an over three per cent swing and lost 21 seats. Under Anthony’s leadership, the Country/National party kept the Coalition party alliance (there was no formal coalition in the Whitlam years) a viable force.
Now the Nats are a shadow, almost a parody, of their McEwen-Anthony selves. Nationals leader Michael McCormack is a mere cipher of Scott Morrison and barely tolerated by his own party room, Barnaby Joyce has become a petulant extinct volcano who has never quite delivered on his initial promise, and arguably there is no current talent in the Nats’ partyroom worthy of the Anthony mantle, except Matt Canavan who’s inconveniently sitting in the wrong house. McCormack and other national MPs lamenting Anthony’s death should stop eulogising and start emulating their great predecessor in political style and policy substance.
But for younger generations, Anthony’s greatest legacy is not political, but a group of Canberra buskers who appropriated his name and went on to greater things. The Doug Anthony All Stars themselves had absolutely nothing else in common with the former deputy PM but his name, but when they met (via video link) on the ABC’s Live and Sweaty programme in the early 1990s hilarity ensured. Anthony in retirement showed the mischievous and self-deprecating humour that characterised his laconic beachside governing, humanised the Fraser government and made him such an effective, and much respected and loved, minister and politician.
Vale, Doug Anthony. The contemporary National Party reflects how much you contributed to the party and coalition cause over your political career, and how much has since been lost by the most recent of those who succeeded you. A true All Star has gone out.
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