Fighting for kin and country
ALMOST from the time of the Australian Country Party’s formation in early 1920, detractors predicted its downfall. Yet what is now the Nationals has never been without representation in the federal parliament.
Although Ninety Not Out is at times dry as a drought, this hefty biography of our second oldest political organisation presents us with some intriguing characters.
Perhaps the most fascinating is Earle Christmas Grafton Page, our 11th prime minister, who was born at Grafton in August 1880. Widely known as “Doc” (he topped his year in medical school), Page is to date the second longest serving member of the House of Representatives, bested only by the pugnacious Billy Hughes, who joined almost every political party except the Country Party.
When asked why, Hughes allegedly responded: “You have to draw the line somewhere!”
Page led the Country Party for a record 18 years, five months and eight days, through what Paul Davey terms “turbulent and controversial times”. He was “politically tough, tenacious, determined and impatient”.
Like future Country/National Party Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Page sometimes spectacularly mixed metaphors: “The government has discovered a skeleton in the cupboard and they are now trying to kill it with one stroke of the pen.”
Interestingly, one of Page’s great internal enemies in the Country Party was John (“Black Jack”) McEwen, who entered federal parliament in 1934 and held ministerial portfolios in Joe Lyons’s United Australia Party-Country Party coalition government and then in the Robert Menzies-Arthur Fadden coalition government.
Perhaps the most revealing section of Ninety Not Out comes in chapter eight, “Fadden to McEwen”, which focuses on how McEwen became leader of the Country Party in March 1958, eight months before Fadden retired from federal parliament.
As Davey suggests, in public at least the Menzies-Fadden government seemed to seamlessly give way to the Menzies-McEwen one, although it remains unclear if Menzies actually offered McEwen the position of treasurer.
What is indisputable is that McEwen, who had been minister for trade since January 1956, and who had been central to crucial overseas trade negotiations, said that he was more than happy to remain in that job. As he later explained, this was “because this post was the one most central to Country Party interests”.
With his extreme political toughness, McEwen led the Country Party for almost 13 years. He briefly served as caretaker prime minister after the disappearance of Harold Holt in December 1967. While his deeply rooted distrust of the Liberal Party minister, and later unsuccessful prime minister, William McMahon is the stuff of legend, it is also important to acknowledge that McEwen, as Davey aptly puts it, had “a keen sense of humour and an eye to the future”. The latter especially applied to overseas trade and the state of the Australian economy.
Two other remarkable Country/National party figures are those archetypal north Queenslanders, Bob Katter Sr and Bob Katter Jr.
Elected to federal parliament in 1966, Katter Sr held the vast north Queensland federal seat of Kennedy for the Country Party, and then the National Party, until 1990. A highly regarded coalition politician and minister, Katter, who had been an ALP supporter before the Labor split in the mid-1950s, later became a leading critic of the “Joh for PM” campaign.
Yet his son was not only a member of Queensland’s one-house parliament, but served as Bjelke-Petersen’s minister for Aboriginal affairs. With his flourishing white hair and trademark R.M. Williams hat, Katter Jr was one of the few state or federal Country/National party politicians respected by Aboriginal clans and their leaders.
Katter Sr died of cancer shortly before the 1990 election and his seat was won by the ALP. However, his flamboyant son won it back in 1993. Unable to stomach what he regarded as the gross betrayal of its principles by the federal parliamentary leadership, he resigned from the National Party in June 2001 to sit, and then stand, as an independent. He has continued to be re-elected and is one of three independents in Australia’s lower house.
Much of Katter’s electoral success is due to the fact he articulates and champions the interests of rural industries and of rural employment against a Nationals brand that has, in his opinion, become captive to the philosophies of free trade, economic rationalism, deregulation and corporatisation. As Davey puts it, he is “old-style Country Party”.
Significantly, a great hero of McEwen and of the Katters, as well as of Paul Keating, was and is none other than former Queensland premier and Labor federal treasurer Edward Granville Theodore, who in opposition to demands of the Bank of England advocated, in vain, a Keynesian solution to deal with the Depression.
This is an important book. Davey has thoroughly researched the history of the Country/National Party and brought to life such politicians as Page, McEwen and the Katters, all of whom deserve attention.
Perhaps the most revealing photograph in the book is that of the entire federal parliamentary membership taken just after the December 1975 election.
Comprising eight senators and 23 MHRs, including Katter Sr, it represented the largest number of parliamentarians the party has achieved. What stands out, though, is that there are no women.
In fact, after the Country Party’s first female parliamentarian, the West Australian senator Agnes Robertson, retired at the age of 80 in June 1962, there was not another female party member in federal parliament until March 1981. This was Florence Bjelke-Petersen, who remained a senator for Queensland until June 1993.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 33 books.
Ninety Not Out: The Nationals 1920-2010, By Paul Davey, UNSW Press, 480pp, $49.95 (HB)
The Weekend Australian, January 22-23, 2011