Right-of-centre politics in Australia has lost another link with its respectable past. Doug Anthony, former deputy prime minister, died on Sunday in a nursing home in northern New South Wales, a few days short of his 91st birthday.
Anthony, who was the last survivor bar one from the Menzies government, was the last federal leader of the Country Party and the first of its reincarnation, the National Party. He served as deputy prime minister under John Gorton and William McMahon in 1971-72, and again for the whole term of Malcolm Fraser’s government from 1975 to 1983. He retired from parliament in 1984.
Anthony is a paradoxical figure in Australian politics. He was a very traditional Country Party politician: in some ways more traditional than his predecessor, John “Black Jack” McEwen, who had led the party into an embrace of protectionism, while Anthony’s sympathies were with free trade. And under him, in the late 1970s, the Country Party enjoyed something of a golden age.
Yet its power was brittle. The Liberal Party in 1975 had won, for the first time, a majority in its own right; Fraser maintained the Coalition, and conceded great influence to Anthony and other Country Party ministers, because he was more in sympathy with them than with most of his Liberal colleagues. Once he and Anthony were both gone, the National Party in the 1980s blundered into a series of crises that permanently weakened its position.
The change in name was symbolic of a deeper change that was happening to the party during Anthony’s tenure, although it was not something that he directed or probably wished for. Its traditional role as a representative of the sectional economic interests of the rural sector was becoming unsustainable: too few people now lived on the land, and its vote as a proportion of the Coalition total had gone into long-term decline. Instead, the party tried to remake itself as a broad conservative party.
For the Queensland division, under premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen and party president Robert Sparkes, that was a viable strategy; they succeeded in outvoting the state’s Liberal Party and ultimately evicting it from the Coalition. But elsewhere the party made no inroads into metropolitan areas – social conservatism doesn’t play well in the suburbs.
The party was caught, as it still is, in a cleft stick. It wielded power courtesy of a large measure of Liberal Party indulgence; if it tried to compete on the latter’s turf, it risked being cut loose. But if it downplayed its separate rural identity it became vulnerable to challenge from rural independents. And its turn to the hard right in Queensland eventually created the political space for a more uncompromising version of the same thing, in the shape of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
By the time Anthony retired he already seemed like a figure from a bygone era, even though he was only 55. He returned to his farm and mostly remained quiet during the succeeding decades. One of his few interventions was to support a “yes” vote in the republic referendum of 1999: a dramatic sign of how out of touch he was with the orthodoxies of the conservative camp.
The Country Party was a tough school of politics; for all his folksy image, Anthony played the game hard. But he played it within the rules – there were limits beyond which he would not go. His successors have steadily pushed those limits outwards, and today’s National Party by comparison looks more like a small-time criminal racket than a serious political party.
It is some consolation that it has paid an electoral price, now attracting less than half the vote that it did in Anthony’s time. The golden age has become a distant memory.