|Former leader of the National Party Doug Anthony |
with wife Margot at their farm on the outskirts
of Murwillumbah in far northern NSW.
A NOTEWORTHY moment in Australian politics passed virtually without notice in August. At the National Party’s federal council meeting, former leader Doug Anthony received a warm tribute for his years of service to the party and to the country.
A few weeks later, Anthony stepped down from the board of John McEwen House, severing a formal link with the National Party that has existed since the 1950s.
Arriving at Anthony’s farm this week — located on the banks of the Tweed River nestled between the lush rolling green hills of Murwillumbah in the northeast corner of NSW — he greets this city dweller warmly. “Welcome to Sunnymeadows,” he says.
Anthony is one of the grand old men of Australian politics. He turns 85 next month. He served as a minister under six prime ministers. He was deputy prime minister to three of them. He was a tough political operator who fought hard for his party’s agrarian interests. The hallmarks of his career were his down-to-earth style, his integrity and conviction.
“I don’t see the purpose in people remembering me much,” he says with a flash of trademark modesty. “I just liked doing my job. I knew it was time to retire when I did. I wanted to do other things in my life. And now I just love being on my farm.”
Anthony was deputy prime minister to John Gorton and Billy McMahon in the early 1970s and to Malcolm Fraser from 1975 to 1983. He spent 25 separate periods as acting prime minister. Many summers went by “running the country” from a caravan on a block of land at New Brighton.
It is 30 years since Anthony resigned as National Party leader in 1984. He was the youngest leader when he replaced the ageing McEwen in 1971. And he remains the longest-serving post-war leader of the party.
He is the second Anthony in the only three-generation dynasty to serve in the House of Representatives. He succeeded his father Hubert (known as Larry) in the seat of Richmond in 1957. His own son, also called Larry, held the seat of Richmond from 1996 to 2004 during the Howard government. All three were ministers.
Before a lunch of ham and mustard sandwiches, fresh fruits from the garden and homemade lime juice prepared by Margot Anthony, we walked around the house and yard. Anthony remembers building their home with a carpenter friend in the mid-1950s.
About 200 cattle graze on the banks of the Tweed River below. There is a tennis court, a pool and a large shed. Anthony points to the cloudy summit of Mt Warning, so named by Captain James Cook, which he climbed as a boy. He remembers backyard parties for campaign workers on election night. Fraser and John Howard have visited.
Hubert, a Gallipoli veteran and farmer, won the seat of Richmond in 1937. He served as a minister in the Fadden government and the two Menzies governments. He died of a brain haemorrhage in 1957. “I had tremendous respect for my father,” Anthony says.
“He taught me to be a good man … I wasn’t involved in politics, other than helping at election time. Going into politics was never mentioned. I think he felt if I wanted to go into politics then I would have to decide that myself.”
Anthony had a profile as a young farmer interested in policy issues. But newly married and with a child on the way, he was reluctant to follow his father into parliament. He was eventually persuaded to stand by several party figures.
“Margot took the view that I should get it out of my system, so I decided to stand,” he says. He won Richmond with 49.82 per cent of the primary vote.
Anthony was no stranger in Canberra, having first visited when he was seven years old. John Curtin read him bedtime stories in the lounge of the Kurrajong Hotel. After school, he would race up to Parliament House. He slipped into the kitchen for cake and sandwiches, mucked about in the PM’s office, talked to the men shovelling coal into the boilers and roller-skated on the lower floors.
The giant political figures of the 1930s and 40s knew young Douglas well. How many people can tell tales about having Parliament House as a playground and knowing Billy Hughes, Joe Lyons, Earle Page, Arthur Fadden, John McEwen, Frank Forde, Robert Menzies and Ben Chifley?
Anthony says his overriding memory of his early years as an MP is being utterly “bored”. There was no burning ambition. No plan to become a minister. No future claim staked on the party leadership.
But in 1964, the phone rang at Sunnymeadows. It was Menzies. “Douglas,” he said, “I would like you to become part of my ministry. How would you like to be Minister for the Interior?” Anthony says he was “flabbergasted” and “could hardly speak”. After he accepted the offer, Menzies said: “Well, that will keep you out of mischief.”
He describes Menzies as “the best prime minister in parliament”. He had a commanding intellect and managed the government well. The interior portfolio was Anthony’s happiest ministerial job. He played an important role in the development of Canberra.
If Menzies had not asked him to become a minister, Anthony says he probably would have called it quits and returned to farming. McEwen was looking to groom leadership successors and no doubt supported his elevation.
“McEwen was the best politician from any party I have ever seen,” Anthony says. “He was shrewd. He never showed any fear. He liked to attack people. But he had great political wit … He was the best of all politicians as far as strategy is concerned.”
In 1966, Anthony became deputy leader of the Country Party. Harold Holt had succeeded Menzies as prime minister. “I liked Harold Holt,” Anthony says. “He was a sensitive person. He tried to do his best. (But) he didn’t like being attacked, being abused, being unpopular.”
He took on the primary industries portfolio in 1967, the most challenging in his ministerial career. Reconstructing rural industries, forging new overseas markets and navigating sectoral politics were often difficult.
Anthony says he was the last politician to see Holt alive. He describes his mood as “gloomy” in late 1967 and burdened by political problems, which led him to take unnecessary risks — a lethal combination in the treacherous surf near Portsea in Victoria.
When Holt vanished, McEwen worked quickly to get himself sworn-in as prime minister and to thwart the ambitions of deputy Liberal Leader McMahon. “We couldn’t stand McMahon,” Anthony says. “He was always cheating on us. Leaking to the media. He wasn’t a faithful colleague to have.” Gorton became prime minister.
In 1971, McEwen resigned and Anthony took the reins of the Country Party. He became deputy prime minister and took on the trade and industry portfolio. A newspaper profile that year described him as “ambitious and single-minded”.
Anthony worked well with Gorton. “He was a bit of a wild character but he was a very trustworthy person. I never had any troubles with him.” But Gorton made enemies; he lost the support of his party room and vacated the prime ministership. Anthony is still dismayed the Liberal Party selected McMahon to become prime minister.
The early years of opposition after Labor’s 1972 victory were bleak. Billy Snedden now led the Liberals. But as the Labor government unravelled and public opposition mounted, and Malcolm Fraser became Liberal leader, Anthony was a strong supporter of the strategy to delay supply to force an election.
“I had doubts as to whether our senators would hold,” he says. “I was doubtful the governor-general would dismiss (Gough) Whitlam. But I was all for the strategy because I thought the quality and standards of the government was not good.”
Whitlam was dismissed on November 11, 1975. Fraser led the Coalition parties to three election victories.
“He was an outstanding prime minister,” Anthony says fondly. “He showed tremendous courage. I thought Malcolm during those years was very impressive.”
But Anthony is critical of Fraser’s modern views and his estrangement from the Liberal Party. “I think he hasn’t presented himself as an ex prime minister as well as he should have. He shouldn’t buy into the issues that half his party disagrees with … I wish he wouldn’t do it. He is a friend and it’s not nice to have friends opposed to you.”
Anthony negotiated several important trade deals with the Soviet Union, China and Japan. Along with Peter Nixon and Ian Sinclair, he formed a powerful trio of ministers who found Fraser to be a welcome ally, the so-called “Squire of Nareen”. Fraser’s cabinet was labelled a “farmers’ cabinet”.
He is unforgiving of Britain for selling-out Australia and joining the common market. It is one reason why he is still a republican. “We are living in the past,” Anthony says. “We are a nation in our own right. It won’t happen while Tony Abbott’s there, no way, but it will happen.”
Anthony succeeded in having the Country Party change its name to the National Country Party (1975) and then the National Party (1982). He still supports the idea of merging with the Liberals but sees it as less pressing than it was several years ago given the good relationship between the two parties.
He declines to comment about his six successors as Nationals leader, but does say that Sinclair had the hardest time due to the aborted “Joh for Canberra” campaign in the mid-1980s.
Today he says the Coalition is “going well” and he is “impressed” with Nationals leader Warren Truss.
However, Anthony identifies Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce as a future leader of the party. “I think he’s got a lot of go in him,” he says. “He’s a man who is prepared to look at other ideas. He’s got energy. He’s a goer and that’s what I like about him.”
Following afternoon tea (lamingtons) we head over to the Tweed Regional Gallery. The Anthonys donated land to establish the new gallery and gifted a further parcel to accommodate the Margaret Olley Art Centre, which includes a reconstruction of her Paddington home.
“It’s the best regional gallery in Australia,” Anthony says. Not one to push the notion of legacy, let alone a dynasty, Doug and Margot are nevertheless proud of their role with the gallery.
Before we depart, he urges me to peer through a small gallery window where you can see Sunnymeadows.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
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