Inside Story

Another Downer bound for Canberra?

Australian political dynasties aren’t as rare as you might think

Norman Abjorensen 16 May 2018 1489 words

Downers #2 and #3: Sir Alick Downer (right) and his son Alexander in London in 1979. Downer Collection, University of South Australia

Though Australian politics has no dynasties in quite the same league as the Kennedys and Bushes, powerful political families are by no means unknown — indeed, they’re a characteristic feature in the two smallest states, South Australia and Tasmania, and have spilt into federal parliament on notable occasions.

Now Georgina Downer has entered the fray. Her successful bid for Liberal endorsement in her father’s old Adelaide seat of Mayo, made vacant by the section 44-induced resignation of the Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie, means that she might become a fourth-generation Downer in the national capital.

Downer’s great-grandfather, John Downer (1843–1915), was premier of South Australia from 1885 to 1887 and, after he was knighted, from 1892 to 1893, and then served in the Senate from Federation until 1903. He returned to state parliament as a member of the Legislative Council for a decade from 1905.

Sir John’s son, Alexander Downer (1910–1981), was a senior member of the Menzies ministry, and went on to serve as Australian high commissioner to Britain from 1964 to 1972. He, too, was knighted. His son, Alexander Downer, held the seat of Mayo from 1984 to 2008, was federal opposition leader in 1994–95, and served as foreign minister throughout the Howard government. Most recently, he has been Australian high commissioner in London. (His great misfortune was to reach adulthood after the abolition of Australian knighthoods.)

Family connections might have counted for little when Georgina Downer sought preselection for a Melbourne seat before the 2016 election, but the home-ground advantage has clearly carried some weight in Adelaide, where pedigree is a salient factor. For the same reason, though, she will have had to overcome deep-seated opposition, just as she will at the ballot box. For all its establishment cosiness, the Liberal Party in South Australia continues to be riven by feuds, often as much familial as ideological.

Take Robert Hill, for example. The son of a former long-serving SA Member of the Legislative Council, Murray Hill, he was thwarted by the Downer forces when he sought to leave the Senate for the lower house seat of Boothby in 1994. The reason? He was seen as a potential leadership rival to Downer in Canberra. Although both men served as senior ministers under Howard, Downer was keen to see Hill out of parliament as part of his own long-term but ill-fated plan to return to the party leadership. Hill resigned from the Senate in 2006 and was appointed ambassador to the United Nations two days later; he had been reluctant to go, but Howard and Downer arranged the convenient diplomatic slot.

The Hill–Downer rivalry had deep roots in South Australia. The Downers were solidly conservative while the Hills were towards the liberal end of the spectrum — so much so that Murray Hill courageously introduced a private member’s bill in 1972 to amend the section of the law that criminalised homosexuality in the state. This first serious attempt to decriminalise homosexuality in Australia followed the brutal murder of a law lecturer, George Duncan, at a known gay meeting place. The bill faced much obstruction, especially from the right, but legislation was finally passed in amended form in 1975, making a first for South Australia. Robert Hill’s politics were similarly inclined.

Among South Australia’s more formidable forces was the Playford family, which contributed two of the state’s premiers, including its longest-serving. Thomas Playford II (1837–1915) served as premier from 1887 to 1889 and from 1890 to 1892, and later sat in federal parliament as vice-president of the Executive Council, 1903–04 and defence minister, 1905–07. But it is his grandson, Sir Thomas Playford IV, whose name was almost synonymous with the state for more than a quarter of a century. His run as premier, from 1938 to 1965, is the longest of any elected leader in the history of Australia, or anywhere within the Westminster system. Helped by a gerrymander that inflated the value of the rural vote, Playford was in the “strongman” mould as premier, boldly defying many inside his own party with his tough pragmatism, nationalising electricity companies and using state enterprises to drive economic growth. For an entire generation, he was “Mr South Australia,” and with a pedigree to back it up.

Also from South Australia, Keith Wilson was a senator from 1938 to 1944 and MP for Sturt for most of the period between 1949 and 1966. His son, Ian Bonython Cameron Wilson, succeeded him in Sturt in 1966–69 and 1972–93 and was a minister in the Fraser government. Ian was also the great-grandson of Sir John Langdon Bonython, a federal MP from 1901 to 1906, and great-great-grandson of Sir John Cox Bray, the first Australian-born premier of South Australia (1881–84).

Another direct succession involved the prominent McLeay family. John McLeay served a term as an independent in the SA House of Assembly (1938–41) before being elected lord mayor of Adelaide in 1946. Three years later he was elected as Liberal member for Boothby, serving as speaker for more than ten years (a record that still stands) until he retired in 1966. He was succeeded by his son, John Jr, who served as a minister in both the McMahon and Fraser governments.

John McLeay Sr’s brother, George, also sat in federal parliament. He was elected to the Senate in 1934, serving as minister in several portfolios from 1939 until 1941. Defeated in 1946, he was re-elected to the Senate in 1949, again serving in several portfolios.

Like the Downers and the Hills, the Wilsons and the McLeays came from the opposite end of the spectrum. Ian Wilson was initially passed over by Malcolm Fraser in 1975 for being “too liberal” and it was John McLeay who got the ministerial nod. But McLeay’s pro-Rhodesia and pro–South African sympathies eventually proved too much and he was dumped in 1981 and replaced in the ministry by Wilson.

Other prominent conservative political families in South Australia include the Chapman and Evans clans. Ted Chapman served as MP for Alexandra from 1973 to 1992, and was a minister for three years. His daughter, Vickie Chapman, was elected to the seat of Bragg in 2002 and is currently deputy premier. Stan Evans served as member for three electorates between 1968 and 1993, being succeeded in Davenport by his son, Iain Evans, later a minister and opposition leader, who retired in 2014.

South Australian family dynasties even transcend political boundaries. The current federal Labor member for Port Adelaide, Mark Butler, is the grandson and great-grandson of conservative premiers, Sir Richard Layton Butler (1930; 1933–38) and Sir Richard Butler (1905).

In Tasmania, meanwhile, there seems to be a clear political advantage in being named Hodgman or Barnard. The current Liberal premier, Will Hodgman, is the son of former federal MP (1975–87) and minister Michael Hodgman, who also served in Tasmania’s Legislative Council (1966–74) and House of Assembly (1992–98 and 2001–10). Michael’s brother, Peter, also served in the Council (1974–86) and Assembly (1986–2001), as did the Hodgman family patriarch, Bill Hodgman (Assembly, 1955–64; Council, 1971–83).

On the Labor side, Claude Barnard was federal MP for Bass (1934–49), the same seat held by his son, Lance Barnard (1954–75), who served as deputy prime minister from 1972 to 1974. Eric Barnard, nephew of Claude Barnard, was a minister in Tasmanian governments. Michael Barnard, grandson of Claude Barnard and nephew of Lance, served in the House of Assembly from 1969 to 1986, and was also deputy premier.

For sheer numbers, though, Tasmania’s nineteenth-century Archer family is hard to beat. Thomas Archer, Legislative Council, 1827–44; Joseph Archer, Legislative Council, 1851–53; William Archer, both houses between 1851 and 1868; Robert Archer, House of Assembly 1869–71; Basil Archer, House of Assembly, 1871–72; William Henry Davies Archer, House of Assembly, 1882–86; and Frank Archer, House of Assembly, 1893–1902.

Of course, other states have had their family successions too. In Victoria, for instance, two John Cains, senior and junior, both held the top job; in Western Australia, the Courts, Charles and Richard, provided two premiers.

If Georgina Downer makes it to Canberra, the Downer clan will be the first to send four generations to federal parliament, and will eclipse that long-running Country Party/Nationals clan, the Anthony family: Larry (Richmond, NSW, 1937–57), Doug (Richmond, 1957–84) and Larry Jr (Richmond, 1996–2004).

But political dynasties are still uncommon at the national level. And a famous name, as Georgina Downer might yet discover for a second time, is no guaranteed fast track.

John Bjelke-Petersen, a son of that formidable Queensland power duo, Joh and Flo Bjelke-Petersen, found this out in his repeated attempts to join the political elite. First, he was the National Party candidate for the seat of Fisher in the 1996 federal election, losing to Liberal Peter Slipper. He tried again in 2005 as the Nationals’ candidate in the seat of Nanango at the 2006 Queensland state election, but lost to an independent, Dorothy Pratt. He also stood unsuccessfully for the LNP at the 2009 state election and was again defeated by Pratt. Then, in a change of colours, he contested Maranoa for the Palmer United Party at the 2013 federal election, losing to the long-time incumbent Bruce Scott (LNP). Still not discouraged, he ran again in 2015 for the seat of Callide, again on behalf of the Palmer United Party, but to no avail.

That was one dynasty that just wasn’t going to happen. ●