Inside Story

Sealing the deal

The National Party senator who campaigned against the far-right League of Rights exposes his strengths and weaknesses

Paul Rodan Books 4 April 2024 1505 words

The persuaders: Ron Boswell (left) with National Party leader John Anderson (centre) and Larry Anthony MP at the party’s 2001 election campaign launch at Tweed Heads Bowls Club. Dave Hunt/AAP Image

As he describes them in his newly published memoir, Ron Boswell: Not Pretty, But Pretty Effective, Ron Boswell’s early years in Perth were not happy. His mother, “something of a drifter and subject to Bohemian influences,” was ill-matched with his father, “a devout and practising Roman Catholic with a conservative and constrained personality.” His childhood included two parental separations, frequent changes of school, and an abduction (by his mother, accompanied by her lover) to Melbourne.

Money seems to have been no problem, although Boswell and his co-author Joanne Newbery leave its source unclear. Young Ron (briefly) attended one of Perth’s more prestigious Catholic schools, although here the reader encounters one of the book’s lapses. Boswell claims he attended “St Trinity’s College” but no great theological expertise is required to recall that no such saint exists — and in any event, Trinity College (to which Boswell presumably refers) didn’t come into being until long after he left Perth. (He probably went to Christian Brothers College in St George’s Terrace, parts of which were incorporated into Trinity when it came into being in 1962.)

Soon after he retrieved the boy from Melbourne, Boswell’s father was transferred to Brisbane by his employer, an insurance company. The youngster had attended five different schools in six years in Perth, and his educational experience in Brisbane was not much better. It comes as no surprise that he left school at fourteen — to work as office boy in an insurance company.

Boswell doesn’t dwell on the downside of these disruptions, merely reflecting on what a less troubled childhood might have meant for him. Unsurprisingly, he emerged into adulthood believing a stable family life is important for social cohesion.

Aware of his limited education, Boswell believed that success would come “through selling and salesmanship.” This assessment proved astute, and he ultimately made considerable money in the hardware business. Then, in 1974, his wife Leita (they had married in 1965), a long-term Queensland Country Party member, took him to a now-rebadged National Party conference. Boswell, previously a Liberal voter, became involved in election activity and joined the party. Unusually for a future National Party parliamentarian, at least at the time, he did not have a background in primary industry.

At this point, some contextual background might have been useful. Queensland was (and remains) the most decentralised mainland state. For decades, as a result, the major conservative party was the (then) Country Party, whose electoral dominance was enhanced by the 1957 split in the state Labor Party, which left behind a malapportioned electoral system that benefited its rural opponents. The Country Party governed in coalition with the Liberal Party, which regularly polled more votes statewide but reaped fewer seats because of the weaker electoral power of metropolitan voters.

When Boswell arrived on the scene, the Country Party had embarked on an expansion strategy, partly in an effort to exploit the unpopularity of Gough Whitlam’s federal Labor government. The name change presaged a push for electoral success in outer-suburban Brisbane. As a well-connected businessman, Boswell became heavily involved in identifying promising small business candidates for preselection, in which role he inevitably came into regular contact with party president Bob Sparkes and premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

The onerous unpaid political workload eventually drove Boswell to consider a move to full-time politics. He secured Senate preselection for the Nationals and was elected in the double dissolution election of 1983, notionally for a six-year term. But the constitutional and associated procedural consequences of an increase in the size of the parliament and a double dissolution meant he faced re-election in 1984 and 1987.

Repeatedly through his book Boswell makes the legitimate (albeit unoriginal) point that too many of today’s MPs (especially in the Liberal and Labor parties) have effectively been in politics all their lives — union jobs or work for MPs or think tanks being common apprenticeships — and lack “real world experience.” His preferred version of real-world experience is of the small business variety rather than that of the wage and salary earner. His idealisation of small businesses is a constant, but he is not the first person to equate the national interest with his own sectional interest.

Boswell’s product differentiation from his Liberal coalition partners is quite explicit: the Liberals believe no government should intervene in any market (“free enterprise”); the Nationals believe in government intervention in imperfect markets to correct an imbalance of power (“private enterprise”). Of course, cynics have long reduced the Nationals’ philosophy to one of socialising losses and capitalising gains.

Boswell describes in considerable detail his involvement in remedying “market imperfections,” state and federal, in primary industries such as wool, fisheries, bananas, pineapples and tobacco, and his role in dissuading Bjelke-Petersen from proceeding with liberalised weekend trading hours. He was also a successful advocate for the Pharmacy Guild in the face of proposed supermarket competition and for massive funding for rural, regional and remote telecommunications infrastructure to allow the sale of Telstra to proceed.

Emblematic of the level of corruption in Queensland during that era is Boswell’s tale of an invitation to Bjelke-Petersen to open the sailing season at the Royal Yacht Club, where the opportunity was taken to seek the premier’s “help to reclaim some freehold land.” What many would view as corrupt, Boswell appeared to treat as business as usual. Sadly, that attitude was widespread in Queensland at the time.

Boswell boasted a close relationship, political and personal, with Bjelke-Petersen, a notoriously corrupt politician who probably only avoided a jail sentence for perjury and corruption because a verdict was blocked by a jury foreman who failed to disclose his National Party membership. (Because of the ex-premier’s age, a retrial was not ordered.)

Boswell covers a succession of elections, the emergence of the premier’s wife Flo as a senator, the Joh for Canberra fiasco and (selectively) Bjelke-Petersen’s fall from power, but he glosses over corruption in the state — indeed, he uses those events as a launching pad to fulminate against the very concept of integrity commissions and the damage they inflict on “innocent” victims.

On Boswell’s apparent aversion to combatting corruption and his support for improved superannuation arrangements for MPs (to attract the “successful” who would lose income otherwise — another hobbyhorse flogged in the book), it might be observed that his views would probably fail the “pub test,” even in a sympathetic Queensland bush watering hole. Some in the pub may even be able to apprise him of the modest record of successful business people making the switch to the very different world of democratic politics.

As Nationals Senate leader between 1990 and 2007, Boswell fitted smoothly into his party’s tradition of “persuading” the Liberal prime minister of the day to accede to pretty much whatever the junior coalition partner was demanding. A couple of floor-crossing Nationals senators could sink legislation in a chamber whose numbers were invariably tighter than in the lower house. “Give Boz what he wants” seems to have been John Howard’s customary response during his years as Liberal leader.

On the positive side, Boswell provides an extensive account of his ongoing campaign against extremism on his side of politics, taking on the League of Rights, the Citizens Electoral Council and Pauline Hanson (and her One Nation Party). A cynic might see this as a “turf protection” operation, but there is no evidence that his views are other than genuine and hence they deserve to be taken at face value.

On competition policy, Boswell claims a key role (with Labor senator Chris Schacht) in amending the Trade Practices Act to prevent mergers that would result in reduced competition in a substantial market. He notes that this offended some Liberal free-market ideologues, which worried him not. It is probably the case that good public policy was the winner.

A final example of poor editing concerns Boswell’s assertion that he claimed, at one of his last joint party meetings before he departed the Senate in 2014, to be “the only one in this party room who doesn’t have a degree” and the only one “who has ever run a business.” He might well have made these claims at the time but they are demonstrably inaccurate. His sneering reference to degrees is consistent with a barely disguised inverted snobbery that recurs in the book.

Throughout the book, serious political material is interspersed with the staple stereotypes of Queensland politics: barely credible yarns, trips in small aircraft of dubious airworthiness, overindulgence in alcohol, and the consumption of prawns to “seal the deal.” Several chapters are consequently barely a page or two in length.

Predictably, the book lacks an index, frustrating enough for the ordinary reader but just plain annoying for any reviewer. But the book’s subtitle can’t be faulted for its accuracy. As an insight into the deal-making, no-holds-barred nature of the author’s politics, it could just as aptly have been subtitled “No Place for Idealism.” •

Ron Boswell: Not Pretty, But Pretty Effective
By Ron Boswell, with Joanne Newbery | Connor Court | $39.95 | 320 pages