Still going strong - a political party as tough as Ian Sinclair

Nats veteran Sinclair fears party's value at risk with narrowing skills base

IN DEPTH
News
Aa

He was one of our longest serving politicians and immensely proud of the Nationals' achievements, but Ian Sinclair is also disappointed by some of today's MPs.

Aa
On show: Ian Sinclair inspecting a winning local show fleece in 1988.

On show: Ian Sinclair inspecting a winning local show fleece in 1988.

At 91, Nationals warhorse Ian Sinclair has literally lived the "Country Party" story for a good portion of its history.

In fact, some of its earliest stalwarts were still in politics when the young Sydney barrister turned beef and wool producer entered NSW's Legislative Assembly in 1961.

Two years later he began a 35-year stint as federal Member for New England, the 11th longest of any MP to sit in Canberra.

Still an articulate champion of the Nationals' pivotal role in conservative politics and its unabashed focus on regional Australia, he has, however, one notable regret about how the party's electoral presence has evolved in recent decades.

We have a problem attracting enough candidates with real breadth of experience rather than those who see politics itself as a career. - Ian Sinclair

"I think there's a lack of diversity and real life experience in candidates standing for pre-selection," he said.

"We have a problem attracting enough candidates with real breadth of experience rather than those who see politics itself as a career. I am worried about it."

To be fair, he said that paucity of diverse experience was a problem plaguing all political parties - and a problem for Australia in the challenging post COVID-19 years to come.

Too many politicians were in politics "from the moment they leave university" and too few had ever run a business or worked their way up mainstream careers.

Australia seemingly had unreasonable numbers of parliamentarians rising into public office via employment within their party circle or affiliated organisations, or as support staffers for MPs.

The former federal Nationals leader (1984-89) was disappointed, too, by deteriorating public self discipline among a number of today's politicians.

Selfie discipline

He won't be drawn on specifics, but observed "sadly we do have self discipline issues happening more and more", notably when MPs stepped outside their parliamentary team to run their own agenda or draw attention specifically to themselves.

There's room for plenty of honest and robust exchange of views and debate away from the public eye - Ian Sinclair

"My belief has always been it's far more productive having 10 people around you supporting what you'd like achieved rather than one person taking a stance and elevating their own profile to cater to expectations of their followers," he said.

"There's room for plenty of honest and robust exchange of views and debate away from the public eye ... you should work within, and with the party, not against it."

Veteran performer: Former party leader, Ian Sinclair, at a Nationals function in 2009

Veteran performer: Former party leader, Ian Sinclair, at a Nationals function in 2009

However, it was unfair to be too critical of today's MPs.

Their working environment was so different to when he entered NSW Parliament in the Askin era and the Country Party's 16-year leadership under Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Cutler, or even when he left federal politics in 1998 during John Howard's long Prime Ministership.

"The world has changed. Communications and communities and industries have all changed a lot," he conceded.

Regional lives matter

What had not changed, however, was the need for a fierce parliamentary focus on ensuring Australia did not ignore or dismiss the needs and opinions of those living in regional areas and their rural industries which contributed strongly to the economy.

With more than two thirds of voters based in metropolitan Australia and most barely aware some regional electorates spanned vast areas half the size of some states, Mr Sinclair believed it vital to have specialist Nationals teams making regional voices count.

Marking 100 years of the Nationals

Indeed, that challenge underlined the need for Nationals MPs to have an all-important breadth of talent and previous job skills.His earliest party mentors included shearers, lawyers, farmers, experienced businessmen and revered ex-servicemen like Charles Cutler and Asher Joel.

Sir Asher Joel, a philanthropic Jewish Sydney public relations guru, who notably also received a Papal Knighthood from the Vatican, had served on the staff of US commander General Douglas MacArthur's during the Second World War.

Market beef: Primary Industry Minister in the Fraser Government, Ian Sinclair addresses an unhappy beef producer rally outside old Parliament House in the 1970s flanked by NSW Livestock and Grain Producers Association president Milton Taylor and meat and livestock committee chairman Ken Leckie.

Market beef: Primary Industry Minister in the Fraser Government, Ian Sinclair addresses an unhappy beef producer rally outside old Parliament House in the 1970s flanked by NSW Livestock and Grain Producers Association president Milton Taylor and meat and livestock committee chairman Ken Leckie.

"I think it's very sad the National Party doesn't have such a broad church of membership as it has enjoyed in the past," he said.

"Offering yourself for pre-selection to public office is a lot different and requires a lot of skills additional to being an office bearer or working in the organisation."

Australia's recovery from the coronavirus pandemic would need far more than political training to drive the nation and manage the economy in the 2020s.

"The current Coalition government deserves credit for handling the situation as well as it has, but greater challenges are ahead - you'll need to draw on experience from business and other leadership qualities to rebuild," he said.

'Sinkers' signs on

Mr Sinclair, nicknamed "Sinkers" and widely remembered for his seemingly bulletproof political hide, was drawn into rural politics as a member of the Graziers Association of NSW, and his concern Australia was "almost two countries" in the 1950s and '60s.

The Nationals have always had a good understanding of production issues and exports - themes central to agriculture, mining, and processing industries - Ian Sinclair

Despite it being a relative boom time when agriculture was generating considerable national wealth, many services taken for granted by city dwellers still did not exist in the bush.

All weather roads, quality hospital facilities, airports, decent bridges and telephone services, and good schools were all frustratingly patchy, and distance was a constant challenge to business and governments.

"I doubt there would have been the same emphasis on addressing many of the fundamental service concerns experienced by country communities if there hadn't been a National/Country Party, even in South Australia and WA where our representation has been fairly minimal," he said.

"The Nationals have always had a good understanding of production issues and exports - themes central to agriculture, mining, and value-adding industries.

"Our Liberal Party partners were more aligned to the banking and service sectors and Labor had strong ties to its union and workforce origins."

Celebrating: Ian Sinclair with Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Michael McCormack at 100th anniversary celebrations in Melbourne early this year.

Celebrating: Ian Sinclair with Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Michael McCormack at 100th anniversary celebrations in Melbourne early this year.

Nationally significant regional infrastructure projects including re-routing the Ghan railway line in SA, building the Darwin to Alice Springs line and funding highways, rural roads and airports from fuel taxes were among many Coalition Cabinet room wins he attributed to the leverage and persistence deployed by the Nationals in Canberra.

Australia's robust trade ties with Japan, Korea, the Middle East and China owed much of their origins to rural MPs acutely aware of the need for diverse export market options, especially as Britain aligned itself with Europe.

Free trade tensions

Even Australia's vexed protectionist policies favouring domestic manufacturers with import tariff barriers had their post war origins in underpinning regional manufacturers, from dairy factories to textile mills, guaranteeing jobs for 2 million-plus migrants arriving here between 1945 and 1970.

In government we were quite wrong in not letting the dollar float in the 1980s - Ian Sinclair

Ironically, the party's roots were fundamentally in free trade and Mr Sinclair said leader Jack McEwen's protectionist agenda in the 1950s, '60s and early '70s caused increasing friction within its ranks.

Nationals MPs also challenged their Coalition partner on issues such as lowering the exchange rate to make Australia more export competitive - or even floating the dollar.

Liberal MPs resisted, wanting the Australian dollar strong, as that favoured our banks and eased cost pressures on imported goods.

Leadership material: The 32-year-old Nationals candidate for Gwydir, John Anderson who eventually became party leader, pictured in early 1989 with then Nationals leader and neighbouring Member for New England Ian Sinclair.

Leadership material: The 32-year-old Nationals candidate for Gwydir, John Anderson who eventually became party leader, pictured in early 1989 with then Nationals leader and neighbouring Member for New England Ian Sinclair.

"In government we were quite wrong in not letting the dollar float in the 1980s," he said

"That was left to the Hawke-Keating government, and was possibly Labor's greatest achievement.

Indeed, despite good intentions, market fixing was frequently fraught with costly disappointment as proven by the 1991 collapse of the wool reserve price scheme which had been long-supported by the Nationals, and an ill-fated 1960s fuel equality scheme legislated to keep regional prices close to city bowser values.

The Nats also battled internal strife during Mr Sinclair's leadership, notably the brief but explosive 1987 push by Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen to head the party nationally during the Prime Ministership of Labor's Bob Hawke.

As Australia's only conservative leader, Sir Joh had a big following at home and rallied a groundswell of support among frustrated regional voters in all states, but would not give up his lofty Queensland position.

"I wasn't going to validate his argument to be a national leader from a Queensland base - he had to be elected as a federal member and come to Canberra," Mr Sinclair said.

"I didn't regard him as a threat to me because I didn't see him ever standing for a federal seat.

"But I certainly understood, and had great sympathy for, the frustrations regional people felt while we were stuck on the opposition benches and too many suburban seats kept falling to Labor.

"There's only so much we could achieve when we're not in government."

Ian Sinclair's rural roots are today planted in the Manning Valley on NSW's Mid North Coast where he and wife Rosemary still have a beef enterprise fattening up to 100 steers.

Road to Canberra

During his political career home was at Bendemeer, north of Tamworth, where he had moved from Sydney in 1953, quitting a legal career not long after being admitted to the bar.

Although Sydney bred, he had spent time as a youngster on friends' properties in southern NSW and yearned for a country life.

Backed by his accountant father, originally from a Victorian dairy farm, he bought the 650-hectare Twinbrook which later expanded into 2400ha Glenclair.

The young farmer's active involvement in rugby and farm organisations led to him join the Country Party, lobbying on family farming issues as rising production cost pressures clashed with many producers having limited capital to expand.

Within two years of winning a six-way pre-selection contest and retaining New England for the Country Party Mr Sinclair became Social Services Minister in Robert Menzies' government in 1965, eventually holding ministerial roles under six Prime Ministers.

Various portfolios under his watch included primary industry, transport, communications, trade and defence, and he was Speaker of the House of Representatives.

His five years as party leader ended after a surprise challenge from Charles Blunt in 1989, the same day Andrew Peacocke temporarily ousted John Howard as Liberal Party leader.

Ian Sinclair's political longevity meant he became "father of the parliament" from 1990 until retiring in 1998.

  • Start the day with all the big news in agriculture! Click here to sign up to receive our daily Farmonline.

The story Still going strong - a political party as tough as Ian Sinclair first appeared on Farm Online.

Aa

From the front page

Sponsored by