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John Douglas (Doug) Anthony (1929–2020)

by Tim Hughes

from Australian

John Douglas Anthony. National (Country) Party leader 1971-84 and deputy prime minister. Born December 31, 1929. Died December 20, aged 90.

As acting prime minister during several summers in the late 1970s and early 80s, Doug Anthony ran the nation from a caravan by his cottage at New Brighton on the NSW north coast, wearing little more than shorts and thongs. When asked by his children if he was “boss of the country”, he replied: “No, I’m just doing my job.”

He may have been the middle member of the only political dynasty to provide ministers to the Australian federal parliament across three generations, but it was Anthony’s relaxed way — surely influenced by living all his life in the semi-tropical shadow of Mt Warning — that made him a familiar figure with Australians from all sides of politics.

A federal minister for 16 years and for a decade deputy prime minister to prime ministers John Gorton, Billy McMahon and Malcolm Fraser, he radically changed the face of the country’s then two biggest export industries, wool and wheat, and was largely responsible for making Canberra, both physically and in the minds of Australians, the nation’s capital.

He was deputy leader of the Country Party from 1966-71, and then leader of the National Party from 1971-84. While he never lived to see the two Coalition partners merge — he viewed it as inevitable — he aimed to transform what had been a largely protectionist political party representing farmers into a more outward-looking force that has sought to represent the diversity of people living in regional Australia. Effectively, he wanted the party to embrace the changes he witnessed over 27 years in his own NSW north coast seat of Richmond, where fifth-generation farmers were learning to accommodate city retirees and alternative lifestylers.

Decision to stand
John Douglas Anthony was born in 1929, the son of Hubert Lawrence (Larry) and Jessie Mary Anthony. His father, first elected to federal parliament in 1937, had held various positions, most notably minister for transport in 1941 in the first Menzies government; he was postmaster-general from 1949-56, and later minister for civil aviation from 1951-54 in the second Menzies government.

Educated at Murwillumbah Secondary School and The Kings School, Parramatta, Sydney, Anthony attended the Queensland Agricultural College, intending to have a career on his family’s dairy farm.

However, upon his father’s unexpected death in 1957, he surprised many in the party by deciding to stand for his father’s seat, and won the by-election convincingly. He would hold the seat until his retirement from politics in 1984.

Despite his political pedigree he was a breath of fresh air when he arrived in Canberra; at just 27 he was significantly younger than the rest of the all-male house, where many members had served in World War II, with many also having been prisoners of war.

In the early days, he enjoyed the social as well as the political environment in Canberra, and frequently engaged in late-night snooker tournaments at the Kurrajong Hotel.

His grasp of issues marked him for leadership early on; Robert Menzies made him a member of the executive council without office in December 1963 and subsequently appointed him to the frontbench as minister for the interior in 1964, a position he continued to hold under prime minister Harold Holt, until 1967.

In this role Anthony was largely responsible for transforming the fabric and image of Canberra into truly being the nation’s capital at a time when many government departments were still based in Melbourne. He oversaw a vast number of construction projects and by the end of his ministry Canberra began to achieve the genuine character of a national capital with all government departments having transferred head offices there.

He was made deputy leader of the Country Party in 1966, and the following year became minister for primary industry, where he turned around a number of crises in agriculture, particularly in wheat and wool, at the time the nation’s two biggest export earners.

Despite opposition from some Coalition colleagues, he worked with wool industry leader William Gunn to establish the Australian Wool Commission, which administered a reserve price scheme and provided funds for marketing and research.

In the grains industry, following a price crash in 1969 he introduced wheat quotas amid some opposition from growers as a way of limiting overproduction, and encouraged the Australian Wheat Board to open flour mills overseas. Under him the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) launched its annual Outlook conference in 1970, which continues to be a major force in economic forecasting and influencing policy for Australian commodities.

On the Coalition’s return to government in 1975 under Malcolm Fraser, Anthony was, in addition to deputy prime minister, minister for overseas trade and resources and minister for national resources.

History in Middle East
In the trade portfolios, his major achievement was negotiating the trans-Tasman Australia-New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement, which has become a model for trade agreements with other countries. Although signed off weeks after the election of the Hawke Labor government in 1983, Anthony was acknowledged as the engineer of the agreement, and was conferred an honorary doctorate from New Zealand’s University of Canterbury in recognition.

In 1979 he became the first Australian senior minister to visit the Middle East, and the adoption of a formal bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia about meteorology became the first of several important trade-related agreements that followed with other countries in the region, including Iraq, Iran and the Gulf States.

He served as deputy to three prime ministers. He was no fan of McMahon, and was horrified that Gorton — whom Anthony admired — had chosen to vote against himself when a leadership challenge by McMahon in 1971 was tied in a partyroom vote. Later that year the Country Party threatened to walk out of the Coalition and break government when McMahon and treasurer Bill Snedden tried to revalue the dollar, which the Country Party claimed would reduce the competitiveness of agricultural industries.

Whether or not the Country Party would have gone through with its threat — Anthony was ultimately a pragmatist who knew that without a coalition Labor would soon be in power — the Liberals backed down after an intense three-day cabinet standoff.

Anthony was ostracised further the following year when he and Snedden suggested the upcoming 1972 election campaign should focus on issues rather than personalities, fearing McMahon would be no match for Labor’s Gough Whitlam. McMahon retaliated by refusing to tell Anthony the date of the election, leaving his deputy to find out from New Zealand PM Jack Marshall, who had been informed because the two countries had a tradition of sharing the same election timetable.

Such was the bitterness between the Coalition parties that following their defeat by Whitlam’s Labor Party in December 1972, the Country Party worked independently in opposition and only agreed to form a joint opposition with new Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser after Labor’s second election win in 1974. After the Coalition’s landslide return to government in 1975 Anthony returned to trade and resource portfolios.

‘Beach power’
He and Fraser worked well together during their seven-year partnership, and were viewed by the public as very much a team; doubtless the fact both were farmers helped. It was during Fraser’s annual summer leave that Anthony would attract media attention for his relaxed, surf-side administration of the nation: “beach power”, he once dubbed it.

But the most enduring partnership was with his wife, Margot (nee Budd), whom he first met when both were students at Murwillumbah Primary School. The niece of former NSW Legislative Council president Sir Harry Budd, his wife was a very visible support from the time her husband was first elected to parliament only months after their marriage in January 1957, and won respect in her own right.

Doug Anthony may have been a political conservative, but he was not afraid of change.

Fond of the day-to-day administration of solving problems, he broke convention by often bypassing department heads to discuss issues directly with staff in different sections.

He skilfully handled bureaucracy: the Australian Wool Corporation, for example, was up and running only 12 weeks after being legislated.

His persistence and persuasion was reflected in his reforms to the Country Party to broaden its base of electoral support beyond farmers, and instigated the name change of the party first to the National Country Party in 1975 and then in 1982 to the National Party of Australia to more appropriately reflect “a conservative party … supporting the principles of free enterprise”. He also believed the two parties would eventually merge, an idea anathema to many party members.

Although appointed to Britain’s Privy Council in 1971 and made a Companion of Honour in 1982, he was, like his father and his son, passionate that Australia should have its own head of state. Standing alongside Anthony at a rally in Sydney before the republic referendum in 1999, Gough Whitlam recalled that Larry Anthony Sr in 1942 had been the first federal parliamentarian to describe Advance Australia Fair as the Australian national anthem.

Anthony got on well with journalists, and it was while accompanying him during one election campaign in the 1970s that someone in the media dubbed the frenetic criss-crossing of the nation by conservative politicians visiting small towns as “the wombat trail”. According to one story, on hearing the description Anthony ordered ties depicting the marsupial drinking beer as gifts for the staff and media in tow.

Quitting politics
Anthony announced his retirement from politics on the eve of his 54th birthday, four years past the deadline he had pledged his wife when he succeeded his father at just 27.

“There are five ‘Ds’ for resigning from politics,” he said at the time. “You’re either defeated, disgraced, disabled, or dead, or you make a decision. So I made a decision.”

He had been federal member for Richmond for 27 years — half his life — and was a minister for 16. He had served in the governments of six prime ministers, and during a 10-year period been deputy to three of them, becoming the longest-serving deputy prime minister in Australian history.

Succeeded in his seat by Charles Blunt (a later leader of the National Party) and then by ALP member Neville Newell, Anthony was overjoyed when his son, Larry, won back Richmond in 1996, giving the family the rare distinction of being the only one in political life to have held the same seat for more than half of federated Australia’s history.

Immediately on his retirement, he focused on the operation of his dairy farm at Murwillumbah, and a cotton, wheat and barley property he owned near Wee Waa in the NSW northwest. There were other business interests: until the 1980s the family, through the Northern Star group, either controlled or partially controlled the bulk of regional print, radio and television from Coffs Harbour north to the Gold Coast.

He had many corporate directorships, including stints on the boards of Clyde Agriculture and its successor, Swire Australia; several mining companies including Normandy Mining and PosGold, and, most recently, he was chair of the Resource Finance Corporation. In 1990 he was elected an honorary fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.

Passionate about regional development, Anthony was a founding director and shareholder in private rail operator Northern Rivers Railroad, and in 1997 became chair of the federal government’s Regional Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund, which oversaw improvement of telephony and internet services to rural Australia. He relaxed by bird watching, planting rainforest trees at Sunnymeadows, his picturesque home property overlooking the Tweed River, and painting oils.

When, in 2018, the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce resigned in disgrace from the party leadership after it was revealed he was having an affair with a staffer, political analysts recalled Anthony’s contribution. Troy Bramston numbered him among the “great Nationals leaders”; Paul Kelly called him “a born leader”.

His name took on cult status among a generation who never knew him as a politician when comedians Tim Ferguson, Richard Fidler and Paul McDermott formed the Doug Anthony All Stars in the late 1980s.

“I got a lot of fun out of them,” he told a reporter after being appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia in June 2003.

Anthony is survived by his wife and children Larry, Dugald and Jane.

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Citation details

Tim Hughes, 'Anthony, John Douglas (Doug) (1929–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 May 2024.

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