Australian Politics

Peter Slipper

Slippery Pete and the Record for Political Flexibility

For a couple of days there it looked as though Peter Slipper had his sights set on an unlikely quadrella. Had his application to join Clive Palmer’s still-putative United Australia party stuck, it would have meant that he had sat in the House of Representatives as a member of three separate parties, and also as an independent. 

Unfortunately he was denied this feat, reportedly because Palmer’s advisers feared that he might be a plant, a mole for Tony Abbott. On the face of it this appeared unlikely; after all, Slipper’s defection from the Liberals to become Labor’s nominated speaker had left him as number one on Abbott’s enemies list. Still, perhaps the advisers were just playing safe, and remembering the old adage: “A man who will rat once will rat twice.” 

And the man his colleagues called Slippery Pete certainly had form: he had already ratted on his original party, the Nationals, to become a Liberal, and then on the Liberals to become a notional independent supporting the Labor government. Who knew where he would go next? Why, perhaps he even had his eye on the world record for political flexibility, held indisputably by that late, great Australian, William Morris Hughes. 

Hughes was in born in London, although he claimed to be Welsh, and the year was 1862, although he claimed it was 1864 – a promising start to a devious career. He arrived in Sydney in 1884 and after a series of odd jobs was elected as a Labor member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1894. After federation he switched to the House of Representatives, where he remained until his death in 1952 – another record unlikely to be broken. 

He rose swiftly through the ALP’s ranks and in 1915 replaced Andrew Fisher as Labor leader, and therefore prime minister. But he split with the party over his support for conscription and led his supporters out of the caucus room to form the National Labor Party, which later merged with the conservative Liberal Opposition to form the Nationalists. 

Hughes was re-elected as Nationalist Prime Minister, but was lost the support of the newly-formed Country Party and was forced onto the back bench. When the Nationalists lost office Hughes resigned and became an independent, spent his time trying to form a new Australia party. 

He gave this up to accept the invitation of Joseph Lyons, another Labor rat, to join the United Australia Party, briefly replacing Robert Menzies as leader in 1941 and serving as deputy Prime Minster under Arthur Fadden. When the UAP fell apart in 1943 he again became an independent until Menzies took him into the Liberal Party in 1945, where he finished his life on the backbench. 

At a function held to celebrate his fifty years as an MP, it was noted that he had joined every known Australian political party except the Country Party. Why the exception? Hughes, sharp as ever, replied: “Well, I had to draw the line somewhere.” It is not clear whether Peter Slipper, if given the same opportunities, would show the same restraint.


Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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