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Tuesday, 10 August 2021 07:48

Covid and the McEwen Option

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Once upon a time there was a politician called John McEwen.  He threatened to lead his Country Party out of a Coalition Government if the Liberals chose a leader he didn't like.  Today our very liberty is at stake.  Where are the modern day John McEwens willing to use hard power to make governments turn back?

Once upon a time there was a politician called John McEwen.  He threatened to lead his Country Party out of a Coalition Government if the Liberals chose a leader he didn't like.  Today our very liberty is at stake.  Where are the modern day John McEwens willing to use hard power to make governments turn back?


John McEwen was leader of the then Country Party and Deputy Prime Minister in December 1967 when the Prime Minister, Harold Holt, unwisely went for a dip at Cheviot Beach outside Melbourne and didn’t come back.  Within hours of Holt’s disappearance, various senior ministers, in an unseemly but not at all surprising display of the ultimate in bad taste, began “scrambling” – to use a very Covid-era word – to determine who would be the new PM. 

To use another Covid-era word, McEwen then did something “unprecedented”.  He said he would take his Party out of the Coalition Government if the Liberals chose Billy McMahon, the Deputy Liberal Leader and Treasurer, to replace Holt, already assumed to be dead.  In other words, John McEwen would be willing to bring down the Government.  Well, that got everyone’s attention.  While McMahon, one of the frontrunners for promotion, took soundings, he probably thought about standing for the top job for about five seconds, maximum. 

McEwen had played a trump card.  He knew without the slightest shadow of a doubt that he wouldn’t need to execute the option.  He knew the Liberals would fold.  Since all politicians regard attaining and holding power as the only game in town – way above caring for the needs of their electors, for example – the result of McEwen’s gambit was never in doubt.  (Why he played the card is merely of academic interest now.  Several theories did the rounds.  Clearly McEwen and McMahon loathed one another, but that was nothing new in politics, or among politicians nominally on the same side.)

How interesting it is that one of the few occasions in modern Western history where this hard power was actually used arose because of mere personal enmity.  What a hill to choose to (politically) die on!  The only recent parallel is the case of Barnaby Joyce and Malcolm Turnbull, and Barnaby chose not to exercise the McEwen option in 2015 when the Liberals killed off their last decent leader, Tony Abbott.  Barnaby loathed Turnbull – well, who doesn’t? – and for good and not merely personal reasons, yet he chose ministerial leather over principle.  (For all the good it did him.)

McEwen understood that hard power matters in party politics and government.  He also understood, in ways that his successors in Canberra and Sydney seem not to, that hard power can be deployed in order to get your way.

Australia faces a crisis of governance that is, well, dare one say it, unprecedented.  The threats to our freedom, rights, economy and civil society posed by Covid-related policies – lockdowns, international border closures, interstate border lockouts, the sinister QR code tracking of citizens, mask mandates and now, vaccine passports – go far beyond anything we as a people have previously experienced, outside world wars.  All because politicians, in an act so disgraceful that it is now cliched to call it out, have chosen their own welfare over ours.  If ever there was a hill to die on, it is, surely, this one.

What can be done?

At a time when politicians have chosen to inhabit a bubble that cannot, seemingly, be pricked by rational dialogue, voters who care for our rights have few options, other than violent insurrection.  That didn’t work on 6 January 2020 in Washington DC, and would not work here.  What would be the point of initiating the Peter Hitchens option – flooding members of parliament with threats of electoral retribution – when all the polls they commission are telling them that most of us actually want our freedoms and lives crushed?  There simply isn’t the constituency, despite all the pain that people have been through to date, with much more to come. 

With politicians calling for even higher fines and jail for Covid dissent – see under Walt Secord, the Canadian émigré who is NSW Labor’s Police spokesman – sticking your protesting head above the parapet is simply asking for trouble.  (Even my local priest calls protesters selfish – of course – whingers.  There is no escape – anywhere – from the hectoring, the lecturing, the othering of non-conformists, the government infomercials, the Covid propaganda.)  Displaying clever protest signs will do little other than to warm the hearts of refuseniks.  This is important psychological work as our spirits ebb, but of little political consequence. 

What about starting a new party?  There are now so many micro-parties emerging that, even if well-intentioned and on the right side of history, their appearance will merely bastardise one another’s efforts.  So, no joy there.  With Opposition parties everywhere either cheering lockdowns on or being very cagey – as with proposals for vaccine passports – there isn’t much point in Government backbenchers making noise other than to remind their bases that at least some of them still have a few principles.  Threats to cross the floor are meaningless when the Opposition agrees with the Government that it is good to trash their states or countries.  This is precisely the current scenario in the United Kingdom, where there are fifty outstanding Tory MPs who oppose Covid fascism in all its manifestations.  Alas, to no avail, unless Labour’s Keir Starmer finds a spine and some morals. The same goes for minor parties in the Parliament.  To his eternal credit, One Nation’s Mark Latham MLC is, along with Fred Nile MLC of the Christian Democrats, emerging as a much-needed freedom fighter resisting vaccine tyranny.  But the numbers will simply crush them.

All political strategies designed to escape our Covid morass seem, therefore, hopeless. But hang on.  It just so happens that there are two Australian governments with wafer thin majorities that are following the fascist model and that are susceptible to, indeed are ripe for, the McEwen option. 

Tanya Davies is a NSW Liberal backbencher with the annoying habit of espousing conservative causes and defending the underdog.  She now has a Private Member’s Bill opposing vaccine passports and has elicited open support from two other backbenchers (Nathaniel Smith and Kevin Conolly) and, indeed, from a minister (Anthony Roberts).  The Labor Opposition, we know, wants to crush Covid dissent.  The protests were, Chris Minns said, “inexcusable”.  Shamefully, Minns has said his Party would not support Mrs Davies’ Bill.  Davies has an unnamed Labor supporter as well.  S/he is too scared to come out at this point. 

But the Bill isn’t the important thing here.  Someone should tell Tanya Davies and her friends about John McEwen.  Tell her to threaten to bring down the NSW Government unless it backs off from the Covid totalitarianism.  They have the numbers.

Davies has, sadly, been down this road before.  In 2019, she threatened to cross the floor (for good) over the infanticide-on-demand legislation which many in the Coalition Government supported.  Alas, she and her colleagues caved, claiming (ludicrously) that the paltry concessions they were able to wring from the pro-abortion MPs amounted to a victory.  She and her colleagues refused to use hard power to (really threaten to) bring down the Government.  (For a pro-lifer, I wonder which other hill there could be to die on.  Was she promised assured future pre-selection by the Photios machine?)

But what if the NSW Government, correctly described by Davies as “dictatorial”, had this time gone too far, with its proposed vaccine apartheid on top of the previous eighteen months of madness?  The new proposal is one of those rare measures that is both evil AND useless.  It would certainly kill off forever any residual belief around the place that we in the Premier State actually have a liberal government.  It is time to be bold.  Time to save us from the apocalypse.  Read up on Liberal Party history in the 1960s, and then ponder your power.  Then ring your colleagues in Canberra – Flint, Christensen and Kevin Andrews – and advise them to do likewise.  What, really, is there further to lose?  The powers that be already have taken action to get rid of you.  They hate you.  And the beauty of hard power, credibly threatened, is that you end up not having to use it.  Like the Liberals of 1967, we know, deep down, that they would fold.

It is the nuclear option, I know.  But is literally the only thing that is left to we-the-people.

Read 1470 times Last modified on Tuesday, 10 August 2021 08:01
Paul Collits

Paul Collits is a freelance writer and independent researcher who lives in Lismore New South Wales.  
He has worked in government, industry and the university sector, and has taught at tertiary level in three different disciplines - politics, geography and planning and business studies.  He spent over 25 years working in economic development and has published widely in Australian and international peer reviewed and other journals.  He has been a keynote speaker internationally on topics such as rural development, regional policy, entrepreneurship and innovation.  Much of his academic writing is available at
His recent writings on ideology, conservatism, politics, religion, culture, education and police corruption have been published in such journals as Quadrant, News Weekly and The Spectator Australia.
He has BA Hons and MA degrees in political science from the Australian National University and a PhD in geography and planning from the University of New England.  He currently has an adjunct Associate Professor position at a New Zealand Polytechnic.