When David Leyonhjelm ran in John Howard’s seat of Bennelong in 2007 he won just 89 of the 92 700 votes cast in the seat. Expressed as a percentage, around 0.1%, it’s startlingly close to zero. Just six years later he is set to take a NSW Senate seat and his party will receive well over $900 000 in electoral funding sometime this week.
I met NSW’s Senator-elect in the Drummoyne office of Leyonhjelm’s small agribusiness consulting firm. A disused shopfront shelters the business from the Lyons Road traffic. Entering through an unmarked side gate, I find Leyonhjelm making an afternoon snack of Vita Weets and hummus. “Did you find us easily?” he asked.
Leyonhjelm will take his seat as a Liberal Democratic Senator in July next year. Perhaps unusually for an elected representative, he has always distrusted government. “I don’t like being told what to do,” he explained. “Bureaucrats and politicians really are not that smart, [they don’t have] any right to tell me how to live my life.”
This deep-seated scepticism is reflected in the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) “first principles” libertarianism. The philosophy underpins the seemingly disparate policies of low taxation, drug legalisation, euthanasia, and minimal gun control, and is the end point Leyonhjelm’s forty years of conflicting political positions.
Leyonhjelm’s first political exposure was personal, fighting with Young Labor to end the conscription that threatened to send him to Vietnam. He saw a certain “logic” to socialism, reading Marx, Lenin and Mao. However travelling to the socialist economies of the Soviet Union and Tanzania in the late 1970s shifted his politics. “They were poorer, the people were more miserable,” compared to the relative wealth of South Africa. “I found apartheid abhorrent,” recalled Leyonhjelm, “but even though they couldn’t vote, the black people in South Africa were economically far better off than… where they could vote but had a socialist government.”
“It did not compute,” was Leyonhjelm’s hyper-logical response. “The logic [of socialism] doesn’t work. That’s the problem.”
Leyonhjelm’s reaction to apartheid South Africa is an insight into how he views the relationship between ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’. At first glance, his politics are similar to the Greens; he supports drug legalisation and considers the belief that life begins at conception “a little bit irrational”.
Leyonhjelm acknowledges the similarities but says the LDP do not consider the Greens to be socially liberal. “They want the rest of society to sign up to [their] moral position,” he argued. “That’s no different in principle from the Church saying it’s immoral to have sex before you get married or have abortions.”
The LDP, conversely, argues “from the point of view of choice and freedom”. On the “gays”, for example, “I cannot understand why they want to get married. I think it’s absolutely silly… But they’re entitled to be silly.”
‘Silly’ is a word that he uses a lot. For someone so committed to logical consistency, it’s more damning than it sounds. According to LDP President, Peter Whelan, Leyonhjelm “has developed over the years and is now more tolerant of those who don’t instantly grasp the benefits of small government”. Certainly his early forays in the media present a man less cautious than the one I met last week. In 1991 he blasted anti-gun commentators in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, “for all I care they can totally remove your rights to free speech, assembly, a job, a vote an anything else they think of. I will not lift a finger in your defence.”
Whelan’s assessment seems apt. “He has mellowed a little, but he still doesn’t suffer fools gladly!”
Leyonhjelm is an ambitious political operator – perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who has run in five elections under three different party names. He became President of the Shooters Party after just five years, and shortly thereafter defied party elder John Tingle to run the Outdoor Recreation Party at the federal level.
Increasingly concerned by the social conservatism of the Shooters Party, Leyonhjelm left to work with the Liberal Democratic Party, a small libertarian party registered in the ACT. Although the party was first registered in 2001, Leyonhjelm only became involved in the lead up to the 2007 elections, taking control from a group of people who were “losing steam” – “they were youngsters and not as well organised as I am at getting things done.”
The Outdoor Recreation Party remains highly controversial. In a departure from previous statements, Leyonhjelm admitted the party was registered for the 2013 election (as the Outdoor Recreation Party (Stop the Greens)) “as a way of improving the preference flow to the Liberal Democrats”. I asked him how he responded to allegations of electoral dishonesty in registering parties specifically for the purpose of funnelling votes. “That’s the reality of the preferencing system in the Senate… I don’t apologise at all.”
At the end of the interview he told me that he had four cats, which he jokingly referred to as his “fur babies”. “That will help to humanise me.”