A PRO-GUN libertarian who believes government should have as little role as possible in society, FarmOnline columnist senator-elect David Leyonhjelm is about to have a critical say in Australia's direction.
The right to bear arms
DAVID Leyonhjelm peers over the top of his glasses at the well-heeled audience filling an auditorium at conservative Sydney think-tank The Centre for Independent Studies. The Tuesday evening crowd laps up his message: ever smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation. He cites John Locke, the 17th-century British philosopher, arguing that there are only three proper roles for government: protection of life, liberty and private property. "Nothing else," says Leyonhjelm, approvingly.
There are a few nervous rustles when the senator-elect touches on gun laws, questioning why "the government should have all the guns and the rest of us have none". But with his high-domed forehead, deliberate manner and reassuring voice, Leyonhjelm manages to come across as a model of reason, albeit of the dry economic kind. What they don't hear this late May evening is Leyonhjelm describing John Howard, as he does to Good Weekend, as a "dirt-bag". They don't hear him rail against the former Liberal leader as a "bastard", and an "idiot" for turning up in a bullet-proof vest to front a rally of incensed gun owners in Sale, Victoria, in 1996, after Howard slapped a ban on semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shot guns in the wake of Martin Bryant's bloody rampage through Port Arthur.
"All the people [at Sale that day] were the same as me," Leyonhjelm tells me, his light blue eyes blazing. "Everyone of those people in that audience hated [Howard's] guts. Every one of them would have agreed he deserved to be shot. But not one of them would have shot him. Not one." He found it offensive, he adds, that Howard "genuinely thought he couldn't tell the difference between people who use guns for criminal purposes, and people like me". What personally outraged Leyonhjelm was having to surrender much of his private collection, at first rifles and later some pistols, when the bans were extended. "I had lots of semi-automatic rifles," he says. "I had an M1 Garand, M1 Carbine, the AR-15, the FN FAL, a Rasheed semi-auto and a Norinco... I had to relinquish them all.”
Prior to the compulsory federal buyback, he'd kept the cherished weapons in his attic and "every now and then I would take them out and pat them... It was a big thing not being allowed to have them any more. It was no solace to know I was getting paid money [to hand them back]. It was an insult. There I was, being presumed to be unsafe because some nutter had got himself hold of a semi-auto in Tasmania.”
To this day, he won't attend a function if Howard is going to be in the room. Leyonhjelm is a keen target shooter, a member of rifle and pistol clubs in Sydney. But something more underpins this outrage. He believes Howard's gun buyback left us "a nation of defenceless victims". As he told Australian Hunting Podcast late last year, "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun... and when seconds count, police are minutes away.”
LDP's 'chief cook and bottle washer'
The 62-year-old Leyonhjelm and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) remain unknown to the majority of Australian voters. So far, he says, he's been "the registered officer, the treasurer, the website manager, the chief cook and bottle washer" for the LDP, and "the guy writing most of the policies". But his recent election as a senator for NSW means the LDP has hit a financial jackpot, with more than $1 million of public funds flowing into its coffers, enabling him to hire six aides, including a former federal Treasury official, and to soon move to new offices in Sydney's Birkenhead Point.
Unlike several other minor party newbies also set on July 1 to take their Senate places - who, with him, will hold the balance of power - Leyonhjelm is no political ingénue. He has degrees in law and veterinary science, and an MBA. He's a skilled communicator, who's been penning columns in the rural press for decades, with a popular weekly blog for FarmOnline for the past few years and now also a column in The Australian Financial Review. He's a veteran of party backrooms, hopping over the decades from Young Labor (as a student), to the ALP, the Liberal Party and the Shooters and Fishers Party before taking over the LDP in 2006-07. He is the controlling force in at least two other minor parties, the Smokers' Rights Party and the Outdoor Recreation Party. And he has relatively deep pockets; he and his key lieutenant, Peter Whelan, poured hundreds of thousands of their own money into the LDP before public funding came good recently. Beneath the LDP's sugar-coated title (Leyonhjelm recently acknowledged that "we have got a nice-sounding name, it sounds reassuring") is a libertarian belief system better known in the US, where such ideas - rooted in a deep distrust of the state - inspired the first incarnation of the anti-taxing, small government Tea Party.
His conviction that government should get out of our lives makes him ultra-dry on economic matters - arguing, for instance, that the state should not employ teachers, doctors or nurses, as these services can be privately delivered. But it leads him to positions on social issues that might be regarded as wildly progressive. He favours gay marriage, legalising marijuana (except for children), open slather for refugees who can pay their way, and voluntary euthanasia. All these things, he maintains, should be a matter of individual choice.
He despises the organic food movement for its "assumptions of moral superiority". But perhaps his greatest loathing is reserved for the Greens, who he says should be charged with "crimes against humanity" for their opposition to genetically modified foods, such as rice strains that could help combat vitamin A deficiency in Third World children.
Shooting from the hip
Prior to splitting with the Liberal Party in 1996, Leyonhjelm was already gravitating to the Shooters and Fishers Party (against Liberal Party rules he was a member of both for a year). He became, for five years, the Shooters' chairman. But that association imploded in 2004 when he had a bitter falling out with the party's then central figure, John Tingle, and most of its executive. Thus began a saga featuring more failed alliances than the blood-spattered fantasy epic Game of Thrones.
I didn't have to go far looking for Leyonhjelm's political enemies. After two phone calls, plenty came looking for me. John Tingle, the former broadcaster who served in the NSW upper house as the Shooters representative for 11 years, volunteers that Leyonjhelm's nickname inside the party was Klink, after the German kommandant in the TV comedy Hogan's Heroes. "Putting David in as chairman of the party was probably the worst mistake we ever made," Tingle says. "We lost a substantial number of members during his tenure, and several branches. He seemed to show contempt for what you would call the political cannon fodder; he treated the membership as simply a group of people who were there to do what he told them." Tingle says the party's management committee eventually pushed Leyonhjelm out of the chairman's job, on a vote of 26 to 4, and asked him to "show cause" why he shouldn't be expelled: "He did not renew his membership.”
Leyonhjelm retorts that the branches atrophied because Tingle left them little to do, that the former broadcaster had ran a "cult of personality" and didn't want to share the limelight. And he maintains the Shooters were upset with him because he ran federal pro-shooting candidates under the banner of the Outdoor Recreation Party in 2004, after discovering the Shooters' own federal registration had lapsed. Whatever his justifications, Leyonhjelm's breach with the Shooters had a number of knock-on effects. He was turfed off the Federation of Hunting Clubs. Soon after, then NSW state minister for primary industries, Ian Macdonald, dumped him from the NSW Game Council, at the request of other members. Bill Shelton, one-time president of the Sporting Shooters' Association of Australia, says the SSAA ended up not wanting a bar of him, either. "He had an absolute charming manner until he infiltrated whatever he wanted to infiltrate," says Shelton. "Then once he was inside the organisation or part thereof, he was an absolute control nut." (Leyonhjelm rejects this, saying "I never came remotely close to running the SSAA, nor did I attempt to.") Trouble opened up on another front in 2010, when Leyonhjelm and his national executive clashed with the then-head of the South Australian chapter of the LDP, Chris Steele. Steele says he wanted to run LDP candidates in the state election, and raise funds locally to support them, but his push for a degree of autonomy was blocked by Leyonhjelm and then national chairman Peter Whelan. "They basically said, 'Get stuffed and if you don't like it we will kick you out and you can go and form your own party', " Steele claims. "He is a libertarian on the outside, but the way he operates is like an authoritarian Marxist." Leyonhjelm says Steele's dispute was with the whole national executive of the LDP, not just himself, and that it was over the retention of membership fees.
Let's talk about Sex
In 2013, Leyonhjelm fell out with the Sex Party in Victoria, over what they claim was his duplicitous behaviour in a failed preference swap deal for that year's federal poll. As agreed, the Sex Party gave him their preferences in NSW. But he never delivered his party's preferences in Victoria in return, claiming his fax was malfunctioning on the morning he was meant to send the relevant instructions to the Victorian office of the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). A disbelieving Sex Party demanded Leyonhjelm make his fax records available for a lawyer to examine. Sex Party spokesman Robbie Swan says these proved the machine was working before, and after, the time Leyonhjelm says he couldn't get through to the relevant number. But Leyonhjelm tells Good Weekend the clock on the fax machine was faulty. Then he says his partner, Amanda, dialled the wrong number, and adds there was a paper jam. "It's a 'dog ate my homework' excuse," fumes one source, who watched the saga unfold.
Robbie Swan says if Leyonhjelm had honoured his end of the pact, then the Sex Party would have got Victoria's last Senate spot, not the hapless Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party. Says Swan: "I don't think you can trust him... I wrote [to the AEC] and argued that if it is illegal for someone not to vote, why isn't it illegal for someone like David Leyonhjelm to completely dud another party and send thousands of votes into the dustbin?"
Glenn Druery, the man who perfected the art of preference horse-trading among the minor parties, has also taken aim at Leyonhjelm, despite once running as an LDP candidate. Leyonhjelm told a parliamentary committee hearing earlier this year that Druery was a "policy-free zone" who acted "like an utter bastard" in recent preference negotiations. In response, Druery says, "David Leyonhjelm has probably secretly written the book 'How to Lose Friends and Influence Nobody'. The irony is that he is opposed to government spending and government intervention, yet he puts his hand out and takes $1 million-plus in electoral funding plus all the perks of office.”
Leyonjhelm's long-standing business friend, Horticulture Australia chief John Lloyd, insists the man he dines with several times a year is "loyal and honest. If David has a flaw it's that he can't do anything but tell you how he sees it... I value that in a friend. But whoever coined the phrase 'Someone who doesn't suffer fools gladly' had a picture of David in front of him.”
Guns, farms, motorbikes - and cats
Along with firearms, Leyonjhelm's enthusiasms include his powerful Triumph Speed Triple 1050 motorbike - and cats. "She's a lovely girl," he croons, cradling the undisputed queen of his four felines, a showy Birman called Tiffany. This favoured animal regularly commutes with him and Amanda to their farm six hours west of Sydney. It's in rough country, overrun with re-growth wattle, but they have built a comfortable cottage on it. He keeps it to "get away", for target practice, ammunition load-testing, and the odd spot of hunting (pigs, not goats - "I had a pet goat when I was a kid").
He met Amanda, a slight blonde with a wary but not unfriendly manner, at a house party playing Trivial Pursuit 30 years ago. They've never formally tied the knot. "We describe ourselves as married - we don't need a piece of paper from the government to say it," he says.
Inside the three-storey Mediterranean-style duplex they've built in Sydney's inner-west, there are views over a landscaped garden with a pool and large water feature running down one side, and Iron Cove in the distance. The living and kitchen areas have the swept-clean feel of a furniture showroom: white leather sofas, timber floors, several colour co-ordinated ceramic vases on a sideboard. The only signs of personal detritus are pieces of a fiendishly complex jigsaw puzzle (Amanda's) strewn across the glass-topped dining table. It features pigs flying across a blue sky. Leyonhjelm, a diabetic who has to take frequent snacks, tells me his family name is Swedish in origin and translates roughly as "lion on a helmet". The Swedish Leyonhjelms were aristocracy and he still occasionally gets letters from Europe addressed to the "Right Honourable Baron".
His childhood was marred by parental discord and lack of money. "It was relatively dysfunctional", he says. His father, Bryan, ran a small mixed dairy farm just outside the Victorian town of Heywood, and the family struggled financially. Leyonhjelm, the oldest of four children, trapped rabbits for meat to bring in extra cash, and later worked in town in a shoe shop. "Even affording the school uniform - the tie, the blazer, the pants and so forth - it was quite a struggle to get them," he recalls.
Leyonhjelm's father walked out when he was 15, and his mother, Jean, moved the children to Dandenong. Leyonhjelm no longer communicates with his father, brother or his two sisters. "I think I'm the only sane one - my mother thinks that might be the case, too." Leyonhjelm senior (who went on to marry three more times) was "strict", but the son denies this planted the seeds of his libertarian beliefs. "I was probably more formed by lack of money and having to make my own way, as much as anything," he says. After the split, money problems worsened and Jean worked at several low-paid jobs to support the family.
But a friend from Dandenong High School, Ian Meyer, says troubles at home were never discussed. Meyer recalls his school buddy as an outstanding student who loathed competitive team sport and had a penchant for challenging his English teacher. Otherwise, he was "like most young blokes, happy to go to parties, join in the fun generally".
After the pair left school, Leyonhjelm won a scholarship to study vet science at Melbourne University and he and Meyer shared a flat in St Kilda, later moving to a house in the suburbs. Meyer found him a highly compatible housemate, though he was puzzled about the .22 he saw once in the cupboard. "He has always been keen on guns," says Meyer. "I still struggle to see how that fits in.”
Leyonhjelm had refused to register for the draft to fight in Vietnam and he and Meyer were drawn to Labor and its then leader Gough Whitlam because of ALP opposition to the war. Leyonhjelm signed up to Young Labor, claims to have pored over the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin, and became friends with the man who would later become a prominent state Labor treasurer, Rob Jolly. He smoked the odd joint. He also supported the passionate campaign for abortion rights being run by Dr Bertram Wainer. These issues "made me realise that governments are nasty, big bastards of things, and they can overstep the boundary big-time".
In his mid-20s, he left Australia to work as a vet in the UK, exploring Europe and eventually doing a truck tour through Africa. He wound up in what was then Rhodesia, again working as vet. Here, the patients were a little more exotic, among them a baby leopard and biting monkeys. Africa turned him off "socialism" for good. "It was meant to be flowering in a million villages. Well, it wasn't true, the people were desperately poor.”
After returning to Australia in late 1979, Leyonhjelm worked for an animal health pharmaceutical company before setting up his own, commercially successful, marketing consultancy. He'd discovered that "working for a large multinational corporation was not suited to my personality. I'm not a very good employee."
He also joined the army reserve as a trainee officer, but didn't like "being told what to do" there, either. What he did like was shooting off M60 machine guns. "That is real good fun," he says, face alight. "Shedding all those bullets at once, making a giant racket shooting a full auto is like..." - he pauses, searching for an equivalent delight - "...like eating a lot of chocolate." He is also into pistol shooting, which he picked up when he and Amanda lived briefly in Tasmania. Its pleasures, he maintains, are not dissimilar to those of golf: "They try to get a ball into a tiny little hole a long way off; I try to get a bullet in a tiny little spot a long way off.”
A political animal
It was during his Tasmanian sojourn, in the late 1980s, that he joined the Liberal Party. "I did have to hold my nose a bit," he says. He gained practical lessons in backroom politics because "in Tasmania they have rampant democracy, and joining the Libs gave me access to heaps of politicians". But he dismisses them now as a "bunch of statists".
Poised now to step onto the national stage, Leyonhjelm is hanging out his shingle, pushing the message that he and Family First senator-elect Bob Day see eye to eye on all matters economic, and should be viewed as a more reliable voting bloc than the three incoming Palmer United Party senators and their supposed ally, Ricky Muir. "I am trying to convince both government and media that Clive [Palmer] is not the main game," he says. He is also weighing the prospects for an LDP push into the NSW parliament, hoping that with his rising media profile - and flush with funds - the party will bag a seat or two in next year's state elections.
Voter confusion over the party name could well lend a serendipitous hand, as it did in the federal poll. He recently admitted "some people looked at us and thought we were Liberals because we had Liberal in our name".
Glenn Druery forecasts grimly that "given the nature of the man, and his lack of empathy, it's highly unlikely he will achieve anything in Canberra. Some say nothing." But whether his enemies like it or not, David Leyonhjelm now stands on one of the most coveted soapboxes in the country.