By Frank Noakes
In the early 1970s the North Sydney Council made a big mistake in annoying 40-year-old Edward Carrington Mack. Plans to build a 17-storey office block against his back fence transformed the quiet government architect into the public persona and political whirlwind known as Ted Mack.
It is conceivable, but only just, that some people outside of New South Wales haven't heard of Ted Mack the independent with a capital "I" from Sydney's lower north shore. Ted is the guy who resigned from state parliament two days before becoming eligible for a $1 million superannuation payment, because he believes politicians already get too much. Sounds like an interesting fellow? He is.
Mack was born in 1933, at the height of the depression. This was the lucky generation, he says. Mack explains that this is the only period where the birth rate actually fell. "At each point in my life I've had less competition; there were smaller classes at school, and when I went to university to study architecture, there were only nine students."
Too young to fight in the war, he reached maturity in the early '50s, when life was very different from today: no unemployment, cheap housing and less pollution.
Except for two brief periods, once overseas and once in Wollongong, Mack has never lived more than four kilometres from the Sydney Harbour Bridge — a bridge he refuses to drive across since the steep hike in the toll to pay for the tunnel.
The Australian "dream" of a house, a good job and a few kids was Ted Mack's reality. Robert Gordon Menzies had lulled the country to sleep and Mack, like most of his generation, had no particular interest in politics. "I was the last person you would have expected to have gone into public life." Enter the typically insensitive council.
Hard to label
Political commentators have found Mack hard to tag, although that hasn't stopped them trying. By turns he is reckoned as anything from an anarchist to a right-wing conservative. Mack says he has no political philosophy but has strongly held principles. He has simple but powerful ideas such as: "People have a right to be involved in every decision that affects them".
Mack can't readily think of any early political influences but remembers being very impressed with Jack Mundey's activities. "I remember a Sydney Morning Herald editorial in about 1970 thundering at the Builders' Labourers Federation at this notion that builders' labourers had a right to take some social interest in what they were doing. Jack defended that by quoting the Nuremberg trials at them.
"That struck my historical interest because that's what Nuremberg was all about, the whole notion of individual responsibility, that every person is responsible for their own actions. So I guess I've proceeded politically from these very basic principles: everybody is responsible for their own action, everybody has the right to be involved in every decision that affects them. That led me to a total open government position."
Mack is all about the processes of government as opposed to single issues. He parades his anti-elitist view provocatively: "I believe that the public has the right to commit suicide". But, he says, it is equally important that people be enabled to make informed decisions, and for that they need access to information.
Elected to North Sydney Council in 1974, Mack became mayor six years later. He immediately sold the mayoral Mercedes and bought community buses with the proceeds. With the support of others, he instituted mechanisms to make open government possible. This led to the creation of numerous residents' committees and the use of referenda. Four thousand public meetings later, the council became the most open in Australia and remains that way to this day.
Sydney's north shore is the Liberal Party's laager. It was not impressed when, as an independent, Mack wrested away the state seat of North Shore in 1981. Worse still, he did it again in 1990, taking the safe federal seat of North Sydney from born-to-rule tory toff John Spender.
Now, after 20 years, Mack intends standing down at the next federal election and retiring from public life.
During this time Mack has taken a hard line against politician's perks. He returned his gold passes, has never taken an overseas trip at public expense and has collected only that part of his superannuation which he personally contributed.
Mack is a keen supporter of the Citizens Initiative Referendum project. Such referenda nearly made it into the constitution in the 1890s. He points out that Labor supported the idea until 1963. "They hate it now because the Labor Party has become totally elitist."
Opposition to citizen-initiated referenda comes from those who are saying that people can't be trusted, Mack argues. "If they can't be trusted to make a decision on a specific issue that's well ventilated, you're really arguing that we should take away the right to vote. How can the public make a decision in a general election, when there's a whole complex of obscured issues?"
As the only person to serve as an independent in all three tiers of government in the past 50 years, Mack's fly-on-the-wall position confirmed for him how hopeless the system is. The two party system has become "so rigid that it's overwhelmed any sense of democracy. Really all we have is an elected dictatorship. The parliament as such is just a piece of window dressing ... Power resides in the executive, which totally dominates parliament."
But he's optimistic. Democracy is a relatively new institution, he says, and is still evolving. The idea that people have a right to know, a right to make their own decisions has become a commonplace and is represented in the consumer movement, the environment movement, worker participation. "That's why you're seeing all these little rebellions around the world against governments.
"In every country people want more power than their governments are prepared to give them. Everywhere governments are on the nose; governments have never been so unpopular", he says with undisguised relish. The fairest voting method exists in Tasmania, with multi-member electorates under the Hare-Clark system, and should be universalised, he believes.
Paul Keating's threats to make election to the Senate less representative draw a warning from Mack. Gareth Evans is a "total elitist", he insists. "Evans is saying 'we [Labor] should get together with the Liberal Party and agree to have single member electorates, which would get rid of the Democrats, the Greens (WA) and independents'. What Hitler did was just that ... I'm just amazed at Keating and Evans ... it just shows that they don't really believe in democracy."
Despite this, Mack thinks Keating should be thanked for raising the republican debate because it opens up the whole constitutional question, "which is vastly more important than who's head of state. I think that after a century, people are now recognising that of course the bloody constitution's out of date and does need revision."
In federal parliament, Mack has made known his opposition to "fundamentalist economic rationalism", unilateral tariff removal policies, sale of public land, sale of the Commonwealth Bank, GST, Australia's involvement in Bougainville, the nuclear industry and limitations on free speech.
What was he able to achieve in federal parliament? "Very little, because I don't think parliament is very relevant to any particular achievement", he responds with an ironic chuckle. He is quoted as saying that the "whole place is so seductive, like any self-serving institution, the only defence against it is not to be there".
Mack's was often a lone voice in the House of Representatives. His was the "only vote against the Gulf War, the only vote against the sale of Qantas, the only vote against the third runway and the only vote against having a nuclear establishment at Lucas Heights".
The concentration of media ownership and unfettered economic globalisation are two of the biggest threats to democracy today but, he says, that will be for others to fight. Looking surprisingly fit and relaxed for a man who only a few weeks ago was rushed to hospital with heart trouble, Mack is dubious about writing an autobiography. "Books tend to be self-justifying", he says, and "the record of such books is not good".
One of the most traumatic decisions for the snowy-haired campaigner was selling his beloved 1951 Citroen of 33 years, which he did recently. His distinctive set of wheels became a symbol of his independence, which he exploited in his election campaigns. The sale was "a bit like The Picture of Dorian Gray, to sort of kill off my public persona".