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Shock discovery: Australian Democrats revealed as student hoax

[Edition 30] On Foundation Day at Adelaide University in 1977, a secretive group of students hatched a plan to play the greatest prank in the history of Australian politics. Today, all was revealed in a packed press conference when after more than 20 years in hiding, Jason Ho, Anne Eastlight and Michael Riley finally explained the truth behind the formation of the political party that would become known as the Australian Democrats.

The Cheryl Kernot puppet

[Edition 30] On Foundation Day at Adelaide University in 1977, a secretive group of students hatched a plan to play the greatest prank in the history of Australian politics. Today, all was revealed in a packed press conference when after more than 20 years in hiding, Jason Ho, Anne Eastlight and Michael Riley finally explained the truth behind the formation of the political party that would become known as the Australian Democrats. In a bizarre plan hatched over more than two decades and reading like “The Dismissal” meets “Weekend at Bernie’s”, the students used foam rubber puppets to pretend to be real politicians, fooling voters, party members and politician opponents alike. Citing “professional differences” and the need to move onto other projects, the three former students have revealed themselves, pulling the plug on Australia’s longest running political hoax.

“We never dreamed it would go so far” marvelled Ho, now 38 years old, who has spent more than half his life maintaining the façade that the leadership of the Australian Democrats actually existed. “”Mike knew about puppets, and Anne was a really good mimic, so we thought – how about making some animatronic politicians and forming a new party? At first we thought people would cotton on straight away. I mean, check out this hand movement – it’s totally unrealistic” Ho scoffed as he demonstrated the foam-rubber ‘Don Chipp’ puppet used by the trio as the party’s founding patriarch. “But the people in the New Liberal Movement and the Australia Party [both of which joined the newly formed Democrats and swelled its membership] seemed to take it all so seriously. We didn’t want to back out, we wanted to see how far we could continue the prank. By the time Robin [Millhouse, the first Democrat to hold a Parliamentary seat] won her by-election, we were pretty much working full-time, just to keep people believing that there really was a ‘Don Chipp’. Don’s hard to do well … when we first thought up the idea for him, it sounded like a sick joke, but it kind of worked, I guess. After Don, the others were easier – not many of them were required to exhibit much personality – but I think Janine was definitely the toughest. Her frowns and disappointed shakes of the head alone would make your hands ache after a few hours. It sounds like light-hearted fun … but it was also hard work!”

With the election in December 1977 of the first Democrat Senator, Janine Haines, the three students realised that they would face a real challenge with just three pairs of hands to keep the puppets moving, living and acting realistically. “It’s difficult for three people to do everything that needs to be done to keep alive the illusion of multiple sitting parliamentarians, particularly when they aren’t all in the same city. Sure, we had some gaffes. One time, Mike left the Janine Haines puppet sitting in the back of a Parliamentary Sub-Committee for a week, but luckily no-one noticed.”

As the fictional “party” grew in numbers and stature, more work was required to maintain the illusion. “Writing the aims of the party was really fun” recalls Riley. “I thought up the bit about ‘seeking the transition to a sustainable economy’ and ‘accepting the challenges of the predicament of humanity’. It was silly, but kind of fun. We just got really baked and thought of the craziest stuff we could, plus whacked in some material cribbed from old politics essays by Robert Manne. Of course, we had to trim it a bit … in the first draft, there was an objective to ‘boldly go where no man has gone before’, and a thing about conscripting young people to work on a national tram project, which would have been cool to leave in.”

The puppets, developed by the students and operated to create the illusion of fictional politicians who could shake hands, kiss babies and win office, are controlled from within by a cunningly concealed system of levers and pulleys. The operator, who must work alone and in moist, dark conditions within the foam-rubber prison, cannot see out directly but relies instead on a patented design ‘Polli-scope’ which extends from the puppet’s “nose”. To make the puppet walk, deliver first reading speeches and Parliamentary questions, cut ribbons or do any of the other countless tasks that a sitting politician must do, the operator pulls strings or levers to move parts of the puppet’s body.

Although they have fond memories of those heady first few years, the trio have no doubt about their finest hour. “Cheryl Kernot, hands down” they all agree, when asked what part of the deception they most enjoyed. “We seriously felt like we had a chance at national government with Cheryl. That would have been cool – we could have unmasked ourselves at the height of our powers, like in ‘Tootsie’. But, no matter, we still had some fun with her. You know the bit where she had that showdown with Bronwyn Bishop, and her lip started to, y’know, get this facial twitch, like a tic? It looks like she’s really angry or overcome by emotion. Actually, I got the meanest attack of the giggles. Every time Bronwyn got angrier, she’s look over at Richo, the chairman of the Parliamentary sub-committee, to see if he would weigh in, and he would pretend not to notice, or scratch himself, or just ignore her. Bronwyn was apoplectic, beehive a-quiver, and the others struggled for composure … I was just losing it.”

The pranksters also revealed how ‘Ms Kernot’s’ apparent defection to the ALP was engineered. “Basically, you can’t wear the Cheryl suit all the time. You have to get out to go to the bathroom. So, one time when I was taking a break, this little bastard ALP staffer stole the suit. We were pretty bitter at first – it takes a lot of effort to develop a Democrat puppet from scratch, but we just had to move on. I don’t know who is operating Cheryl now, but when I see the footage on TV, I can’t say that her movements and demeanour look terribly realistic.”

The three students were unapologetic to the thousands of Australians who are currently card-carrying members of the Australian Democrats. “We didn’t mean to lie, or dupe people … we just wanted to have a bit of fun, y’know? If people fell for our prank, well, so be it. They should cop it on the chin and move on. I mean, seriously – John Coulter? Is that real? Does that fool you for a second, when you know that he’s a puppet? Of course not. It wasn’t our deception – the voters deceived themselves.”