2 March 2023

Don Mackay's ex-campaign manager celebrates 90th birthday, recalls volatile 1974 election

| Oliver Jacques
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Nich Hutchins cutting birthday cake with family

Birthday boy Nick Hutchins with wife Rosemary and granddaughter Molly Jean. Photo: Chris Roe.

It was federal election day in 1974 when a Griffith-based campaign worker said he noticed something bizarre happening in the town’s main polling booth.

“I walked in and saw a well-known mafia figure filling out voting cards for several different people,” he said. “I grabbed him by the arm and shouted, ‘Get out’. He did as he was told.”

This was just one of many incredible days in the life of longtime agronomist and farming sector advocate Nick Hutchins, who celebrated his 90th birthday with family in Wagga on Saturday 25 Feb.

READ ALSO Albanese to be first sitting PM to visit Griffith

Mr Hutchins spent his early years in Scotland where he lived as the son of an officer in the Gordon Highland Division during World War II.

He is well known in the Riverina for the 38 years he spent running an agronomic service in Darlington Point, and for being president of the Maize Growers Association of Australia and an active Coleambally RSL volunteer.

Black and white photo of Nick and Laura

A young Nick Hutchins with his sister Laura. Photo: Supplied.

But few people know about the volatile weeks he spent as campaign manager for close friend and Liberal Party candidate Don Mackay, who ran in the seat of Riverina against infamous Labor immigration minister ‘Flash’ Al Grassby as the Whitlam Government sought a second term in office.

While Mr Grassby downplayed the apparent surge in drug crime in Griffith, Mr Mackay’s outspoken criticism of alleged mafia activity caused plenty of drama for his team in the lead-up to polling day.

“I met Don in the early 1970s when I moved to Griffith and needed to buy some furniture, so we went to the shop he owned,” Mr Hutchins said. “We hit it off straight away, became good friends and when he ran for parliament he asked me to manage his campaign.

“[Those weeks] were tough. Once, I was changing a tyre on the road, when I turned my head and there was a cop holding a revolver at my head. I said, ‘If you don’t take that gun off my head, I’ll take it off you’. He removed it after that … there was a lot of corruption in Griffith in those days.

“The campaign was nasty, but we weren’t. If you knew Don, you’d know he could never be nasty.”

Mr Hutchins said he was more realistic about the Liberal Party’s chances of winning the seat for the first time ever than his boss.

“Just before the election, I recall we were driving to Leeton once, I remember Don turned to me and asked: ‘Do you think we’ll win?’

“I had to be honest; I said, ‘No, but I think we’ll defeat Al Grassby and put [Don’s Coalition partner and National Party candidate] John Sullivan in’.”

Old family photo of Don Mackay with wife and son

Don Mackay with wife Barbara and son James. Photo: Supplied.

Mr Hutchins’ prediction was spot-on, as Mr Mackay’s preferences helped Mr Sullivan narrowly defeat Mr Grassby in a big upset.

Just three years after the election, the furniture store owner disappeared, thought to be the victim of Australia’s first ever political assassination.

READ ALSO: Italian immigrant who helped build Griffith keeps working in his 80s

In 1978, Mr Hutchins moved to Carathool before settling in Darlington Point, where he became a central figure in the irrigation community for several decades.

“We started growing sunflower and maize in rotation and we did very well. People were always asking for my advice [on farming], so I thought I’d become an agricultural consultant. I set up my own business. It was successful; I didn’t make a fortune but we survived … I was also elected as Maize Growers president. During this time, we elevated the industry into something that mattered.”

Nick Hutchins with his wife Rosemary at his birthday party

Nick Hutchins and his wife Rosemary. Photo: Chris Roe.

He maintained a strong passion for the agricultural sector throughout his career, writing to MPs and parliamentary inquiries on behalf of local grower groups he was involved with, as well as appearing as an expert witness in many farming related court cases.

After retiring, only a few years ago, Mr Hutchins moved to Wagga where he celebrated a birthday bash hosted by his daughter Katrina. As a man of strong faith, he’s philosophical about what the future might bring.

“I absolutely believe there has been a guiding force protecting me. When Don was killed, I should have been killed, but I wasn’t. God’s guiding hand is always there … I’m not ancient or anything. I have no ambition to live to 100, I am ready to meet my maker. Whether he’s ready to meet me is another matter.”

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