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 March.
Mr Hutchins was born in Scotland and spent his early years there, where he lived as the son of an army officer 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.
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’.”
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.
The following year, in 1978, Mr Hutchins moved to Darlington Point, where he became a central figure in the state’s youngest town 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.”
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, Mr Hutchins moved to Sydney to be close to his children, but returned to Wagga last weekend for 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.”
Original Article published by Oliver Jacques on Region Riverina.