Democrats' bastard demise


Australian Democrats The party formed in 1977 by Liberal rebel Don Chipp to 'Keep the Bastards Honest' has achieved a great deal. By providing an alternative to the major Labor and Coalition blocs the Australian Democrats rejuvenated politics, increased the electorate's interest in issues and improved numerous bills by advancing sensible amendments.

The rejuvenation was attributable to the party's status as a new force in politics. Free of the organisational and ideological baggage of the major blocs, the Democrats represented the possibility that people of talent could rise quickly through the ranks without becoming cynical.

The Democrats began in an era when equal opportunity was coming to be regarded as a necessary principle for any organisation that aspired to promote fairness and justice. One clear result of the party's open and democratic processes has been the quality of the party's senators, and particularly its leaders.

The older parties might boast of having the occasional woman in high positions — the Democrats entrusted their parliamentary leadership to several.

The strong, rational and compassionate leadership of the late Janine Haines established a style anyone would be proud to follow. Cheryl Kernot was, during her tenure, regarded as the country's most respected politician. Meg Lees and Lyn Allison both coped effectively with turbulent times within the party.

A highlight in terms of encouraging political participation was the election of the relatively young Natasha Stott-Despoja as leader and the Indigenous man Aden Ridgeway as her deputy. The party also endorsed an openly gay man, Brian Greig.

The Democrats' campaigns caused voters to think about a broader range of issues, which forced the major parties to consider their own policies carefully. Because of their relative lack of ideological baggage, the Democrats could address new issues such as equal opportunity and the environment and bring fresh insights to existing ones such as education and small business.

As a result of their confinement to the upper house, the Democrats encouraged the electorate to think in terms of legislative insurance. There is a feeling in parts of the electorate that the government should not have a majority in the upper house — that such a majority might allow them to rubber-stamp executive decisions or adopt radical policies. When a party such as the Democrats has the balance of power, it forces the government to reconsider legislation and proceed more slowly, enabling it to moderate its aims and behave responsibly.

Although consideration of the GST legislation is regarded as the Democrats' undoing, they did manage to improve the bills. By referring the bills to committees, the Democrats delayed the legislation by some months, during which time the Government, which had argued that the legislation was already perfect, introduced many amendments of its own.

At their best, the Democrats refused to indulge in legislative trade-offs, viewing such compromise of principle as the first step towards cynicism and the valuing of pragmatic power for its own sake.

By their membership of various sorts of Standing, Select and Legislative Committees alongside members of major parties, they often enabled common ground to be found. They gained respect from other senators and encouraged higher standards of debate.

Perhaps the party's great strengths were also its most telling weaknesses. Its members were entitled to vote according to their consciences rather than a party 'whip', and the national membership had to be polled on major issues. This meant that internal disagreements were frequent and difficult to resolve.

Low points for the party included rumours of an affair between leader Janet Powell and another Democrats senator, and the loss of Kernot. Equally telling was the undermining of Stott-Despoja, who was elected by the extra-parliamentary party — some senators, especially Senator Murray, remained loyal to Lees.

Stott-Despoja's deputy Senator Aden Ridgeway was accused of not being supportive enough. Stott-Despoja's chief media officer reported that when asked about his public statements Ridgeway used what became known as the 'Aden defence': he had not expected a particular line of questioning or had been taken out of context.

Perhaps the same indecisiveness can be seen in the way Andrew Bartlett hung onto the leadership despite having admitted to harassing a female senator while inebriated. Lack of quick action made the party a ready target for a hostile media.

When the collective crossbench, and the Democrats specifically, lost the balance of power following the 2004 election, many feared for the future of democracy.

Following the installation of the senators elected at the 2007 poll, the Labor Government will again have to deal with a finely balanced upper house, but the composition of the cross bench will be very different without the Democrats. The Greens, for example, have a tighter ideological approach, and will find it difficult to deal with legislation as openly as the Democrats did.

Should deadlocks and legislative logjams beset the months ahead, people might well wish for the return of the parliamentary style perfected over three decades by the now departed Democrats.

Australian Democrats

Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney.

Topic tags: Tony Smith, Australian Democrats, democrats' demise, Lyn Allison, donn chipp, Keep the Bastards Honest



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Existing comments

Dr Smith is more generous than I am. He sees the Democrats through rose-coloured spectacles - right from their origins.

There was nothing idealistic about Chipp's establishing the party. It happened only when Malcolm Fraser dropped him from the Ministry. Suddenly, Chipp fell off his steed (or, rather out of his white Commonwealth car) and discovered that he was really on the road to Damascus.

Secondly, the death of that party - a deservingly slow death - was a foregone conclusion when Senator Lees capitulated to John Howard's "charm" and agreed to the GST. Whether she was right to do so wasn't the question: it was a repudiation of what her party had campaigned for and it was a clear declaration to the electorate that if we want something (or oppose something) then it's far better to vote directly for the party which will be in a position to enact those promises and then accept the political consequences. Lees showed that there was absolutely no point (for wavering ALP or Coalition voters, alike) in voting for the Democrats.

As for the Democrats supposedly repudiating compromise, not only was what the party did then (and often) a "compromise", the truth is that, like life, politics is FULL of compromise. There's nothing wrong with compromise - it's essential for survival and to believe otherwise is unrealistic.

John CARMODY | 27 June 2008  

"At their best, the Democrats refused to indulge in legislative trade-offs, viewing such compromise of principle as the first step towards cynicism and the valuing of pragmatic power for its own sake." Like John Carmody, I'm not so sure.

One of the great sources of the futility of much progressive politics, e.g. in the environmental and peace movements, is great readiness self-righteously to condemn trade-offs and compromises as gutless sell-outs: but in democracies, needing majority assent, they are always needed.

It is a serious problem, theoretically and practically, for sell-outs also often occur, and there is no general way to tell which is which. It's like the question of how much freedom to grant children, one where decent people are always likely to disagree.

john fox | 27 June 2008  

The nadir of the Democrats occurred when Meg Lees fell into Howard's trap
and agreed to the introduction of the GST - the tax that hit lower income-earners more severely than those who earned more.

This was an abrogation of fairness and remains a disgrace to the present day. It means that, for example, a litre of petrol costs as nuch for a low-paid storeman & packer was it does for billionaire James Packer.

Lees' legacy is an abiding stain on her reputation - and on her now defunct party.

johnivor | 28 June 2008  

Splinter parties have very little to be proud about. If they were fair dinkum they wouldn't exist.

Laurie Ryan | 28 June 2008  

The disappearance of the Democrats is definitely a loss to pluralist democracy, although I was never a supporter.

The call for political compromises sounds reasonable until you find out that in politics one compromise by minority parties simply leads on to a series of compromises, in turn leading to compete abrogation of what you were originally standing for.

The Democrats biggest problem was the lack of a core binding philosophy, resulting in a membership comprising an all-cum-ye conglomerate of interests and personalities. Not a good formula for political solidarity and success.

Chris Harries | 03 July 2008  

Rafa Nadal's father is Don Chipp's double. Am I the only afficianado to have noticed this?

Claude Rigney | 09 July 2008  

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