Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Democrats' bastard demise

  • 27 June 2008

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.