It's Time to Go… Democrats


This week, the Australian Democrats bade farewell to the Senate after having played a pivotal role in the parliamentary chamber for 30 years.

At their height, the Democrats enjoyed a large membership and the support of over a million voters. In Federal parliament, this translated into nine senators and the "balance of power". In her valedictory speech, Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja, the last Democrat to lead her party to victory, signaled that she did not wish to pass judgment on what went wrong with "Don’s Party". However, her final plea to her fellow senators to "trust the members" was a poignant one.

Had the senators trusted the judgment of the members in 2002, it is likely that the parliament would shortly be welcoming at least four new Democrats rather than hearing eulogies for the party that swore to "keep the bastards honest". For while the GST, leadership tensions and disunity are all variously blamed for the party’s demise, the underlying cause of the its troubles, as well as its success, was the longstanding tension between liberal and democratic philosophy within the party, going back to its foundation in 1977 in the merger of the breakaway New Liberal Movement and the more participatory democratic Australia Party.

The Democrats’ liberal tradition was most evident in the dedication of its senators and the importance within the party of a conscience vote on every piece of legislation "on its merits". The democratic tradition, on the other hand, was expressed by the vote of the members over policy, preselection and leadership. It was this uneasy but brilliant marriage of two contrasting philosophies that made the party unique. No other party in Australia has attempted to be this liberal and this democratic. It also explained how a new party was able to burst forth so rapidly and display a staying power that eludes most other new parties that rise and disappear at each election.

Whenever the two strands of liberal and democratic philosophy were in conflict over the question of leadership, Democrat senators historically deferred to democracy. This was the case when Janine Haines fought off a leadership challenge from within the party room shortly after becoming leader. In that ballot Haines won 80 per cent of the membership vote. She went on to lead the Democrats to their best election result in 1990, when only a preference swap between the major parties kept her out of the lower house seat of Kingston.

It is difficult to imagine this result had the senators insisted on removing Haines and installing her challenger, the little known Senator Vigor. The most obvious mistake the Democrat senators made in 2002 was in going against this precedent and ignoring the membership – the very people who made the party and connected it with its voters.

In the same way, it was not the GST in and of itself that was so damaging to the Democrats in 1999. On its merits, the policy was sound. What damaged the party was the distrust of the membership displayed by Meg Lees in the processes she chose to follow and the manner in which she did so: announcing that the Democrats had arrived as a major party, appearing to enjoy her audiences with John Howard and declaring the cumbersome, slow democratic processes of the party inadequate.

Don Chipp, by contrast, was a consummate political performer who never failed to carry the public and the members with his contrition – so much so that a young Michelle Grattan dubbed him "the agony man". When the Democrats reneged on a promise to pass Fraser’s budget intact in 1981, Chipp declared, "when people say it’s been a good week for the Democrats, they don’t know what kind of week it’s been".

Far from embodying a dying party, the leadership ructions that immediately followed the GST demonstrated the party was alive and determined to go on fighting.

The battle between Stott-Despoja and Lees was not, as the media cast it, between young and old, but between the democratic and liberal wings of the party. Stott-Despoja understood that the members were the most valuable asset of the party, not only because they were its foot soldiers, but because they were its most direct link with the community at large. The strength of the Democrats was not only in their ability to legislate, but their democratic calling to be representative of the people.

Her defeat of Lees in 2001 with 69 per cent of the vote was emphatic. But balance was not restored.

Where Stott-Despoja arguably overstepped the mark was in attempting to seal the ascendancy of the democratic strand by calling for senators to pledge opposition to the sale of Telstra. Stott-Despoja knew the Democrats had to win back the public’s trust. To Lees and Murray however, already smarting over the rebuke to their GST package, this was a violation of the liberal tradition of a conscience vote.

Such were the passions raised in the battle that the party failed to find the balance again between the two traditions. Instead, the senatorial faction ultimately defeated the members by refusing to work with the elected leader, and the party members finally retreated, exhausted and defeated. It was thus only after 2002, when the party infighting stopped, that the Democrats could finally be pronounced terminal.

While the senators have continued their impressive parliamentary work right up to their last day in parliament, the extra-parliamentary party – in particular its democratic policy making and consultative processes – collapsed. The result, as two elections demonstrated, was a party without the critical mass and support on the ground to win elections – one that no longer appealed to "outsiders" or a broad electorate and was fatally wedded instead to parliamentary institutions. It is an undemocratic malaise that afflicts all political parties eventually, but which only genuinely entrenched and professionalised parties with large resources and hereditary voter bases can survive.

Democracy has now removed the Democrats from those parliamentary institutions, and in a sense the party is returning home to the members. Whether it is coming home for burial or for rebirth will be determined by those members. The ultimate test for the Democrats – and for any new party that replaces them – will be the party’s ability to attract a new generation of activists and members and their willingness to revive the democratic foundations that were lost in 2002.

Wherever the people go, the challenges of political organisation that afflicted the Australian Democrats will never go away.

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