Today the Democrat Senators gave their last speeches, bringing their party’s 31-year parliamentary history to an end. That makes me feel rather old, as I attended one of the first meetings that led to their creation after Don Chipp left the the Liberals in March 1977 (in the days when it was Malcolm Fraser being denounced for abandoning small-l liberalism).
The ‘Committee of Concerned Citizens’ organised a meeting on 9 May 1977 in the Melbourne Town Hall. There were 4,000 people there, including me and my Dad (I was 11), with many more turned away. According to John Warhurst’s book Keeping the Bastards Honest, at the end of the evening Chipp declared himself committed to a new party. I can’t quite remember what I thought of it all, though obviously I was not persuaded to take the micro-party route.
While they won seats up until the 2001 election, the Democrats never found a stable constituency among the ‘concerned’ middle class. The Australian Election Survey questions on which party respondents voted for at the most recent and at the previous election always showed a lot of churn among Democrat voters. People would vote for them, but vote for someone else next time. But until 2004, they always picked up enough of the stray disgruntled vote to win seats.
The 2007 AES suggests that the vast majority of defecting 2004 Democrat voters went to Labor and the Greens, confirming that the party that had been born centrist died leftist. With Labor and Liberal fighting over the middle ground, there was no electoral room for a centre party between them.
Despite their wacky policies on some issues (eg higher education) I’m sorry to see the Democrats go. Politics is less a choice between good and bad than between better and worse, and the Democrats are better than the Greens, Family First, or that no pokies guy from South Australia.
The Australian Democrats, RIP.