The Australian Democrats, RIP

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.

26 thoughts on “The Australian Democrats, RIP

  1. 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.

    Couldn’t agree more.


  2. When I was looking at the left-right spectrum a few years ago, I notcied that the electorate placed the Democrats in the same ideological space as the ALP. That is what killed them in the end – they simply could not compete against the ALP. In the last 10 years they have done little to differentiate themselves from the ALP either. (I’m sure that someone will list some differences with the ALP, but the electorate hasn’t perceived those differences).

    The Democrats had a great political position “Keeping the bastards honest”. That resonates with a cynical electorate. Yet when their popular leader defected to the ALP and failed to make a good impression in the lower house (and was later implicated in a scandal) that position was undermined. After the fall-out with the GST the party moved to the left under a popular but inexperienced leader and since then have struggled. So while most people would blame the GST for the demise of the Democrats – I think they went off message, and that Kernot undermined the brand in the electorate’s mind. Of course, that should not have been fatal and a lot of hard work following her defection to the ALP could have saved the Democrats – but they chose instead to fight amongst themselves.

    Having said all that, I agree that the demise of the Democrats might be problematic for good policy. The rise of single-issue parties who promise to be uncompromising could lead to some strange trade-offs. On the other hand it might lead to legislative deadlock on those policies that don’t have clear bipartisan support.


  3. I don’t think the Democrats are better than the Greens — in fact I think they are a big reason they died off. The Greens are a world-wide movement, and I imagine they have far more support amongst the idealistic young and some other groups that might otherwise not care about politics than the Democrats — its much easier to care for the environment than love politics in general. In addition, if you look at what happened in Germany where the Greens became big enough to matter, what you find is that they got integrated into the mainstream, which means you ended up having environmental policies which the majority of the population seem happy with, and not all the crazy stuff that the Greens would think of by themselves that are not to do with the environment. This is good because it means that the Green party really ends up as a Green party, and not a party where wacky hard-left socialists go that care more about wacky hard-left socialist stuff than the environment. Hence whilst the Greens might have more wacky policies than the Democrats, only the non-wacky ones are likely to have any influence, and they will have more influence than the Democrats policies ever would have.


  4. So the Democrats were just two days younger than me? That’s kind of depressing that they’ve gone and died already!

    I agree that their demise is to be lamented, but I can’t help but feel that something else will emerge. If the Greens continue their tendency to purge those not so enamoured with trees, but lack a connection to either major party, there is very much scope for a new ‘liberal democratic’ party in Australia. This may come sooner rather than later if the various Dry/Right wings of the Liberals triumph in their current battles.


  5. No Sinkers,

    what killed them was campaigning against the GST and then for it.

    When they finally realised their mistake and so replaced Lees with Princes Angel they then and went on a self destruction exercise with most Senators having no concept of reality.

    They would be still around if they stuck to keeping the Bastards honest.
    Unfortunately ,for them, Lees and Murray tried to become a mainstream party and they failed miserably.

    Well done Meg

    I too would rather have the Democrats in the balance of power situation than what will happen.


  6. I agree Homer. They should have stuck to “Keep the bastards honest”.

    I should also say my first AFR op-ed put the boot into Senator Andrew Murray. So I do have a soft spot for the Democrats.


  7. The Dems died off because when the two major parties moved to the right in the 1980s, half the Dems wanted to move with them, and the other half wanted to stay right where they were. So you had a party half thinking of themselves as progressives like the Greens, and half thinking of themselves as negotiators to the right of the ALP.

    That’s unsustainable. Neither type of voter could vote for them, because they couldn’t be sure which of the two very different possibilities they’d be getting.


  8. For a small party the Democrats did seem to range right across the political spectrum – the W.A. branch always seemed quite to the right, whereas nationally they often seemed to the left.
    Leadership must be important to a small, new party – Janine Haines was excellent, but Lees, Bartlett, and Kernot’s defection were disasters, and then they ditched Natasha – their best asset. If the Greens had a more impressive leadership profile (Milne rather then Brown?) they might step up to being a viable balance-of-power Greens/Democrats party.


  9. “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.”

    Absolutely agree. They were a decent balance of power party that helped keeped checks and balances in the senate. They will be sorely missed.


  10. Conrad, the major problem with the Greens is that they don’t have much of any economic policy. You can propose all sorts of great ideas, but if the economics don’t add up then it can’t work, can it?


  11. While history will be written by leftie academics claiming that Meg Lees brought about the party’s downfall, the real culprit was a blonde triumph of self confidence over ability, who once told us, without sarcasm, that Taliban controlled Afghanistan offered more generous maternity leave arrangements than the Howard government.

    Paid maternity leave is an important issue for all women. All over the world, it is recognised that women need part-time, or time off work, and paid time off work when they have a baby. And look at the countries that’ve done it. Indonesia, the Philippines, Germany, much of Africa and, wait for it, even in Afghanistan, women have around three months paid maternity leave…

    …In countries like Afghanistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Germany, women there have access to some form of paid maternity leave for up to and around three months. It’s time for Australia to catch up. We’ve been saying that for decades. It’s now time for us, not simply to get to Third World, but First World conditions in terms of rights for women in their workplaces.

    Blondes just don’t come any dumber than that.


  12. Alastair — I don’t think most people even think of economic policy (excluding direct hip-pocket stuff), and given the Greens are never going to be in a situation to dictate it, I don’t think it is necessary for them to come up with any substantial policy any time soon. In this respect, I’m sure lots of people vote for them because they think environmental issues are important and should be on the agenda, rather than vote for them because they want them to run every else. I presume this is why they are relatively popular in the senate (as the Democrats were also). I imagine the other demographic that votes for them puts the environment above economics (I personally don’t think it is easy to dissociate the two, but I’m not in the demographic I am talking about — think young and radical).

    In addition, they do provide economic analysis for issues that they are involved in occasionally. A good example of that was the Telstra vs. environment tradeoff. I believe Bob Brown said yes to the sale if the money went on the environment but was over-ruled by people that were more concerned about being hard-left than environmental issues. Another issue was the pulp mill — I believe they did come up with some analysis of that (i.e., tourism vs. pulp).


  13. Who knows, if Howard had to negotiate with (at least the former) Democrats to get Workchoices through, he may have ditched AWAs to keep the repeal of unfair dismissals, which may have helped the Coalition in the election.


  14. Jeremy — the Liberals & ALP have not moved right. Tax, spending & regulation have increased. Social freedoms have increased. The idea of a “shift to the right” is entirely a figment of an over-active warped leftist imagination.

    A new theory about the fall of the Democrats. It starts by noting that they are quite similar to the ALP in terms of their political positioning — call it “centre-left”. Under an ALP govt (1983-1996) centre-left people who are annoyed by the reality of ALP govts can protest with the safely out-of-power (hence more idealistic) Democrats.

    But when the Liberals are in power (1996-2007) then the same people can go back to voting for the ALP. It takes a few elections to adjust, but eventually the anti-Liberal centre-lefists don’t need the Dems anymore for their protest. So the 11 years of coalition govt eventually wore down the Dems.

    Anyway — that’s just a new idea.

    The problem wasn’t the GST. The Dems did fine in the 2001 election under spot-destroyer.


  15. As someone who spent quite a bit of time inside the Democrats, I agree that one of the major contributors to the downfall was the problem that so many members had with the ‘keep the bastards honest’ program. For too many members it meant that their party would never really win anything; that their ideas would never be the first ideas and that they would always be scrambling to knock what were regarded as the rough edges of Labor or Coalition policies. This can be dispiriting and leads to frustration both within the membership and within the electorate (if it’s not handled well by the leadership). The kicker is that the Democrats really were – as is suggested here – a big tent party. I think most members did not understand that; they tended to presume that there was consensus when there really were a lot of disparate and contradictory perspectives.

    Most of my time in the Dems was spent in the Young Democrats and now when I look back on that time I see a lot of youthful ego. Keeping the bastards honest really is a noble task and one that I wish I put more time into.

    This is an important lesson for any current micro party or anyone considering starting their own. World domination probably is not going to be possible. (And, surprise surprise, it’s probably not desirable, but that’s another issue.) There is a lot to be gained from pushing a few important issues well. Keep your ego in check or, if you are not prepared to do that, try to slog your way through the majors.

    P.S. Andrew, your comment re being at the Town Hall meeting is a lovely one. It brings back fond memories of meeting so many older members (many now not with us) who would open conversations with “on the steps of the Town Hall … ” So many people have also left out the relationship between the Democrats and the establishment of the Uniting Church at around the same time. The common membership between the two groups was very obvious. The declining membership of both is sad.


  16. I agree to some extent with Temujin. I think that the problem for Dems voters at the turn of the century was that, after 13 years of Labor in power, they had become accustomed to their party cutting deals with the centre-left.

    The Liberals brought a new programme with them in 1996, notably in industrial relations and taxation. It was too much for these Dems supporters, to see their party cutting deals with the centre right.

    [There was a clip on the telly last night of students being dragged away from somewhere or other chanting ‘No GST!’ – honestly, can you believe it?! :-)]

    They voted for the Dems under Natasha’s leadership, I suspect, because she was so strongly against the Dems bargaining with the Liberals on totemic issues to the left, such as the GST. But after she was deposed, I suspect these people, who wanted to oppose the Libs in everything, couldn’t see the point of voting for them any more and so drifted to other parties.

    Tanya’s point about the founding of the Uniting Church and the Dems at around the same time is a good one.


  17. Rajat said

    “Who knows, if Howard had to negotiate with (at least the former) Democrats to get Workchoices through, he may have ditched AWAs to keep the repeal of unfair dismissals, which may have helped the Coalition in the election.”

    Howard had 8 years from 1996-2004 negotiating a range of IR proposals with the Democrats – he never got a weakening of unfair dismissal protections through the Senate in all that time. Indeed, it was an (unpulled) double dissolution trigger more than once. Workchoices is what happened once Howard no longer had to negotiate with the Senate. And now Labor is in power, they are keeping the same weakened unfair dismissal laws that Howard tried so often to achieve throughout his first three terms.


  18. “the Democrats are better than the Greens, Family First, or that no pokies guy from South Australia.”

    This was true up to the 1990 election.

    The Democrats from then on, apart from Andrew Murray, were useless.


  19. “The Democrats from then on, apart from Andrew Murray, were useless.”

    A rare case in which in which legimitate comment on politics also technically breaches my policy against abuse directed at other commenters (given the until very recently occupation of the author of comments 17 & 18 in this thread).


  20. Actually the Senator becomes unemployed on Monday night. After that is it correct to refer to him as a pensioner, or retired? (Obviously former-senator applies.)


  21. “And now Labor is in power, they are keeping the same weakened unfair dismissal laws that Howard tried so often to achieve throughout his first three terms.”

    Hooray! A victory for the unemployed!


  22. The Greens are way better than the Australian Democrats in many ways. The Democrats did dirty deals and that was there demise I think.


  23. Perhaps we’ll see the return of the orignal minor party the DLP.
    Popularity is growing in Victoria and other areas around Australia and with the recent upheaval over the abortion bill in Victoria there’s certainly a renewed interest.

    Tony Zegenhagen
    Queensland Secretary
    Democratic Labor Party of Australia – DLP


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