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For the sake of the party, go with Tash

By Graham Young - posted Thursday, 15 March 2001


This column is written with apologies to Meg Lees. I think she is a thoroughly decent woman and in a thoroughly decent world would be allowed to work out her notice with the Australian Democrats. That would have taken her through until after the next election.

But politics is a thoroughly nasty business, and serving out your time can lead to ruin for those whose fortunes depend on you. That, I fear, would be what would happen to the Democrats if Senator Lees stays on.

This is not a judgment on either Lees' or her challenger Natasha Stott Despoja's personal worth. When it comes to substance and presentation I prefer Lees, and that is purely a personal preference. But as the battle between PC and Mac demonstrates, it is not just in the political world where marketing wins irrespective of the merits of substance and performance.

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Reading recent commentary you would think that it is a new development for the Democrats to be in trouble. In reality, they and the Greens have been in trouble ever since Pauline Hanson came on the scene. In the 1998 Queensland State election the Democrat and Greens votes dropped dramatically. Why? Because most of the people who vote Greens or Democrat do not do so because they approve of Green or Democrat policies. They vote for them because they do not want to give a first preference to either of the major parties.

Those Democrats who earnestly beaver away to create policies will not want to hear this, but the policies they craft are only functional in so far as they give people not wanting to vote Labor or Coalition a post hoc justification for voting Democrat. In the parlance of protest vote campaigning, Democrat policies are only a tool so that the party meets "minimum expectations" as a vehicle for lodging a protest vote.

The real attraction of the Democrats is that they aren't a member of the "Bastard's" club that they promise to keep honest. That is why, from the point of view of preserving the Democrats, the Lees approach has been misguided. By dealing with Costello and with Reith, the Democrats have become part of the machinery of government. By making decisions they shattered the illusion that all possibilities are still open. That actually helps them to meet minimum expectations, but negates them as a vehicle for a protest vote.

That is not to say that the Democrats have never been part of the machinery of government. They have. It is just that the GST and the Industrial Relations Laws have become lightning rods for discontent in the electorate in a way that brokering a deal on the environment, for example, never could.

Pre-Hanson, this would still not have been an insurmountable problem. The Democrats have always done well versus the Greens because they are more middle-class. Someone once described them as the political arm of the Uniting Church, and while this is not an accurate description, there is something soberly protestant, middle-class and decent about their approach to life which is attractive to a broad swathe of the community in a way that tree-hugging isn't. In the swirling eddies of political fashion that is the middle ground, they have been able to poach disgruntled Liberal, Country Party and Labor voters which the Greens couldn't.

Hanson changes all that. She's aspiring-class too, but less sober, more popular, and shares a lot of the same policy ground. What's more, she has never been part of the machinery of government, so all of the possibilities of the illusion of influence are still open without any of the next-morning realities of having said "Yes" to the wrong proposition.

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Hanson is taking votes away from the Dems at the same time as others are leaking away to the Greens. The Democrats have survived with their corner-store approach to life, but that has to change now the new 24 - hour convenience centre has opened up the road, complete with Fish and Chip shop. They need to tart the old store up, and change some of their product lines. Unfortunately for Lees, the best way to do this is to erect the "Under New Management" sign.

In fact, the Dems were lucky to do so well last election. They prospered by becoming the anti-racial discrimination party. Their message was clearly targeted at Liberal voters who were appalled at the rise of Hanson and who were unhappy with the Liberal Party's equivocation on some racial issues. The message would also have attracted some Labor voters. They lost a large proportion of their vote to One Nation, but they created a new category of protest voter who opposed One Nation and some elements of the Liberal Party. It was a potent enough message to overcome Meg Lees's lack of pizazz as well.

They do not have that option this time. The reason is that the tactic worked best when there was an expectation that Howard would win the Federal election and that Hanson would hold the balance of power in the Senate. Under these conditions voters could see a need for the Democrats. This election there will be a perception that Howard will lose the Federal Election and that Hanson will not do nearly so well as last time. The ALP are regarded benignly on the key race issues. That means that the argument that Australia needs a guardian on matters of race is significantly weaker. Added to this, if the WA and Qld elections results are anything to go by, many Liberal and National voters are thinking of jumping straight across and voting ALP. They are not looking for half-way houses at the moment.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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