Last week the Australian Democrats had one of the most significant shifts in its internal leadership that may actually give it half a chance to come back. Former Senator Brian Greig was elected as the party's president.
This is significant for two main reasons.
Firstly, none of the party's former Senators, other than the one who presided over its demise, Lyn Allison, have been willing to take a role in the internal management or leadership of the party since their departure from Canberra. Greig's willingness to step up and provide that leadership ensures those at the centre of reorganising the party's efforts are not just well-meaning volunteers with a lot of free time but people with skill, experience and ability. This changes the dynamic of the executive as well as the quality of people they can attract to key volunteer roles and their capacity to fundraise.
Secondly, Greig is one of those who understands that there is no overlap in the base of the Greens and the Democrats. The base of the Democrats are Rudd and Turnbull type supporters, socially progressive, economically conservative, little l liberals who are currently struggling in deciding who they should vote for.
While Democrats often end up having the same position as the Greens on various issues, particularly environmental issues to which Australian Democrats have a very high commitment level, the way they get to those positions – the psychology behind the policy and positions – is completely different. To strip it back it it's most simplistic, Democrats seek solutions and value tolerance and compassion; Greens seek to protest and value principle and ideal. Neither of those is better or more right than the other but it is important to understand that they are completely different approaches and don't generally play well together.
Greig appears to get this really important concept. If he is strong enough to silence, or even better excise those elements in the Democrats who think they should sound like Greens instead of sounding like Democrats, then a resurgence is possible.
And yes, that may mean encouraging former leader Allison and the likes of Sandra Kanck to follow Andrew Bartlett over to the Greens or anywhere else they'd feel more comfortable. They have done significant damage by continuing to voice their own fringe agendas as party policy despite the fact that it was not supported by the membership.
Indeed, I quit the party, in part, over Allison's anti-theist agenda being presented as party policy on separating church and state in the 2010 election campaign, unsupported by any balloted material, in violation of the spirit and message of the party, and despite extensive protests from myself and others before the material was posted online. In the same campaign, new high quality policy on important issues like biosecurity and technology that had been developed as part of an attempt to resuscitate the policy process in member driven committees, reviewed by external experts, and then balloted by a vote of the full membership… didn't even get mentioned.
These kinds of actions disconnect the leadership from the membership and do considerable damage to an already weak organisation. Given this, it's really not that surprising that most of the people recruited and re-recruited during the period of the 09-10 Rebuild Project have since left the party, leading to the party being warned it would be de-registered earlier this year when the AEC had difficulty verifying the provided list of 500 members was valid.
This will be the biggest obstacle to trying to restore the Democrats again – too many people have been burned too many times. They came, they gave their time and money, they believed, only to be ignored and betrayed (and far too often attacked, belittled and harassed if they dared question certain so-called leaders). It will be a tough ask to get those good people to come back again for another round of back-breaking work to drive this party back from obscurity.
But can it be done?
Theoretically, yes. Realistically, no.
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