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Do the Democrats have a future?

By Peter McMahon - posted Thursday, 15 August 2002

The recent convulsions in the Australian Democrat Party have been headline news. Questions have been asked about whether the Democrats can survive after the loss of Meg Lees and possibly Andrew Murray. These questions have been most prominently asked by commentators in the mainstream press who seem to believe that only the big two parties are legitimate political institutions. (Of course, One Nation was sexy for a while when the photogenic Pauline Hanson was up front, but now that it has settled into the usual confusion of far right politics in Australia it is no longer interesting.) The Democrats have made serious mistakes, and the voters have punished them, but their demise as a political party is by no means certain. Indeed, the loss of a senator or two will probably be a good thing and bring them back to where they belong in the political process.

There is no doubt a left-right division in the Democrats, but there are left-right divisions in all parties. What brought the differences to a head was the Lees-Murray attempt to make the Democrats major players on the national political scene. The then Democrat leadership tried to shift the democrats out of their traditional role of nuisance value and into a role of real influence on policy implementation. Whether the specific decision to support the GST was just a result of the fact that Lees became leader when the coalition was in government or due to some other factor is debateable. What did happen was that the Democrat leadership saw the chance to translate marginal power in the senate into an ongoing role in some sort of partnership with the governing party. This is why John Howard speaks so highly of Meg Lees; he recognizes a fellow opportunist.

The problem is that, first, the voters do not want the Democrats to become minor partners in government, and, second, the Democrats are not set up to play this role. The Democrats were famously established to "keep the Bastards honest", and given such a limited, even negative ambition, they have been remakably successful. Enough voters apparently want a small party somewhere between Labor and the conservatives who talk tough on various post-industrial issues, like the environment and social change, and play an ameliorating role in the house of review. They also want politicians who seem to be above the shoddy politics of rule and opposition, and focussed on a more principled, long-term view of Australian society.


The ADP, with its genuine grass roots structure, was set up to play such a role. Importantly, the party structure constrained its elected representatives to pursuing the actual policy goals of the party. This has meant leadership volatility, but this has been the price of such democratic control. It is no accident that the direct cause of Meg Lees' problems was the party structure. Lees attempted to shift the Democrats into a quasi-governmental role, and in doing so moved the party to the right. The membership, having seen Lees' strategy fail at the polls, wanted to shift back under a new leader, and Lees refused to accept that decision.

The correct number of senators for the Democrats is no more than five or six, enough for influence but not actual power. This number means they cannot move into the next level of political power and thus entertain notions of real power. It means the elected representatives will not start thinking of themselves as major political figures, both because of the low numbers and because they remain under the control of the party structure. It also means that the left-right division will remain contained, because a handful of members can readily negotiate on a personal basis without forming factions.

A ramification of this is that, given the current inclination of the electorate to not totally support the major parties, if only to hedge their bets, there is room in the senate for more representatives from small parties. The obvious candidates are the Greens on the left and One Nation on the right. Howard's lurch to the right on immigration, with its tacit appeal to xenophobia and racism, has left One Nation with only the usual obsessions of the far right (like gun ownership), but they can still snatch the odd senate position.

So what about the Greens? Not only are they currently the only genuinely leftist party in Australia, thanks to the general rightward trend brought about by globalisation, they are explicitly focused on the biggest problem of the coming century - the environmental crisis. So far, with the notable exception of the heroic Bob Brown, the Greens have been poorly organised and chosen ineffectual candidates for office. If they get organised, and choose quality candidates, they must begin to attract electoral support because they are right about the need to prioritise the manifold environmental crisis when mainstream politics ignores it, and because they appeal to the young.

But back to the Democrats. Stott Despoja needs to be tough and deal with open dissent to her leadership which is clearly backed by the rank and file membership. At the same time she does need to address genuine concerns about her leadership style, and she needs to continue to highlight the role of the rank and file. She needs to remind Democrat supporters that the price of principled politics is comparative marginalisation, but that such a party can have long term impact on the main issues of national politics. She must remind them that this is the Democrats' legitimate role.

The Democrats are different in their emphasis on grass roots participation and principled policy formation at a time when the major parties seem cynical and distant. Although these are the very things that the press and their political opponents jeer at, it is in reality their singular strength. If they lose sight of this, then they really are finished.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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