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The Democrats are sinking

By Richard Denniss - posted Friday, 18 February 2005

In the 2004 election the Democrats senate vote fell from over 842,000 to 250,000. The Democrats Senator John Cherry recently stated that any misdiagnosis of the Democrats political problems would result in the demise of the Democrats. He appears to neglect the fact that the demise has already begun, and that that demise has been caused by the failure to acknowledge past mistakes rather than any recent drift in political direction.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, Senator Cherry remains unwilling to admit that his own strategies for political success, in particular supporting the GST and opposing the leadership of Natasha Stott Despoja, played a crucial role in the collapse of the Democrats vote at the 2004 election. Senator Cherry’s first step should be to diagnose his own political errors before offering advice to others.

In his recent article On Line Opinion article Senator Cherry demonstrates quite a mastery of understatement. He begins by stating, “The 2004 election marked a major shift in voter support from the Democrats”. What he neglected to say, however, was that the 2004 election was the first time the Democrats have failed to have any successful candidates in a Federal election. Their Senate vote collapsed by over 70 per cent.


But his understatement does not end there. His analysis of the impact of the two biggest determinants of the Democrats demise is so complete that they do not even rate a mention. That is, he does not even mention the impact of the GST and the forced resignation of Natasha Stott Despoja in his attempt to explain the comings and goings of Democrat voters.

Senator Cherry is a member of an elite group in Australian politics. He, along with Meg Lees and Senator Andrew Murray are about the only professional politicians who are willing to state that the GST was a vote winner for the Democrats. To paraphrase their argument, the GST must have been a vote winner because the Coalition was re-elected on a pro GST platform while the Labor party lost on an anti-GST platform.

After the GST deal, and in the lead up to the 2001 Federal election, the Democrats' vote declined steadily. Most political commentators had written them off, with the widely held assumption being that only Natasha Stott Despoja, who crossed the floor to oppose the GST deal, would retain her seat in South Australia. After a change of leaders, however, the party’s fortunes appeared restored.

As John Cherry acknowledges, the Democrats primary vote actually increased in the 2001 election, but its Senate vote declined. This apparent paradox provides an important insight into voter behaviour, but unfortunately Senator Cherry chooses to gloss over it.

One explanation is that in the six or so months between her election to the Democrats leadership and the Federal election campaign Senator Stott Despoja managed to convince a large number of people that the Democrats were ready to form government in the lower house but that she failed to convince them to trust her with their Senate vote.

Alternatively, the growth in the House of representatives vote and the decline in the Senate vote can be explained by a large inflow of new supporters who voted Democrat in both houses but who were offset by an outflow of existing upper house voters who had previously taken out third party insurance in the Senate while voting for one of the major parties in the lower house.


Despite the turnaround in public sentiment towards the Democrats they only managed to win four Senate seats, with Vicki Bourne being defeated in NSW by Senator Kerry Nettle. That last sentence should be read again. Natasha Stott Despoja only managed to win four Senate seats in the 2001 election. That’s four more seats than the Democrats won at the last election, and two more seats than the Greens managed in either the 2001 or 2004 elections.

Senator Cherry was no doubt frustrated at this underwhelming performance of his new leader. So much so that he played a central role in forcing her resignation. While such a strategy was no doubt ineffective in protecting his own political future, what should be of more concern to his Party and Democrat voters more generally is his recent epiphany about the political importance of what he refers to as Generation W.

Senator Cherry adopts the Australian’s George Megalogenis’ description of Generation W as being largely composed of “Australians aged 20-40 not enjoying representation by the older generation of leaders of the two major parties. Working women and the children of post-war migrants are a key part of the group, and their attitudes are yet to be properly represented by the current generation of Australian leaders”.

And there he was sitting in a Party Room with a leader who was a 30-something woman, now mother, of part Croatian descent whose main political message was the need to “Change Politics” by ensuring that both old parties were held to account. If only George Megalogenis had spelt it out for him a bit earlier then maybe John Cherry, and his colleagues that faced the electorate in 2004, would still have their jobs.

The Australian political landscape has changed rapidly in the last 4 years. All parties, even the Coalition parties, are struggling to keep up with the pace of these changes. The Democrats are right to think hard about what it is they stand for, and what their priorities should be. But without honest reflection on the mistakes of the past, such soul searching is nothing more than shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. The Democrats hit the iceberg some time ago, they need to stop taking water before they bother plotting a new course.

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About the Author

Dr Richard Denniss is Executive Director of The Australia Institute and an adjunct associate professor at the Crawford School of Economics and Government, Australian National University.

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