Sunday’s announcement that Democrat Senator Natasha Stott Despoja will not be recontesting her seat in next year's federal election has once again brought the doomsayers out in force predicting the demise of the Democrats. It is a bit hard to see how this announcement really could be the fatal blow for the Democrats, given that the party had already been pronounced dead and gone at least twice already this year, but I guess it is easier to keep repeating an old story than have to think of something new to say.
When party founder Don Chipp died earlier this year, I looked over some of the media coverage he got over the course of his long career. I came across a story in 1977, the year the Democrats were founded, saying that the party was finished.
As with Stott Despoja, when Chipp announced his retirement, there was a rash of stories predicting the end for “Don's party”. I guess if you keep predicting the same thing often enough then, as with a broken clock, you might be right eventually, and certainly there's a greater chance than usual that this 30-year-old prediction might finally come true next year. However, that is in the hands of the electorate, not the commentators, and there are a number of factors that make that less of a certainty than many in the media and the major parties would like it to be.
The big difference at the coming federal election will not be the absence of long-standing Democrats such as Stott Despoja or Andrew Murray. It will be that for the first time in 27 years, a government will be heading into an election in control of the Senate.
As Senator Stott Despoja said in her statement on Sunday, "we need a check on executive power and I hope the next election will provide that, especially as voters have seen how the powers of the parliament have been used and abused and democracy undermined recently".
I can remember as Democrats' Leader during the last federal election trying many times to get the media and the public interested in the Senate contest and the possibility that the Coalition could gain control of the Senate. The interest in this scenario didn’t come until after the election, which was a bit late.
I would be astonished if there wasn't much more direct and specific interest in the Senate contest this time around - or to be more accurate, Senate contests, as each state is a separate contest with a crucial seat or two up for grabs.
I don't like every Americanism that appears in the Australian lingo, but there's a couple that I wish we did adopt. The US sometimes describes its Congress as the legislature and its members as lawmakers. We often forget that this is a key part of what our Senate and its Senators should be. Like many Australian Democrats, Stott Despoja emphasised the importance of that role and the need to put it above petty partisanship wherever possible. The Senate isn't just a debating chamber for scoring political points. It is a deliberative body which makes the laws that affect the lives of every Australian (and many other people too).
While the loss of someone with the attributes of Natasha Stott Despoja will always leave a gap, the Democrats' survival over three decades has shown that the party is bigger than any individual. The public has supported the Democrats for the values and ethos it has promoted and the non-partisan role it has played as a party of reason in the centre of the political spectrum.
The record over a number of years shows the Greens and their support base is very tightly aligned to the Labor Party. Recent experience has shown that Family First is very closely aligning itself to the conservative Coalition, defying predictions (including my own) that they would seek to be more of a middle-of-the-road party. The Democrats will provide the only non-partisan, non-aligned option at the next election.
We have lost high-profile and popular leaders such as Don Chipp, Janine Haines and Cheryl Kernot, but still survived. As a party we have made mistakes, such as the handling of the GST decision and the way Stott Despoja's own leadership of the party came to an end. But we have also managed, through all these ups and downs right up to the present day, to continue to compile an impressive list of results for the betterment of Australians, our environment and our democracy.
What is important about the Australian Democrats is our core values and ethos. This transcends individuals and is reflected in the work we do in the Senate and in the way in which we present our message to the public.
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