POLITICS: by Colin TeeseNews Weekly
Principles and pragmatism: the Democrats' demise
, September 7, 2002
Many of those in mainstream politics have a sneaking disregard for the Democrats. They don't always try to conceal it. When Labor was in government back in the eighties of the last century, a senior Minister, Senator Walsh, slightingly referred to the Democrats as the 'Fairies in the bottom of the garden' party. It is a phrase which better characterized the party's past than its present, but somehow it stuck.
By contrast, the Coalition has always seemed more tolerant of the Democrats - perhaps because, at least up until the point Senator Walsh coined his phrase, the Coalition had more experience in negotiating policy outcomes with them. On the conservative side of politics, a Coalition of Liberal and National parties took in its stride the need to negotiate policies on a give and take basis.
Labor, by contrast, had never governed except in its own right, and was, understandably, miffed at the prospect of any minority party standing in the way of any part of its policy making.
Labor's first real encounter with the Democrats as a force to negotiate with came at a time when the relationships between the major parties had begun a quantum shift. Traditionally, the Democrats had stood somewhere - according to issue - between Labor as a left of centre party and a conservative Coalition.
Of course the differences between Labor and the Coalition, at least on economic policy, had always been overstated. Until 1983 they both supported economic policies of the interventionist persuasion. They believed in full employment, protection for both the farm and manufacturing industry sectors - which was part of the full employment equation. And they supported the idea of a regulated banking and finance sector.
Curiously, both the major parties changed position on these policies at the same time - and the moment happened to coincide with the election of the Hawke Labor government.
Even now, it is not entirely clear why this decisive policy shift took place so quickly or with such a non-bruising consensus. But this may be said with certainty: embracing free market economics and deregulation by the incoming Labor Government was not in accordance with the Labor Party's policy platform. Neither was it, according to those in a position to know, ever debated in the party room or Cabinet.
Given the nature of Labor Party membership, including its parliamentary wing, that decision by the parliamentary leadership is hardly surprising. It would have been impossible to bring the party membership - parliamentary or otherwise - in behind such policies.
It could be said of Labor, probably until about the time of Whitlam, that the parliamentary party was bound hand and foot by the platform. And this distinguished Labor, organisationally, from the Liberal and National Parties.
On the conservative side, the wider party set broad policy directions and it was left to the discretion of its elected representatives to conduct policy, in parliament, according to party guidelines.
Labor, before Whitlam, was different. The party gave expression to its policies in the form of a so-called platform and parliamentary members were bound by it.
This aspect of Labor party organization has always been criticised by its political opponents; most spectacularly by Robert Menzies, who was able to exploit what he characterised as the 'faceless men' who made Labor policy. He was referring to those outside parliament, who instructed elected Labor representatives on how they must behave.
It was marvelous politics, of course, and mightily successful. But if you were a party, as Labor then was, trying to alter the status quo, there was probably no alternative.
Furthermore, if principle shapes policy, are not outcomes more important than holding office? In all those years of opposition, Labor was able to see more of its policy positions adopted and implemented by the conservative government than it could ever have hoped to achieve in government.
There were those in the party who saw this as full justification for their attitudes towards and after the split. It was more important to have an influence than to hold office. That position held until the careerists - beginning with Whitlam - took hold of the party.
Ever since that time, Labor has been prepared to forsake whatever has been necessary of its former principles as have been needed to capture political office. The famous platform, which gained so much media time in the 1950's and 1960's, still remains but it is studiously ignored by Labor powerbrokers.
Perhaps it is a fact of political life that as parties gain in strength and influence they will increasingly become the object of the affection of careerists; and that the gaining and holding of office becomes more important than standing for something, especially if that something is - for the moment - unappealing to the electorate.
The Coalition Parties have always resisted this temptation, and have always been prepared to remain out of office rather than compromise on fundamentals. They have, however, been much better at bringing the electorate along with them than has been Labor. More than anything, this probably explains why the conservatives have spent much more time than Labor in office.
Labor seems now trying to emulate them. It obviously believes that its new pragmatism will improve its record at the polls; but the evidence now in suggests otherwise. Labor is now seen by many previous supporters as proceeding from no position of principle, but shifting to wherever the electoral mood takes it.
More than at any time in its history Labor is in danger of losing its influence in the Australian political scene.
What does all of this have to do with the present plight of the Democrats?
At first blush their problems seem to be associated with a struggle for leadership of the party. And perhaps, that is part of the problem. But the larger issue is one of who shapes party policy, and in what direction.
Organisationally, the Democrats are structured somewhat in the way Labor once was, and still pretends to be. Only more so.
Democrat policy is well and truly shaped by the membership. Moreover, by popular vote, the membership even selects the parliamentary party leader.
Senator Walsh once said, in another of his classic statements - and he was speaking specifically of the Democrats - that those organisations with 'democratic' in their names are the least likely to be democratic. He was wrong. In terms of participatory democracy, the Democrats are the most democratic of all the major parties. But they are determined
to keep their parliamentary representatives under the tightest possible rein.
Their present problems stem from this intention, and go back some years. In fact to the time the then Howard government was trying to get its GST legislation passed. In the end the fate of the legislation turned upon Democrat support. Meg Lees, the then Democrat leader, negotiated with the government on behalf of her party.
The party had given its Senators instructions about what kind of GST it would support, and further had required its Senators to report back to the membership before signing off on any other kind of GST.
But Lees had her own agenda and signed off on something the party did not authorise. The end result was that the party lost support because of the actions of its leader, and Lees lost leadership of the Party.
Meanwhile Lees has built around her a body of support within the Parliamentary party (Senators Murray, Cherry, Ridgeway). She and her followers drove the push for so-called reform of the party. In effect they wanted the politicians freed from membership control.
Lees had, in fact, before her resignation from the Democrats, been behaving as if she already had this freedom. She had ignored party direction on the GST. At the last election she, like all Democrats, had been obliged to sign a pledge to oppose the sale of Telstra.
Notwithstanding having signed the pledge, Lees than proceeded to canvas a basis on which the Democrats might agree to the sale of the communications giant. And finally, having agreed, as a condition of pre-selection, to resign her seat if she left the party, Lees kept hold of her seat when she decided to leave.
The present leadership could hardly conclude other than Lees and her followers were out to destroy not merely her leadership, but the structure of the party.
Unfortunately, the implications of this struggle go beyond the Democrats. They directly affect the Senate as a genuine house of review.
Once the Democrats held themselves up as a middle ground party between Labor and the Coalition. With both major parties converging on a center right position, that option is no longer open to the Democrats. If they are to have a place in future political deliberations it will be as a party of principle based upon a set on core beliefs.
Careerists can have no place in that. If only because the membership will not tolerate it. And, because the party has neither the longevity or traditional background of Labor, a dissatisfied support base will certainly desert them in favour of a more accommodating party.
As to the rest of us, we don't have to support many of the principles from which the Democrats proceed, to recognise that we need them as a membership driven force moderating against the domination of the major parties. Accordingly - and for the sake of the Australian political process - it may be in our interests to hope that attempts by parliamentary party careerists to take hold of and transform the Democrats are unsuccessful.