CANBERRA OBSERVED : News Weekly
Vultures circle wounded Democrats
, January 31, 2004
Andrew Bartlett can at least gain some solace in the fact that his profile in the electorate is now considerable, albeit for all the wrong reasons. The truth is three months ago ordinary voters would have been hard pressed to identify who was the leader of the Australian Democrats before Senator Bartlett's Christmas drinks fracas with a female Liberal Senator which created national headlines.
There have been so many leaders and would-be leaders of the Democrats in the past couple of years that the end result has been one of the most extraordinary episodes of self-immolation in Australian politics.
A quarter century after the party was founded by Don Chipp it appears headed for the rocks, through political ineptitude, petty ambitions and a dysfunctional group unable to set a course and stick to it.
The Labor Party at least appears to have learnt that disunity is death for a political party, knuckling in under Mark Latham to at least give him a chance at the coming election, but the behaviour of the Democrats has been one step beyond disunity. It has been anarchy.
If, as it seems he will, Senator Bartlett decides to continue as leader until the next election, he will attempt to put his side of the story about his personal demons and difficulties, and "get on with the job" of running the party.
If this situation eventuates he may gain some degree of sympathy from some of the electorate, though it has to be said this would not be given to any leader of one of the major parties who had made the same mistake.
Before his fall from grace Senator Bartlett had been trying to build some credibility for the party by returning to its role of honest broker in the Senate, carefully dissecting important legislation, and improving but not rejecting most bills.
But following the previous leadership fiascos, the long-term damage has now been done, almost certainly irrevocably. Almost certain because even if four Democrats Senate places are wiped out this election, there will still be four more remaining in the Parliament which at least gives the opportunity for a improbable turnaround.
This year three Democrats face the people, and one former Democrat in Senator Meg Lees.
The three up for election are Senator Aden Ridgeway in New South Wales, Senator John Cherry in Queensland, and Senator Brian Greig in Western Australia.
The Greens, the Nationals and the major parties will be primed to capitalise on the demise of the Democrats, and the final result will come down to a scramble for preferences and the size of the swing (if any) in the election as a whole.
However, it is fair to say the Greens will be hopeful of picking up a Senate spot in New South Wales, and Western Australia, where they are well-organised.
WA had two Green Senators making life difficult for the former Labor Government for half the 1990s.
But the National Party will also be wanting to lift its Senate representation with Senator Julian McGauran being the lone ranger in the half of the Senate coming up for election.
Even Senator McGauran's position remains vulnerable and subject to a special deal with the Victorian Liberals to place him in the secure number two spot on the joint voting ticket.
Prime Minister John Howard is believed to be strongly in favour of backing Senator McGauran for another term, but Victorian Liberals have been eyeing his seat for some time.
Former leader Senator Lees is also unlikely to return to the Parliament and her efforts at creating a national structure for her Progressive Alliance would have been better spent in South Australia where the Democrats vote has been traditionally strongest.
The Democrats will limp along for the rest of the year until the election when the full consequences of their self-indulgence of the past three years will finally be brought home to them.