COVER STORY: The future of the Australian Democrats
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, August 10, 2002
The resignation of former Australian Democrats leader, Senator Meg Lees, and the trenchant attack on current leader, Natasha Stott Despoja, by Senator Andrew Murray as he resigned from the Democrats' front bench, raises immediate questions about the Democrats' survival as a political force, and more fundamental questions about why the party is disintegrating.
Looking back on it, the Australian Democrats were created in ambiguity. Don Chipp brought together fragments of two minor left-liberal parties, the Australian Reform Movement and the Australia Party, to form the Australian Democrats in 1977, following Malcolm Fraser's decision to drop him from the Coalition Ministry.
At the time, Chipp said that the party would seek election to Parliament to keep other politicians honest. The party's slogan was "honesty, tolerance and compassion".
However, its policies were to the left of both the Coalition and the ALP on a range of issues, including the environment, foreign affairs and defence, immigration, population growth, education, homosexual rights, indigenous affairs and feminist politics, and largely appealed to the radicalised intelligentsia.
Reflecting the idealistic, perhaps naive, view of most of its members, the Australian Democrats adopted a unique Constitution, which gave power over preselections, policy and parliamentary leadership, to the membership in postal votes. This has proved to be a formula for bitter factionalism.
In its early years, this "anti-party" attracted votes from disenchanted Liberals as well as the left-wing intelligentsia, and the Democrats gained Senate representation in a number of states.
However, since the retirement of its founder, Don Chipp, divisions have gradually emerged within its Senate leadership - which is faced with day-to-day decisions on voting with or against the government - and between the Senators and the grass roots membership, which is basically anti-Liberal and libertarian.
Signs of this were seen 11 years ago, in the blood-letting which saw the replacement of Janet Powell by Senator John Coulter.
A central player in this process was Cheryl Kernot, then President of the Queensland branch of the Australian Democrats, who had been elected Senator from Queensland in 1990. By 1991, using the constitutional provisions which allow the membership to disendorse the party's leader, she was heavily involved in a putsch to overthrow the party's leader, Janet Powell.
Senator Kernot formed an alliance with SA Democrat Senator, John Coulter, to replace Senator Powell, who along with Victorian Democrat Senator Sid Spindler, disagreed with the party's anti-immigration policy.
One member of the Queensland Democrats' management committee, Hamish Alcorn, was quoted as saying, "Our candidate was John Coulter, who we figured would be even less popular than Janet, keeping the path clear for Cheryl the next time." (Sydney Morning Herald, December 13, 1997)
Coulter was elected leader, but was himself dumped after the party's poor showing in the 1993 election, when its vote slumped to the lowest level since its formation in 1977.
In the subsequent membership vote, Senator Kernot was elected leader with 80 per cent of the vote.
Cheryl Kernot then set about changing the party to become a stand-alone third force in Australian politics, using its balance-of-power in the Senate. A former Democrats national administrator said, "She wanted to rid the party of 'the fairies at the bottom of the garden' tag - and she did."
The change was profound. The Democrats moved away from their founder's vision of ensuring that the major parties adhered to the mandate on which they were elected, to balance-of-power politics which involves squeezing concessions out of governments.
At this time, the Greens began to emerge, sharing the balance of power in the Senate, creating tensions which re-emerged in the recent Tasmanian election, when the Greens swamped the Democrats.
Cheryl Kernot led a revival of the party's fortunes in the 1996 Federal Election, again becoming a king-maker in federal politics, until the defection of Senator Mal Colston from the ALP meant that the Howard Government was no longer forced to rely on Democrat votes in the Senate.
Just 18 months later, Kernot shocked her colleagues by defecting to the ALP, after being duchessed by Labor leader, Kim Beazley, and ALP Senator leader, Gareth Evans.
A shaken membership elected Senator Meg Lees, who had been deputy to both Senator Coulter and Senator Kernot, as leader. Despite a drop in the party's vote in 1998, it retained significant Senate representation.
The party performed poorly at the 2001 election, in part due to the Democrats' support for the Howard Government's unpopular Goods and Services Tax (GST), and a perception that Lees might support the full sell-off of Telstra.
These issues had already caused convulsions in the Democrats - an overwhelming majority of the rank and file of the party opposed the GST, as did a minority of the Democrats' eight senators.
After the 2001 election, Lees was challenged by the 32-year-old South Australian Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, who campaigned as the youth candidate with NSW Aboriginal Senator, Aden Ridgeway. The rank and file overwhelmingly chose Stott Despoja. Senator Stott Despoja described it as a "dream team".
Instead, it has turned into a nightmare. Clearly upset by her defeat, Senator Lees reopened debate about the Democrats' policy on Telstra. A leaked memo by Senator Lees - critical of Senator Stott Despoja - was also published.
The party's National Compliance Committee lodged complaints against Senator Lees, eventually bringing about her resignation from the party.
This was followed by a series of trenchant attacks by WA Democrat Senator Andrew Murray, who said he had lost confidence in the party's organisation and in Senator Stott Despoja, and called on them to resign. He then withdrew to the backbench.
The division reflects differences between pragmatists and those Democrats who see their role as blocking the Government's agenda, and moving it further to the left.
At the time of writing, it is impossible to imagine how the Democrats will survive as a party. The immediate beneficiaries of this will be John Howard, who may pick up a vote or two for the sale of Telstra, and the Greens, who are competing with the Democrats for the same constituency.
In the longer term, history suggests that if the Democrats collapse, it will leave a vacuum in Australian politics which will be filled by another party, though probably not the Greens, who are seen as a single issue party, determined to hold back the country's development.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council