The party was based on the principles of honesty, tolerance, compassion and direct democracy through postal ballots of all members, so that "there should be no hierarchical structure ... by which a carefully engineered elite could make decisions for the members. From the outset, members' participation was fiercely protected in national and divisional constitutions prescribing internal elections, regular meeting protocols, annual conferences—and monthly journals for open discussion and balloting. Dispute resolution procedures were established, with final recourse to a party ombudsman and membership ballot.
Policies determined by the unique participatory method promoted environmental awareness and sustainability, opposition to the primacy of economic rationalism, preventative approaches to human health and welfare, animal rights, rejection of nuclear technology and weapons.
The party's centrist role made it subject to criticism from both the right and left of the political spectrum. In particular, Chipp's former conservative affiliation was frequently recalled by opponents on the left. This problem was to torment later leaders and strategists who, by 1991, were proclaiming "the electoral objective" as a higher priority than the rigorous participatory democracy espoused by the party's founders.
Over three decades, the Democrats achieved representation in the legislatures of the ACT, South Australia, New South Wales, Western Australia and Tasmania as well as Senate seats in all six states. However, at the 2004 and 2007 elections, all seven of its Senate seats were lost. Support at the state level had also dwindled.
On the evening of Friday, 29 April, 1977, Don Chipp addressed an overflowing Perth Town Hall meeting which unanimously passed a resolution to form a Centre Line Party, which Chipp was invited to lead—but he firmly declined to reverse his avowed decision to quit politics, having resigned from the Liberal Party and been offered a lucrative position as a radio public affairs commentator. However, at a meeting in the Melbourne Town Hall on 9 May, Chipp received a standing ovation from over 3000 people, including former prime minister John Gorton, and decided to commit himself to leading the new party which was already being constructed by a national steering committee. The name "Australian Democrats", already in informal currency, was confirmed by the membership, being the most favoured of 56 alternative names on the postal ballot paper.
The first Australian Democrats (AD) federal parliamentarian was Senator Janine Haines who filled Steele Hall's casual Senate vacancy for South Australia in 1977. Surprisingly, she was not a candidate when the party contested the 1977 federal elections after Don Chipp had agreed to be leader and figurehead. Members and candidates were not lacking in electoral experience, since the Australia Party had been contesting all federal elections since 1969 and the Liberal Movement, in 1974 and 1975. The party's broad aim was to achieve a balance of power in one or more parliaments and to exercise it responsibly in line with policies determined by membership.
The grassroot support attracted by Chipp's leadership was measurable at the party's first electoral test on 10 December, 1977, when 9.38% of the total Lower House vote was polled and 11.13% of the Senate vote. At that time, with five Senate seats being contested in each state, the required quota was a daunting 16.66%. However, the first 6-year-term seats were won by Don Chipp (Vic) and Colin Mason (NSW).
I was privileged to be in the chair at the public meeting in Melbourne when [Don Chipp] announced formation of a new party, dedicated to preserve what freedoms we still retain, and to increase them. A party in which dictatorship from the top was replaced by consensus. A party not ordered about by big business and the rich, or by union bosses. A party where a man could retain freedom of conscience and not thereby be faced with expulsion. A party to which the intelligent individual could belong without having to subscribe to a dogmatic creed. In other words, a democratic party.At the October 1980 election, the Democrats polled 9.25% of the Senate vote, electing Janine Haines (SA) and two new senators Michael Macklin (Qld) and John Siddons (Vic), bringing the party's strength to five Senate seats from 1 July, 1981 .
Despite the loss of Haines and the WA Senate seat (through an inconsistent national preference agreement with the ALP), the 1990 federal election heralded something of a rebirth for the party, with a dramatic rise in primary vote. This was at the same time as an economic recession was building, and events such as the Gulf War in Kuwait were beginning to shepherd issues of globalisation and transnational trade on to national government agendas.
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Senate - National
Possibly because of the party's opposition to the Gulf War, there was mass-media antipathy and negative publicity which some construed as poor performance by Janet Powell. Before 12 months of her leadership had passed, the South Australian and Queensland divisions were circulating the party's first-ever petition to criticise and oust the parliamentary leader. The explicit grounds related to Powell's alleged responsibility for poor AD ratings in Gallup and other media surveys of potential voting support. When this charge was deemed insufficient, interested party officers and senators reinforced it with negative media 'leaks' concerning her openly established relationship with Sid Spindler and exposure of administrative failings resulting in excessive overtime to a staff member. With national-executive blessing, the party room pre-empted the ballot by replacing the leader with deputy John Coulter. In the process, severe internal divisions were generated. One major collateral casualty was the party whip Paul McLean who resigned and quit the Senate in disgust at what he perceived as infighting between close friends. The casual NSW vacancy created by his resignation was filled by Karin Sowada.
The original agenda included interventionist economic policies, commitment to environmental causes, support for reconciliation with Australia's indigenous population through such mechanisms as formal treaties, pacifist approaches to international relations, open government, constitutional reform, progressive approaches to social issues such as sexuality and drugs, and strong support for human rights and civil liberties. Its membership largely comprised tertiary-educated and middle-class constituents. The party also appealed to voters opposed to untrammelled government power and wishing to have alternative views aired in parliaments and media.
The party has a platform of participatory democracy, with policies supporting proportional representation and citizen-initiated referenda. Many important internal issues (such as electoral preselection and leadership) are decided by direct postal ballot of the membership. Although policies are theoretically set in a similar fashion, Democrat parliamentarians generally had extensive freedom in interpreting them. Since the early 1990s, the ballot mechanism had been susceptible to fluctuations in information flow and to charges of manipulation or obstruction by the party officers charged with authenticating and actioning member-initiated petitions.
However, by 1980, the Democrats had employed the postal-ballot method at both national at state levels to develop an extensive body of written policy covering not only the political agendas of the day but also innovative and far-sighted policies for environmental and economic sustainability, water and energy conservation, e.g., through development of alternative energy sources, expanded public transport, etc. To the community's growing concerns about human rights, the Democrats added finely detailed policies on animal welfare and species preservation. The material is available in election manifestos and copies of the party's journals, obtainable in major public libraries.
During the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments (1983-96), the Democrats held a theoretical balance of power in the Senate: the numbers were such that they could team with Labor to pass legislation, or team with the Coalition to block legislation on occasions when the Coalition decided to oppose a government bill. Their power was somewhat weakened in 1996 after the Howard government was elected, and a Labor Senator, Mal Colston, resigned from the Labor party. This meant that the Democrats now shared the parliamentary balance of power with two Independent senators, and so the Coalition government could often bypass the Democrats, and pass legislation by negotiating with Colston and Brian Harradine. After the 1998 election the Democrats again held the balance of power, until the Coalition gained a Senate majority at the 2004 election.
The Hawke and Keating governments pursued economic rationalist neoliberal policies, and the Democrats positioned themselves to the left of the ALP government and thus at the left end of mainstream Australian politics. However, the party's progressive-liberal politics remained attractive to middle class Liberal supporters ("wet" Liberals) who were disaffected by the Liberal party's social conservatism.
Cheryl Kernot became leader in 1993. She had strong media appeal, which increased media and public awareness of herself and the party. She was known to have interests in industrial relations and was able to cultivate solid relationships with Labor government frontbenchers, which also added to her credibility in the press gallery.
When the Howard government was first elected in 1996, the Democrats re-evaluated parliamentary tactics on the basis that there was now less of an opposition vacuum to be filled, and friendships made with Labor would now be less fruitful. Consideration was required as to whether the Democrats would operate on an economically centrist agenda (while still being socially liberal and environmentalist) and ready in most cases to negotiate with the government of the day; or would continue to occupy a position to the left of both major parties on economic as well as social policy, while maintaining the crossbench tradition of negotiating with both government and opposition.
Lack of clear direction other than, possibly, senators' common ambition to play a more productive role in government manifested itself in tensions over Cheryl Kernot's policy on industrial relations (see the Workplace Relations Act 1996). Under Kernot, after negotiations and some compromises from the government, the Democrats voted for the Howard Government's right-leaning industrial relations legislation which decreased union power and allowed a larger role for individual employer-employee contracts.
Kernot, however, remained both ambitious and broadly opposed to the Liberal government. This, together with her personal ambition for a role in government, led her to defect to the ALP in 1997. Initially both Labor and the Democrats benefited from Kernot's move, with polls showing that the Democrats had attracted a significant "sympathy vote". In the 1998 federal election, the Democrats' candidate John Schumann came within 3% of taking Liberal Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's seat of Mayo in the Adelaide Hills under Australia's preferential voting system.
Internal conflict over the government's proposed Goods and Services Tax (GST), during the 1998 federal election and in Parliament in 1999 was extremely damaging to the Democrats. Meg Lees campaigned on a modified GST platform, opposing the GST on food and books. After negotiations with Prime Minister Howard, Meg Lees and Andrew Murray (both part of the centrist element within the Democrats) agreed to support the GST legislation with exemptions for most food and some medicines. Many left-wing Democrat voters and a large number of party members regarded this as a betrayal, and two senators on the party's left, Natasha Stott Despoja and Andrew Bartlett, voted against the GST. Despite this, the Democrats' election results in 1998 and 2001 were both good.
In 2001, Lees was replaced as leader in a coup by the left-leaning senator, Natasha Stott Despoja. Despite criticism about her age and lack of experience Stott Despoja worked hard to bring disaffected former Democrat voters back in the 2001 federal election, although she was not able to bring back enough voters to prevent the loss of a seat to Greens Senator Kerry Nettle, indicating the loss of Democrat votes on the left. (The task was not made any easier by the Tampa affair.) Ongoing tensions between Stott Despoja and Lees, who quit the party in 2002, but was supported by a majority of the Senator, led to Stott Despoja standing down from the leadership. It led to a protracted leadership battle in 2002, which eventually led to the election of Senator Andrew Bartlett as leader. However, the tension led to Meg Lees leaving the party, becoming an independent and forming the Australian Progressive Alliance. It was very short-lived.
On 6 December 2003, Andrew Bartlett stepped aside temporarily as leader of the party, after an incident in which he assaulted Liberal Senator Jeannie Ferris on the floor of Parliament while intoxicated. The party issued a statement stating that Deputy Leader Lyn Allison would serve as the Acting Leader of the party. Bartlett apologised to the Democrats, Jeannie Ferris and the Australian public for his behaviour and assured all concerned that it would never happen again. On January 29 2004, after seeking medical treatment, Bartlett returned to the Democrats leadership, vowing to abstain from alcohol.
Support for the Democrats fell significantly at the 2004 Federal election in which they achieved only 1.24% of the national vote. Nowhere was this more noticeable than in their key support base of suburban Adelaide in South Australia, where they received between 7 and 31% of the Lower House vote in 2001, and between 1% and 4% in 2004. Three incumbent senators were defeated—Aden Ridgeway (NSW), Brian Greig (WA) and John Cherry (Qld). Following the loss, the customary post-election leadership ballot installed Lyn Allison as leader and Andrew Bartlett as her deputy.
From 1 July 2005 the Democrats lost official parliamentary party status, being represented by only four senators while the governing Liberal-National Coalition gained a majority and potential control of the Senate—the first time this advantage had been enjoyed by any government since 1980.
On 18 March 2006, at the 2006 South Australian state election, the Democrats were reduced to 1.7% of the Legislative Council (upper house) vote. Their sole councillor up for re-election, Kate Reynolds, was defeated.
After the election, South Australian senator Natasha Stott Despoja was obliged to deny rumours that she was considering quitting the party.
In early July, Richard Pascoe, national and South Australian party president, resigned, citing slumping opinion polls and the poor result in the 2006 South Australian election as well as South Australian parliamentary leader Sandra Kanck's comments regarding the drug MDMA which he saw as damaging to the party.
On 5 July 2006, Democrats senator for Western Australia Andrew Murray announced his intention not to contest the 2007 federal election, citing frustration arising from the Howard Government's control of both houses and his unwillingness to serve another six-year term.. His term ended on 30th June, 2008.
On 28 August, 2006, the founder of the Democrats, Don Chipp, died. Former prime minister Bob Hawke said: ". . . there is a coincidental timing almost between the passing of Don Chipp and what I think is the death throes of the Democrats."
In November 2006, the Democrats fared very poorly in the Victorian state election, receiving a Legislative Council vote tally of only 0.83%, less than half of the party's result in 2002 (1.79%).
In the Victorian state by-election in Albert Park District the Democrats stood candidate Paul Kavanagh, who polled a respectable 5.75% of the primary vote, despite a large number of candidates, and all media attention focusing on the battle between Labor and Greens candidates.
On 13 September 2007, the ACT Democrats (Australian Capital Territory Division of the party) was deregistered by the ACT Electoral Commissioner, being unable to demonstrate a minimum membership of 100 electors. Unless re-registration is achieved, the party will be ineligible to contest the ACT election in October 2008. The disqualification does not affect federal elections.
As was widely expected, the Democrats had no success at the 2007 federal election. Two incumbent senators, Lyn Allison (Victoria) and Andrew Bartlett (Queensland), were defeated, their seats both reverting to major parties. Their two remaining colleagues, Andrew Murray (W.A.) and Natasha Stott Despoja (S.A.), did not run for new terms. All four senators' terms expired on 30 June, 2008—leaving the Democrats with no federal representation for the first time since 1977. An ABC report noted that the party's vote tally of less than 2% signified impending political oblivion. The only Democrat parliamentarian is Sandra Kanck in the South Australian upper house.
However, internal bickering, the rise of the Australian Greens and growing support for the Liberal Party of Australia in the early 2000s changed this, and the Democrats are now in heavy decline - receiving 1.24% nationally, and less than 3% of the vote at all but a handful of booths, even in their Adelaide heartland.
The federal parliamentary leaders of the Australian Democrats have been:
30 Years—Australian Democrats Melbourne 2007. A 72-page anthology of historical and biogaphical monographs about the state and federal parliamentary experiences of the Democrats, authorised by then Senate leader Lyn Allison in commemoration of the party's 30th anniversary
Paul A and Miller L The Third Team July 2007 A historical essay in 30 Years (above)
Bennett D, Discord in the Democrats PWHCE article, Melbourne 2002
Beyond Our Expectations—Proceedings of the Australian Democrats First National Conference, Canberra, 16-17 February, 1980. [Papers by: Don Chipp, Sir Mark Oliphant, Prof. Stephen Boyden, Bob Whan, Julian Cribb, Colin Mason, John Siddons, A. McDonald]
Chipp D and Larkin J The Third Man, Rigby, Melbourne (?1978) ISBN 0 7270 0827 7
Chipp D (ed. Larkin J) Chipp, Methuen Haynes, North Ryde NSW, 1987 ISBN 0 454 01345 0
Hiroya Sugita Challenging 'twopartism'—the contribution of the Australian Democrats to the Australian party system, PhD Thesis, Flinders University of South Australia, July 1995
Warhurst J (ed.) Keeping the bastards honest Allen & Unwin Sydney 1997 ISBN 10 1864484209
Warhurst J, Don Chipp Was The Right Man In The Right Place At The Right Time Canberra Times 7 Sep 2006
The democratic ideal--or the new democrats: the Australian democrats must look to their UK counterparts for inspiration if they wish to appeal to small-l liberals. (letters and debate).
Dec 01, 2002; The Economist Magazine is not usually a friend of centre-left parties such as Britain's Liberal Democrats. But recently, this...