In a textbook case of what happens when party politics goes wrong, the Australian Democrats appear to be on their last legs. Is this it for those who would keep the bastards honest?
The Australian Democrats — which narrowly survived an attempt to shut them down earlier this year — appear to be on the brink of oblivion once more.
The party has no national president, is paralysed by a nasty internal split, and has not commenced preselections for the federal election. It has dwindling membership, less money, no MPs, and is fielding what critics say may be a fake candidate in tomorrow’s ACT election.
“It could be over,” one party member told Crikey.
It’s not a noble end for the trailblazing party, which held the balance of power in the Senate several times, promoted female politicians before it was fashionable and won seats in most state parliaments.
The AEC attempted to deregister the Democrats earlier this year for not having 500 members (the minimum required to register as a party); the AEC initially rejected the party’s membership list, but relented when fresh material was supplied. Hopes for the party flared briefly when former senator Brian Greig became national president in July, but he resigned in disgust at the party’s factionalism less than a month later.
More than two months later, the party has no national president and apparently no one acting in the role; there is no date set to vote in a president.
The party has been riven by a power struggle between forces sympathetic to Greig, and those in what critics call “the Sandra camp” — the faction of former South Australian MP Sandra Kanck.
Darren Churchill returned Crikey’s call to Democrats’ national HQ, saying he was the senior deputy national president and claiming to be the “place holder” for the president. Churchill (who is allied to Kanck) said he had nominated to be president. According to this Democrats’ media release, Churchill is running in Saturday’s ACT election as a Democrats candidate. He’s listed as “ungrouped” on the ballot paper.
However, the party’s SA president, Michael Pilling, told Crikey: “Darren is currently a suspended member of the Democrats, he should not be doing anything publicly in the name of the Democrats.” It is understood there is an internal investigation into Churchill and who did what to the disputed membership lists earlier this year (the two factions appear to have submitted separate lists to the AEC). Pilling said Churchill was not eligible to nominate for national president.
Churchill told Crikey: “Michael Pilling has declared himself emperor … I’m a Democrats-endorsed candidate.” He says those who had voted to suspend his membership don’t have the constitutional provision to do so, therefore he is not suspended. His ACT election posters feature the Democrats’ logo.
Undeterred by attacks on his party membership, Churchill, who says he is a teacher and occasional fitness instructor, told Crikey that if he became the Democrats’ national president he had “plans to reinvigorate the party” and win back seats in parliaments.
Crikey asked Churchill if the Democrats’ famous pledge to “keep the bastards honest” still rang true, given the party’s troubles. ”Of course it still fits,” he said. “The whole thing about keeping the bastards honest is that our MPs are expected to vote with their conscience at all times.” When Crikey pointed out the party did not actually have any MPs, he replied: “When we get in, we will.”
Crikey contacted Greig for comment on the challenges confronting the Democrats; he referred inquiries to Pilling. Crikey understands Greig’s resignation letter said he had had enough of the internal wreckers and was shocked by the behaviour of some members who did not like the election result which saw him become president.
Democrats members gave differing reports of how many members the party has; Crikey estimates it at 350-500. (The party will not have to prove it has 500 members to the AEC for another two-and-a-half years.)
While some party members contacted by Crikey had given up on the ailing party, one was optimistic. “I think the Democrats will be turned around [but] the status quo has to change,” they said, arguing there was space on the political spectrum for a party that was socially liberal but relatively conservative on economic matters.
The Democrats were founded in 1977 by Don Chipp. The party’s decision to pass the Howard government’s GST in 1999, under leader Meg Lees, was controversial. The party lost its last Senate seat in 2008 (as a result of the 2007 election) and lost its last state seat several years ago.