Andrew Murray’s submission on Democrat reform is a cracking document but will it be his last act as a Democrat senator.

“As many in the party know, for some considerable time I have been expressing strong concern over the future prospects of the Democrats, and I have offered both analysis and suggested remedies.

“My growing pessimism resulting from a deteriorating political, organisational and parliamentary situation has been compounded by events over the last few months.

“I have come to the view that the Party has arrived at a position from which it is difficult to recover. Given that, it may seem odd that I should bother with a submission.”

That’s just for starters. So why then is Murray making a submission? “I believe I owe it to those many members desperate for reform who have strongly supported me speaking out. I have been urged to make a contribution to encouraging essential change. I also owe it to myself to make the effort, having worked hard as a member and Senator to further the political interests of the Democrats.”

Those members have been well served. Murray’s submission offers a detailed examination and critique of the role and history of the Australian Democrats and the current state of the party. Indeed, his opening statements on how public interest should prevail over private interest in political parties deserve to be read by more than just Democrat members.

Murray’s account of how an obsessive class of activists has derailed the Dems is persuasive and provides a chilling catalogue of political incompetence:

“I have always thought that the constant public iteration of member supremacy by Senator Stott Despoja a mistake. Not only is member supremacy over a politician a practical impossibility, but it conveys a very wrong image to voters. One they reject. Voters rightly consider they come first even when they vote for the party more than the candidate.

“I think the prime responsibility of politicians is to the voters who elect them. I think the perception that a Democrat Senator is, or might be putting a few thousand members before millions of voters switches voters right off. Even worse is any perception that the Leader of the Party may be subject to member dictatorship, or is controlled, driven or lead by their members (or more accurately, a small number of dominant members).

“I cannot imagine (nor have I heard) any other political leaders using that language or promoting that image.

“Unfortunately for the Democrats, the majority of whom really did believe a leadership change would be beneficial, the consequence of the replacement of Meg Lees as Leader by Natasha Stott Despoja was not the political success and producer of voter support they expected. After the honeymoon of higher polls old political problems resurfaced and new ones re-emerged. Decline returned.

“A decline in the Democrats political impact and presence was worsened by the Party, (largely through the National Executive, and also through the new encouragement given to the more radically minded). The NE and party militants shifted into an aggressive and irresponsible confrontational mode with the majority of their own parliamentarians. This fatally, has nearly brought the party undone. The AD’s have shifted positioning from a party seen to engage with the government of the day where it can, a measured, principled but pragmatic party of the leftish centre, to one seen to be a more absolutist, more fundamentalist, more protest oriented body of the left. Many argue this is not the reality. In my judgment it is the perception, one produced by the style and content of the last two years.

“The public persona of the Party has become less tolerant and more spiteful.”

“Intolerant” and “spiteful” are scarcely words that have been used to describe the Democrats over their history, but they are strangely appropriate now. Add “incompetent” and you have a perfect description of their public perception.

There is huge anger at the Democrats at the moment. They are seen as the party that blew it. Despite all the “fairies at the bottom of the garden” baggage, the Democrats were seen as honest brokers. As Murray writes “The AD’s are widely viewed as Senate specialists, with what has historically been a strong accountability brand (Keep The Bastards Honest – KTBH)”.

Does this still exist? Conversations with civilians suggest it has evaporated. People are angry with the Australian Democrats because they believe the Democrats deserted “them”, deserted their public interest role, in favour of internal brawling.

Voters now resent the Australian Democrats. They are tired of the Democrats. That, of course, is reflected in the current polling. But do they have anywhere else to go?

The simple lack of an alternative for some voters gives the Democrats the tiniest of spaces in which to move. They can crawl back from the edge of the abyss. After then, however, they must prove that they deserve to survive.

This, no doubt, is why Murray and others like him sometimes despair and ask themselves if the Democrats can survive or deserve to survive.

Still, Murray knows what is required of a credible political party. He writes:

“The Democrats have struggled to reach significant voter strength throughout the ’90’s, and could be considered to have been in decline for some years.

“To survive, to remain electorally significant, a political party has to retain sufficient voter critical mass. Democrat voters have been bleeding away. Recent election performance has been poor

“In politics it is not sufficient to try to retain present support. Stagnation will spell demise. To grow requires effective political leadership of the political and organisational wings, effort, direction, message and performance to deliver sustainable successful political wins. It requires consistency and unity within and between the political and organisational wings, and it requires the political party and its Leader to be respected as serious effective and credible proponents of national politics

“It requires the political ‘market’ positioning of the Democrats to be clear, focused, plausible and meeting the needs of a significant voter constituency. It requires principled and considered political articulation. It requires the Democrats to build on their brand and their strengths.”

Murray also knows where there is fertile ground for the party:

“If up to a quarter of the Senate vote might be permanently out of the hands of the Liberal and Labor parties, who should occupy that ground? The left-centre-right spectrum is simplistic and often wrong, but since everyone is familiar with it, let us use these terms.

“Out on the left, the professional activist and grassroots Greens are mopping up hardline lefties and concerned others. Bob Brown, now in his late 50s, has grown in stature, confidence and reputation, and he and the Greens seem unchallengeable at that end of the political spectrum.

“At the other end, out on the right, One Nation mops up those conservative Australians with extreme views on such issues as immigration, race, sexuality, globalisation and so on.

“On present evidence, it is my expectation that these two ends of the political spectrum are unlikely to achieve or maintain high voting percentages (although One Nation did give everyone a fright in its early days). That leaves a large slice of the non-major party vote in the centre.

“The only two parties at present that fit the bill are the centre-right National Party and the centre-left Democrats.

“Which brings us back to whether the sick Democrats can reform and recover to take a reasonable slice of that ground.

“According to Newspoll, the Democrats have been pretty well flat-lining at 3-4 percent for many months, preceding the Meg Lees crisis that started late May.

“While some on the left have gone to the Greens, this low vote is also believed to be a result of losing the small ‘l’ liberal or centre vote in the last year and a half.

“The AEC figures seem to support the proposition that the Democrats are losing support from our liberal- leaning voters. In the 1998 election, 43% of Democrats’ House of Representative voters directed their preferences to the Liberal Party. In 2001, that figure was 36%. A recent Morgan poll suggests that figure could now be as low as 31%

“Whether the Democrats reform successfully, split or die, the reality is that the 25% non-Labor non-Liberal Senate vote will be filled, by existing or new parties.

“The other reality is that a large slice of the Senate vote is discretionary. Many vote Liberal or Labor in the House of Representatives, but have voted Australian Democrats in the Senate because of their reputation as Senate specialists.

“I am of the strong view that the Democrats need a platform that includes non-conservative small ‘l’ liberal policies, as a counter to the dominating conservative forces in the Liberal and Labor parties. Historically, this is the form of politics that has attracted solid support for Democrats.”

Murray also has proposals for constitutional reform that would give the Democrats the stability needed by a credible political party without diluting their commitment to internal democracy and participation in decision making by all members. He suggests:

 That members lose their right to spill leaders between federal elections. The 100 signatures spill rule should be repealed.

 The membership exercise the right to confirm or change leaders only once an electoral cycle, after every federal election.

 Within an electoral cycle only the party room should still be able to initiate a spill (as at present), but any spill in the party room between elections should be resolved by a vote of the party room, and not the members.

 The holding of party positions by parliamentarians or their staff should be severely limited (except for the Leader and Deputy Leader on the National Executive). Full-time political staff should not be able to hold party executive positions.

 That the Senators advise the National Executive and the Party unequivocally that:  the position of Party Whip is a parliamentary not party position and will not be balloted; and  no non-Senator will get a vote in the Party room.

 The NCC be disbanded and replaced by an independent ombudsman or similar process, (even if an honorarium has to be paid).

 A fast-track system be developed for excluding complaints/disputes generated by habitual offenders, or by the vexatious or frivolous.

 The AD auditor should do an annual sample integrity audit on the membership lists and systems.

 The policy development process needs to be further improved to ensure a more rapid but also more thorough process. Policy ballots should in future be debated and voted on at the annual conference, and then be subsequently ratified by the membership at large.

 Minimum votes must be mandated. Increasing the vote could be assisted by procedures such as providing reply-paid pre-addressed envelopes, and telephone campaigning.

 Annual National Executive elections for all voting members of the NE should be restored.

 Effective branch-stacking deterrents should be introduced.

Despite all this, however, there is a tone of deep pessimism throughout Murray’s submission. Sometimes it reads more like a post-mortem than a blueprint for renewal.

That, of course, is the most interesting aspect of Andrew Murray’s submission. Is it about the Australian Democrats’ future or is it their panegyric? Indeed, is it about the Australian Democrats full stop or a new party?

The suspicion has to be with the latter.

How will the fundis react? Well, there’s already a speech that Murray gave on One Nation back in 1998 doing the rounds:

“Perhaps the most outstanding recent example of the way in which political parties can be a law unto themselves is the new Pauline Hanson One Nation Party. As we learn each day from disenchanted former supporters, this political party appears to have all the hallmarks of a political dictatorship. Its elite–David Oldfield, David Ettridge and Pauline Hanson–has used the attraction of its being a grassroots organisation made up of ordinary Australians as a key part of its rhetoric and political strategy, and yet it seems apparent from what has been said by observers and commentators that the two Davids and, to a lesser extent, Pauline, as sole directors and executives of a public, non-listed, limited liability company, have complete control over the party. That is not grassroots: that is dictatorship.

“Contrast this with the set-up of my own party, the Australian Democrats. The Australian Democrats also claim to be a party of the grassroots. With us, every crucial decision in terms of policy, every preselection and every leadership contest must be made by the membership via ballot. I do not want to claim excessive virtue for my party, but it does abhor, reject and constitutionally prohibit the kind of shady backroom factional balloting that political parties are notorious for. The Australian Democrats believe in a fully open and accountable process that genuinely involves the full membership.”

With tactics like that, they seem to be determined to destroy the village in order to save it. It’s probably time to move on.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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