The Australian Democrats rarely make the news these days, and never, it seems, for anything good. Their main story in the last week has been Senator Andrew Murray’s announcement that he would not be recontesting his plainly unwinnable WA seat at the next election. But a better illustration of the Democrats’ terminal condition came with a story this morning from their South Australian branch.

Sandra Kanck, sole remaining Democrat in the SA parliament, is in trouble with her party organisation (such as it is). As The Australian reports: “It will be the third time she has been asked to appear before the party hierarchy and explain her public statements on ecstasy.” She had simply said what most experts would regard as uncontroversial: that ecstasy is a relatively safe drug (provided it’s not adulterated), and that in both personal and social terms it’s less harmful than alcohol.

It’s not surprising, of course, to see The Australian and its sister papers in the grip of moral panic over drugs. But the Democrats are supposed to be the home of rational, progressive policies. When people aren’t voting for you anyway, you might as well take the effort to get the policy right. If Kanck’s outbreak of commonsense is too much for them, it’s all over.

The Oz has its own explanation for the fate of the Democrats. According to today’s editorial, “the Democrats long ago sailed off course. They abandoned the economic and public policy focus espoused by the solid Senator Murray for the fripperies of fringe environmentalism and a collection of Howard-hating and Bush-bashing causes. In the process, the Democrats destroyed their identity as a credible third voice in Australian politics.”

This story, however, just doesn’t fit the facts. The sharp drop in Democrat support came when they did the GST deal; it recovered somewhat when they implicitly repudiated that deal by making Natasha Stott Despoja leader, and it tanked again after the party’s right nobbled Stott Despoja.

That doesn’t mean Murray was wrong about the GST – although personally I think he was – but he bears much more responsibility for his party’s demise than the Howard-haters. Or the ecstasy fiends.

Peter Fray

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