The Australian Democrats just might
be undergoing an ecstasy-led revival and the Federal leader Lyn Allison seems to
realise it.

Far from joining in with the
predictable response of the law-and-order brigade to castigate a colleague who
had a friendly word to say about rave parties, Senator Allison is happy for her
party to be taking part in a serious discussion about drugs. By doing so she is
drawing the attention of a significant minority of young Australian men and
women to the Democrats as a part of the political process that might even be
relevant to their lives.

When the Democrats were founded they
portrayed themselves as a refreshing change from the increasingly bland two
major parties. There would be broad principles to which they all adhered but
members were to be people with the courage to speak their own mind unhindered by
the restraints of party discipline. In the Democrats there was to be room for a
maverick and libertarian streak for people of a broadly liberal persuasion.

It was an appealing combination and
success came quickly – especially in the South Australian upper house and the
Federal Senate.

Electoral popularity began to
disappear when members, especially the Senators, started to regard themselves as
part of the mainstream of political life rather than the occupiers of the
fringes. Supporting the goods and services tax of the Coalition Government might
have been for the good of the country but it was disastrous for the Democrat

At the last Federal election the
Democrats did not win a seat in any state. In the South Australian state
election this year they failed again. The last rites were being read by
commentators throughout the land.

Then along came Sandra Kanck – the
remaining Democrat in the South Australian Legislative Council.

Ms Kanck displayed a little of the
old maverick quality in the closing stages of the state campaign when she made
the best of the photo opportunity provided by a Big Day Out concert – this year
featuring Kamahl who appears to be becoming a cult figure for youth with a sense
of humour – to say a few words about marijuana.

While all around her politicians
were striving to be tougher on drugs than everyone else, Ms Kanck took the more
reasoned approach that big sticks are unlikely to achieve anything.
Unfortunately for the Democrat campaign there was no major response to her
common sense remarks apart from a brief coverage on the weekend TV news.

She fared better when State
Parliament resumed and she mentioned that there might be some elements contained
in ecstasy tablets that, in a pure form, were not necessarily harmful. The local
press and talk back radio went bananas while the many young drug-takers perhaps
nodded in agreement.

Then the recent major outburst of
criticism that followed Ms Kanck’s attendance at a rave party where – shock,
horror – some young people were actually found to be taking drugs. The comment
of Ms Kanck that she would rather be at a rave party with happy people on
ecstasy than in a pub full of angry drunks was too much for the holder of the
joint positions of Federal and State President of the Democrats who promptly
quit the party when Ms Kanck would not.

Now that that relic of the
“Democrats must be mainstream” view of political life is gone, Senator Allison
can turn to the job of encouraging more of her colleagues to dare to be
controversial. For the truth is that minor parties will only succeed when they
remember that what makes their task different to that of Liberal and Labor is
that they do not have to try and appeal to 50% of the voters. What the Democrats
need is a minority of people who feel strongly about an issue.

Young people who dabble in drugs and think that oldies like John
Howard with his zero tolerance approach are irrelevant old fossils are
just such a minority. And appealing to them does not mean the Democrats
have to advocate we all get happy on ecstasy. Advocating the voluntary
testing of drugs at rave parties so that people actually know what they
are taking would do for a start.

And the more papers like The
rubbish Ms Kanck for such a suggestion, the more votes the Democrats
will attract.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey