Wednesday’s roundup of the strategies offered by Crikey readers for the revival of the Australian Democrats was interesting for one thing – it was all based around the contemporary notion of political parties as simply sellers in a marketplace, who throw out a range of ideas and policies in the hope they’ll get a sale.

What’s missing – and what’s always been missing from discussion of the Democrats – is the older notion of a party as being the representation of a political class, an organised expression of values held as second nature.

Whatever incursions Liberal or Labor make into the other’s territory, their existence relies on a base of people who ‘naturally’ believe that individual free enterprise, or collectivist equality, is the way the world really is, by virtue of the world they live in – the small business or the factory/office floor.

The Democrats didn’t spring fully formed from Don Chipp’s corrugated head. They began in the late 60s as the Australia Party, formed by people like Gordon Barton and Sid Spindler, and their base was inner-city workers in the new professions – media, management, academia etc. People whose world-view is naturally cosmopolitan, liberal, system-oriented in thinking, by virtue of the work they do.

The formation of the Democrats was simply rolling Chipp and his followers into the latter, struggling party. There were always tensions between the Australia Party wing and the more centrist members such as Chipp and John Siddons, but what kept them together was that they had a real social base underneath them.

The Greens have now taken that base (a massively expanded one, thanks to the information revolution), and, as part of a global movement, established themselves as its unquestioned, natural representatives. There is simply no-one left for the Democrats to represent, and so differences of ideas and personality became magnified to breaking point. History, cruel mistress, has shown them to have been little more than an improvisation to fill the gap before the Greens came along.

The remaining Senators should simply dissolve the party now, and petition for membership of the Greens. Activists like Greg Barns should stop wasting their time with talk of yet more parties, whether it be the Liberal Democrats (recent sign-ons: Jason Soon, Helen Dale [nee Darville] and a blogger named ‘Yobbo’. Nuff sed.), People Power or the British Israelites. They should either join the Greens – and try and modify some of their more ossified tax and fiscal policies – or re-enter the Augean stables of the Liberal Party. Or bring a more liberal strand to the ALP. Or – gasp – work in a non-parliamentary focus.

But one thing is certain: the sooner the Dems make a clean end of it the better. Otherwise the long final act will simply drain away energy that could be used elsewhere – and be pathetic to watch, to boot.

Peter Fray

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