Australian Democrat advisers used to walk around the National Parliamentary Press Gallery laughing off predictions of doom from political pundits. When The Australian’s Denis Shanahan shrieked “The Democrats are doomed” in 1997, we sent him up with a re-write of the classic poem: “We’ll all be rooned” said Shanahan.

The Press Gallery laughed it up and Democrat staff and senators laughed even louder as Shanahan was proven wrong when the Democrats won their best electoral result ever in 1998.

It has long been a fond pastime for conservative commentators to forecast the end of Australia’s most successful third political party.

Doom was predicted when Don Chipp retired in 1986 to be replaced by Janine Haines, the first female leader of a political party in Australia. Doom was predicted when Haines tragically lost her bid for Kingston, despite collecting the highest ever vote recorded by a third party.

Doom was predicted after the messy removal of her successor Janet Powell in 1991 and again after Cheryl Kernot’s defection in 1997. But the party kept bouncing back to “keep the bastards honest”.

Democrat obituaries are being written again in 2007 but this time, the party’s ailments have landed it well and truly in intensive care. It’s doubtful whether the Dems can pull off an electoral Lazarus with a quadruple bypass and escape political extinction.

For some members of the team who worked behind the scenes during the last “Golden Age” of the Democrats (the Kernot years), there’s a sad feeling that this time it’s for real. The irreversible decline can be traced back ten years to October 1997 when Kernot effectively decapitated the Democrats by defecting to the ALP.

It was painful when our leader left without warning ─ like your mother saying “Don’t take this personally, but you are holding me back so I’m moving to another country and you’ll never see me again”. It was a Kennedy moment. Every Democrat staffer can remember where they were when the defection was announced to the media just days after the Democrats had received a record vote of 17 per cent in the South Australian state election.

The Democrats had never soared so high, but that cold blast of treachery brought us down to earth. The party was steadied by the dignified performance of Kernot’s deputy, Meg Lees, facing challenges from the Greens on the Left and One Nation on the Right, and a media obsessed with the cockfight between the major parties.

After Lees went to the 1998 election promising to support a GST without food, the Democrats won nine Senate spots achieving the goal of “Nine in 99”. Not bad for a headless chook in a show with flaming Bird of Paradise Pauline Hanson and green parrot Bob Brown. Lees followed up her election commitments by negotiating billions of dollars worth of improvements to the Tax Reform Package, including tax free food and major social and environmental programs.

Some analysts, and many Democrats, claim it was the GST that “done the Democrats in”. The facts suggest otherwise. Lees’ support for a modified tax reform package did not lead to reduced votes for the Democrats. Newspoll showed the Democrats’ vote peaking at 7.5 per cent three months after the GST deal was done and still polling above the 1998 election result eighteen months later. The party’s response to the GST deal, infighting from Lees’ opponents within the party, and Lees’ failure to effectively manage the split were the real cancers.

The leadership conflicts, with tax policy as the lighting rod, slowly poisoned the party’s public standing. With the party spooked after a poor WA election result, Natasha Stott Despoja and her supporters launched her successful challenge against Lees in early 2001.

Under the new leadership, there was a brief poll surge, but that was already petering out before the Tampa sailed over the horizon. At the 2001 election, despite spirited campaigning by Stott Despoja in a highly presidential campaign, the party clocked up its then second worst Senate vote, losing a seat to the resurgent Greens. Stott Despoja, who broke the cardinal rule of leadership coups by not reconciling with Lees, publicly blamed the GST and old wounds were reopened.

Just as Lees mismanaged discord over tax, Stott Despoja mismanaged the growing discord between the party’s dominant progressive wing and its minority moderate wing. In the end, she walked. Her long time supporter Andrew Bartlett led the party to its disastrous 2004 election result, losing four senate seats.

Why were the Democrats, who survived and thrived after one leader’s defection in 1997 and the removal of a leader in 2001, parked in the terminal ward by 2004?

Part of the answer lies in the loss of corporate memory and capacity. When Kernot defected, experienced party operatives – some of whom had been with the Democrats since Janine Haine’s day – stayed on and worked for Meg Lees. When Stott Despoja took over in 2001, the party lost key operatives like long-time campaign director Stephen Swift, national secretary Sam Hudson and party treasurer Helen Hodgson, as well as a bevy of experienced policy and media advisors. It was a brain drain a small party simply could not afford.

Their less experienced replacements misdiagnosed the problem. Unsuccessful attempts were made to amputate whole limbs – Senators Lees, Murray and Ridgeway. But the patient just got sicker and sicker.

Current leader Lyn Allison and Deputy Andrew Bartlett are intelligent, committed and hardworking but their job has been largely palliative care. Now polling between one and two per cent, the Democrats appear likely to be reduced to, at best, one or two senators, and at worst, none at all.

Who will be the next progressive alternative for thinking voters to support?

Who will do the work the Dems did behind the scenes that never got reported in this media driven age? The Senate Committee work, the holding of incumbent governments to account, supporting whistleblowers, moving hundreds of amendments to improve legislation, working tirelessly on the Scrutiny of Bills Committee?

This work must go on.

This election campaign, with the real prospect of a Labor government and a Coalition controlled Senate should be the Democrats’ finest hour but it’s likely to be their swansong. Surely, voters must become concerned about the real prospect of a 1975 style Senate controlled by the Coalition with a Labor Government in the House of Reps. That ended in tears as we all know. If the Greens, with their close alliance to Labor, can’t attract the small ‘l’ liberals who supported the Democrats, there is the prospect of the Senate being controlled by the Coalition or its conservative Christian ally Family First. Not a recipe for good government.

The death of loved ones is never easy, particularly when they’re taken before their time. A party of over-educated teachers, leftie journos, uni students, James Taylor fans and mud-brick house builders, Doc Martens wearers and champions of those on the fringes of society, the Australian Democrats were a pretty likable and earnest bunch.

What a pity such an idealistic group of people morphed into a political organisation that will go down in history as the party that ate itself.

There should be a sign hanging outside the Australian Senate: “Wanted: a progressive alternative to believe in.”

In a few days, the Australian public will decide if the Greens are up to the job.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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