The Australian Democrats have left the Senate chamber. The Party that formed on the back of a movement, a bloody good slogan and grew through some good old-fashioned campaigning by a charismatic ex-Liberal in town halls across the country is gone. Don’s Party is over.
Perhaps it is no surprise really. I joined the party in 2000, and the political landscape was entirely different to the years when Malcolm Fraser was PM and the Democrats were just a fledgling operation. Not that I was alive then.
For most Democrats who could remember, the early years were pioneering. The first Australian Democrats Senator, appointed to fill a vacancy in 1977, was a woman, Janine Haines, and the majority of leaders have also been women.
But perhaps what was most unique was the degree to which the party relied on participatory democracy. Particularly when involvement in the political process for many Australians means getting your name marked off or avoiding the fine.
The party structure, the selection of a leader and policy process required the debate and the vote of members. And in the late 70s the new Australian Democrats had between 5,000 and 7,000 members. Since I joined the party in 2000, meeting the minimum membership requirement (500 members per state) for registration as a political party always required significant resources, including attracting new members, and calling existing and sometimes disgruntled members to make sure they duly returned their AEC surveys.
My first branch meeting was very different to the heady days of the party that coined the catchy slogan and brand, “Keeping the Bastards Honest”. Reminiscent of a Presbyterian Church Council with the obligatory array of Iced Vovos, the ageing members in my branch were enthusiastic, but most were long retired and were beyond the type of campaigning required in a modern party.
And you had to search for the irreverent sense of humour that had propelled the party forward under the leadership of Haines and Chipp. The Democrats were a serious party, and had held the balance of power for 25 years from 1980. But perhaps the fervent examination of policy, the volumes of legislation read by each Senator, and the difficulty in obtaining good media coverage had taken its toll.
In recent years, some of the older faces spoke somewhat wearily of the decline in membership, and the decline in the vote. Many at my first branch meeting had looked hopefully to the younger members to take up the mantle, to take the party forward. But this eagerness to bequeath their involvement upon new members may have put a few people off.
Participatory democracy has changed. For many, getting involved means signing an online petition, or debating issues through the blogosphere. Which is where the likes of viral campaigners like GetUp are building their influence. Where historically, membership of political parties continues to be low, GetUp boasts over 280,000 members on its website.
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As a former Democrat, watching the farewell speeches of the four remaining Australian Democrats was hard enough to watch. I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been for Lyn Allison, Andrew Murray, Andrew Bartlett and Natasha Stott Despoja to make their final speeches and leave the Senate, knowing they were probably the last to do so.
What is probably most insightful is the low stock of political capital that a party like the Australian Democrats retained in the electorate. Whether it was the GST, the 2002 dust up between Senators or Andrew Bartlett’s embarrassing exchange on the floor of the Senate, the Democrats have clearly struggled to get their message out since then.
Which is amusing when you consider the level of incompetence and impropriety which so regularly maligns the major parties. With the Liberals and the ALP, constantly filling their list of internal party disputes, leadership tussles, dodgy, corrupt and deceitful MPs and Senators, not to mention the array of spectacular policy backflips, one wonders why the third party vote isn’t much, much higher.
In her speech, Natasha Stott Despoja refused to give up hope. I hope she is right. The Australian Democrats formed out of a movement which populated several small parties in the 1970s. As evidenced by GetUp’s success, the movement may still be active. Outgoing leader Lyn Allison has talked of a new political entity forming, possibly emerging from a discussion between like-minded minor parties.
The fact remains that any Senator in the new Senate can block legislation. In such an environment, with a House of Harradines disrupting legislation, perhaps a Double Dissolution may eventually become an option. Minor parties may benefit. It remains to be seen which parties would be in a position to capitalise.