News reports today indicate that the sole remaining Australian Democrat Member of Parliament, David Winderlich, has resigned from the party. However, he is staying in the Parliament and will recontest the next state election in March next year as a ‘community independent’.
As he noted in explaining his decision, Democrat party members did vote about a year and a half ago to explore merging with other parties such as the Climate Change Coalition. While nothing came of that, I suppose it is plausible to take that as an indication that Democrat members might have wanted to transform their party into something else.
However, I think that justification loses any credence given that David was only appointed to the Democrats’ seat in the South Australian Parliament at the start of this year following a ballot of all the party’s member in that state, who chose him out of three contestants. Presumably all those members wanted the Democrats to remain to the contest the next state election, and unless he mentioned at the time that this move might be a possibility (which I am fairly sure he didn’t), then it’s very hard to see it as justifiable.
It’s not like the Democrats have suddenly entered into a parlous state in the past ten months.As I wrote when David was appointed to the Democrats’ seat, it was pretty obvious that the chances of the Democrats retaining this seat at the next SA election were fairly slim. However, I didn’t think my chances were very good before the last federal election either, but obviously in that position you still have to try as hard as you can, for the sake of the party as much as yourself.
David Winderlich did flag the prospect that he might go independent about three months ago, when he challenged the party to recruit 1000 new members or he would quit and sit as an independent.
He said today:
“I deliberately set out to create a crisis, I tried to put defibrillators on the body.
“The party could have told me to get on my bike and I would have respected that or they could have galvanised and gone all out.
“But neither of those things happened and we were left in the twilight zone of the party not really responding strongly one way or the other.”
I recall at the time the party’s National President at the time actually did call on him to ‘get on his bike’ and resign, although the leadership of the South Australian division of the party made a statement at the time supporting his action.
However, knowing what the party’s membership numbers and recruitment rates were like in South Australia even when the party was in some of its strongest periods, it was obvious this was a target which was never going to be achievable, despite some of enthusiastic pronouncements on the party’s SA website that the recruitment efforts were ahead of schedule.
I’ve never liked it when people get elected as a candidate for one party, then quit the party while keeping the seat, unless there very compelling circumstances. Doing so when you weren’t even elected by the public, but appointed to the seat solely because of a ballot of members less than twelve months previously, is even more disappointing.
While this is something that virtually every party large or small has experienced at some stage in its history, it’s a curious and slightly sad fact that this happened quite a few times during the Democrats’ history, so I suppose there’s some appropriateness that this is how the party has lost its final MP. (Of course nothing beats the eleven One Nation MPs elected to Queensland Parliament in 1998, every single of whom quit the party one way or another within a year.)
Off the top of my head I can think of at least 6 MPs who did this at state and federal level out of the total of about 34 or so people who served as Democrats in various Parliaments from 1977 until now – plus at least another couple who publicly dumped all over the party not long after departing. (In case anyone is wondering, I don’t consider Cheryl Kernot to be one of those – she resigned her seat when she resigned from the party to join another, and also stayed away from publicly attacking the party after she’d gone.) (and I also disclose for the benefit of anyone who doesn’t recall, I directly benefited from her decision to resign her seat, but that doesn’t alter the facts I’m highlighting).
But whilst I think David has done the wrong thing here, I don’t think there’s much point in getting into a lather about it. The main consequence of what he has done is to once again highlight the decline of the Democrats, which will have occurred at the SA election in March next year in any case.
I haven’t gone out of my way to broadcast my views about what the Democrats’ future is, but when party members or others have asked me, I haven’t kept them a secret, including commenting on my own blog once or twice.
Even before this latest development, my view has been that the best option for the Democrats would be to recognise the party’s time has passed and to formally wind up.
I appreciate people can find it hard to admit things are over or to let go, or may feel it is disloyal to the work of all those in the past. However, when things get to the stage they have, I feel it pays better tribute to the work of those gone by to celebrate the party’s considerable legacy and seek to keep those democratic values alive, rather than entomb them in an ever more feeble caricature of the party’s original self.
A political party is a vehicle for achieving positive change, not an end in itself. The Democrats achieved many positive things in their time, and have made some permanent changes to Australia’s political landscape, including opening up the field for many more minor parties to appear and significantly increasing the recognition and role of the Senate as a crucial house of accountability and review. But the vehicle is no longer capable of achieving those changes or enhancing the values the Democrats promoted, so people would be better off exploring other vehicles and pathways for positive change.
One could say there was some sense in fighting on whilst there are parliamentary seats to defend. That rationale – which for the last two years has only applied in South Australia – has now disappeared even there. However, even before today I’m not sure it was a sufficient rationale.
It is worth noting the experience of the Progressive Democrats in Ireland, a party with some similarities to the Australian Democrats. Both were minor parties that were socially liberal, although the Irish version was more economically liberal.
But the main point of interest in this context is that the members of the Irish Progressive Democrats decided the party’s support and viability had diminished sufficiently that they voted to wind up the party, even though they still had elected members in the Irish Parliament. Indeed, some of those members were serving as Ministers – and continue to do so – as part of the Coalition that forms the current Irish government. The party;s founder supported the wind up, and the party’s final leader called on members to “vote with their heads and not their hearts in bringing the party to a dignified end.”
In what may give some comfort to David Winderlich, and perhaps other former and current Democrats in Australia, former Progressive Democrat members polled well in last June’s council elections, doing better than the party itself had done at the previous poll (although without wanting to sound too much like a stick in the mud, I don’t think the circumstances are sufficiently comparable)
However, while I think the Australian Democrats should wind up, others still within the party obviously believe otherwise and want to persevere in the belief that its fortunes can be revived and (presumably) that the party’s policies and values can’t be more effectively promoted through other vehicles or activities. I wish them well and I hope they can keep a focus on promoting the Democrats’ traditional values, rather than on trying to define themselves purely through a protest against other parties.