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The Australian Democrats (in regular parlance, just the Democrats), is an Australian social liberal party formed in 1977 from the earlier Australia Party by Don Chipp, who left the Liberal Party of Australia to do so. His stated aim was to "Keep the Bastards Honest" (the "Bastards" are, of course, all politicians; the irreverence is also typically Australian). Despite its name (and the name of the rival and conservative Liberal Party of Australia), the Australian Democrats can be considered the counterpart of European liberal parties. After a poor performance at the 2004 federal election, the Australian Democrats' future as a political force is in question.
The Democrats' agenda includes interventionist economic policies, commitment to environmental causes, support for reconciliation with Australia's indigenous population through such mechanisms as formal treaties, pacifist approaches to international relations, support for science and the arts, and liberal approaches to social issues such as sexuality and drugs, and constitutional and treaty protections for human rights. Its core support base is overwhelmingly tertiary-educated, and middle-class. They also explicitly target voters who seek a brake on the powers of the government of the day to change things, with their long-term hold on the Senate balance of power.
The party has a platform of participatory democracy, with policies supporting proportional representation and citizens' initated referenda. Many important internal issues (such as electoral preselection and leadership) are decided by direct postal ballot of the membership. Although policies are theoretically set in a similar fashion, Democrat parliamentarians have extensive freedom in interpreting them.
Support for the Democrats has tended to fluctuate between about 5 and 10 percent of the population and is geographically concentrated around the wealthy dense urban neighbourhoods (known in Australia as the "inner-suburbs and CBD") of the capital cities (especially Adelaide). They have therefore never managed to win a House of Representatives seat (despite coming close on a number of occasions). During the 80's and 90's they typically held one or two of the Federal Senate seats in each state, as well as a handful of representatives in state parliaments and local councils. But the rise of the Greens and internal bickering in the early 00's changed this, and the Democrats are now in heavy decline. Their voters are turning to the Liberals and Greens in almost equal numbers.
The Democrats are notable for their willingness to elect female and Aboriginal parliamentary leadership. Of the party's eight leaders, five have been women. Aboriginal Senator Aden Ridgeway was deputy leader under Natasha Stott Despoja.
The leaders of the Australian Democrats have been:
- Don Chipp (1977-1986)
- Janine Haines (1986-1990)
- Janet Powell (1990-91)
- John Coulter (1991-93)
- Cheryl Kernot (1993-97)
- Meg Lees (1997-2001)
- Natasha Stott Despoja (26-Sep-2001 to 21-Aug-2002)
- Brian Greig (2002)
- Andrew Bartlett (2002-2004)
- Lyn Allison (2004-Present)
Andrew Bartlett is currently deputy leader.
A short history
In terms of percentage votes, the Democrats' electoral peak was probably the 1990 federal election. The failure of then-leader Janine Haines to win a House of Representatives seat led to a leadership change; her successor, Janet Powell, was too radical for many in the party and lacked electoral appeal. After an affair with another Senator, she lost the support of much of the caucus. These internal divisions damaged the party in the early 1990s, although recovery occurred under Cheryl Kernot.
During the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments (1983-96), which pursued economic rationalist neoliberal policies, the Democrats positioned themselves to the left of the ALP government and thus at the left end of mainstream Australian politics.
However, the party's progressive small-l liberal politics remained attractive to Liberal supporters who were disaffected by the Liberal party's social conservatism.
After the election of the Howard government in 1996, this philosophical division became apparent; there was no longer a single obvious location for the party on the political spectrum. The left of the party was horrified by John Howard's policies, and wanted to undermine them whenever possible. Others wanted to engage with the government, negotiating and moderating its legislation.
This manifested with conflicts over Cheryl Kernot's policy on industrial relations (see the Workplace Relations Act of 1996). Kernot, however, remained both ambitious and broadly opposed to the Liberal government. This, together with her personal ambition for a role in government, lead her to defect to the ALP in 1997.
More damaging to the Democrats was the conflict over the Government's proposed Goods and Services Tax (GST), at the 1998 federal election and in Parliament in 1999. Leader Meg Lees campaigned on a modified GST platform, opposing the GST on food and books. After negotiations with Prime Minister Howard, Meg Lees and Andrew Murray agreed to support the GST legislation with exemptions for most food and some medicines. Many Democrat voters and a large number of party members regarded this as a betrayal.
After very poor state election results in 2001, Lees was replaced by the articulate young left-leaning senator, Natasha Stott Despoja. Stott Despoja worked hard to bring dissafected former Democrat voters back in the 2001 federal election, although she was not able to bring back enough voters to prevent the election of Greens Senator Kerry Nettle. (The task was not made any easier by the Tampa affair.) Ongoing tensions between Stott Despoja and Lees (who quit the party in 2002, but was supported by some of the Senators) forced a protracted leadership battle in 2002 which eventually led to the appointment of Senator Andrew Bartlett.
Since the decision to support the GST in 1999, and especially after the very public infighting in 2002, the Democrats have suffered a severe decline in public support. Although the left-right division within the parliamentary party and between the parliamentary party and the grass roots membership has existed for many years, the recent leadership battles have created bitterness within the party, and exposed the disunity to public scrutiny. With the Australian Greens picking up many of their voters, the Democrats are facing their greatest crisis to date.
At the height of the disunity in 2002, most political observers believed that the party would soon split or disappear as a serious force in Australian politics. Under Senator Bartlett's leadership the Democrats found a degree of stability and an end to public feuding, but they have made little progress toward recovering their traditional share of electoral support.
On 6 December 2003, Andrew Bartlett stepped down indefinitely as leader of the party, after an incident in which he assaulted Liberal Senator Jeannie Ferris on the floor of Parliament while intoxicated. The party issued a statement stating that Deputy Leader Lyn Allison would serve as the Acting Leader of the party. Bartlett apologised to the Democrats, Jeannie Ferris and the Australian public for his behaviour and assured all concerned that it would never happen again. On January 29 2004, after seeking treatment for several medical problems, Bartlett returned to the Democrats leadership. Andrew Bartlett has not consumed any alcohol since that incident.
The Democrats suffered a massive loss of support at the 2004 Federal election, with a national swing of approximately 4% away from them. None of their Senators up for re-election survived the vote. Following the loss, Bartlett stated that he would not stand down, but in the following month swapped positions with Allison, with Allison becoming the new leader and Bartlett the deputy. However, as the Democrats will soon lose party status (which requires a minimum of five sitting members), the leadership roles are merely nominal.
On 1 July 2005 the Democrats will lose what little parliamentary influence they have when the governing Coalition parties gain outright control of the Senate.
- Contributions to liberal theory
- Liberalism worldwide
- List of liberal parties
- Liberal democracy
- Timeline of (small-l) liberal parties in Australia
- Official website
- Senator Andrew Bartlett- Leader of the Democrats
- Australian Democrats (SA)
- Australian Democrats (VIC)
- Australian Democrats (WA)
- Australian Democrats (NSW)
- Australian Democrats (NT)
- Australian Democrats (QLD)
- Australian Democrats (TAS)
- Australian Democrats (ACT)
- Young Australian Democrats
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