Are the Democrats changing?


By Pip Hunter

Cheryl Kernot recently celebrated her first year as leader of the Democrats. Under Kernot's leadership the Democrats have managed something of a media comeback, although this doesn't seem to translate into votes. In the recent Bonython and Mackellar by-elections, the Democrats' average vote declined by 1.2%.

Kernot seems to have impressed Labor and Liberal politicians alike as "sensible", "tough" and "reasonable". The more sympathetic media response to the Democrats' budget proposals as well as a Bulletin report that several high profile Liberals had been considering joining the Democrats, would seem to indicate there is a change under way in the Democrats' politics. Is this the case?

Cheryl Kernot is ambivalent on this question. "Yes and no", she told Green Left. The Democrats' constituency hasn't changed, she said. They do still line up to the left of the ALP, and green issues are still "at the core of the Democrats' policies". But so too is their focus on small business, and, though Kernot was reluctant to admit it, their anti-union bias.

Kernot maintains that the Democrats are a different party today from the one party founders Don Chipp and John Siddons had in mind. Yet, together with former leaders Haines and Chipp, she is planning to relaunch the party later this year.

From their formation in 1977, as a split from the Liberal Party, the Democrats relied primarily on small business as their base of support. "Keeping the bastards honest" — the role Don Chipp claimed for the Democrats — reflected small business's fear and loathing of what it regards as "big business and big labour".

After 1983, as awareness of the environmental crisis rose, the Democrats greened their image. This allowed the party to broaden its base just as thousands of disillusioned Labor Party members were looking around for an alternative.

Yet for many activists, the Democrats, with their primary focus on parliament rather than grassroots activity, were not first on the list of political alternatives. In some states the short-lived Nuclear Disarmament Party considerably outpolled the Democrats, who campaigned for an increase in defence spending, continued support for ANZUS and for US bases to remain, but under Australian control.

Janine Haines replaced Chipp as leader in 1987, and in the 1989 South Australian elections, the Democrats increased their overall vote by 6%. Haines declared: "Political analysts believe Australia is designed to have a two-party system. The electorate no longer believes this."

In the March 1990 federal elections, public cynicism toward the big parties increased the vote for Democrat, Green and independent candidates. The establishment media went on a campaign to discredit the alternatives. This backfired, causing many progressive-minded people to take more interest in the Democrats.

Left turn?

Their policies had started to reflect more the aspirations of the social movements. Nevertheless, the Democrats went to the polls with a split ticket: while they were prepared to ride the left-moving popular feeling with their rhetoric, they didn't want to identify with the left in the assigning of preferences.

That election dealt a blow to the two-party domination of electoral politics, with major swings to environmental candidates across the country. With candidates in 143 electorates and far more media coverage than that received by greens or independents, the Democrats received the largest part of the pro-environment vote.

But the Democrats' best vote — 26% in Kingston — wasn't enough to put Haines into a lower house seat. Janet Powell took over the leadership and was instrumental in strengthening the party's appeal to those disenchanted with the two major parties. Powell came out strongly against Australia's involvement in the Gulf War, was in favour of an alliance and eventual merger with Bob Brown's Australian Green Party and supported the repeal of Sections 45D and E of the Trade Practices Act (which make union solidarity actions illegal).

Powell was replaced as leader in 1992 amid bitter personal attacks by John Coulter. Powell says she was keen that the Democrats be seen as a radical third force. According to her, the party has since shifted to the "middle ground", risking a loss of support and relevance. The Democrats can't afford to lose support from the green left end of the political spectrum, she told Green Left Weekly. "If you do not have a clear place politically, in the end you will find yourself squeezed out by the major parties."


The Democrats found it easier to be seen as left when the main political focus was environmental issues. But with unemployment dominating the political agenda in the 1990s, they were forced to articulate their economic policies in a lot more detail. Coulter in 1992 launched their plan to solve the unemployment problem, Getting to Work.

This made clear that the Democrats did accept the goals of the bipartisan economic rationalist consensus, if not its methods. Getting to Work emphasised using more government resources to stimulate the restructuring of private industry. The first priority was "to establish a climate which encourages productive investment and restructuring". Among other measures, it proposed a jobs levy, a $2.5 billion industry development scheme (funded by an increase in company taxes) and further subsidies to business.

In essence, the document ceded much to Labor's industrial relations, which have presided over a fall in real wages, declining conditions and mass unemployment. It also accepted the framework set by the Carmichael Report, with its emphasis on training to better suit the needs of business.

With the Democrats' visibility on the skids again, pressure mounted for a new leader. Cheryl Kernot, a former teacher from the Queensland branch, was elected. From the beginning, Kernot seemed to shine in the media spotlight, having a flair for saying the right thing, at the right time, to the right person.

In 1990, she was outspoken not only against the "Joh-mander", but also on the limits of parliament: "Parliament will never truly and democratically reflect wider views of community ...".

In 1991, when the Democrats joined the broad Green Alliance campaign (comprising the Wilderness Society, the Greens, the Democratic Socialist Party and others) for the Brisbane City Council elections, she described the alliance as "a historic step in Australian politics". At the Ecopolitics Conference that year, Kernot repeated her support for such alliances, saying "it was an exciting thing to offer the public of Australia a third force".

But by 1993, Kernot's view had changed. In an article in Green Left following the March elections, she argued that the "third force" will come about only if others join the Democrats.

Kernot says that the Democrats are the original greens and "still a grassroots party". Yet, other Democrats admit that the party has very little on the ground, which is why, in 1992, some were keen to see a merger with the Bob Brown Greens.

While it's true that on many social and environmental issues the Democrats line up on Labor's left, these days that's not much of an achievement. And on some crucial questions, like how to deal with unemployment, the Democrats have accepted Labor's economic rationalist "logic" that growth must come before much can be done about jobs.

Their 1994 budget submission was hailed by the Age and Financial Review because, while their package included some environmental initiatives and modest social reforms, their main thrust was incentives to business.

Shift right?

The relatively favourable media profile of the Democrats as the "respectable" minor party in the Senate, would imply that their policies have shifted right. But according to Powell, this isn't the case. She told Green Left that the economic policies being presented today are in line with those developed over the past five years.

Some of this profile may be due to the WA Green senators being too much of a wild card. During the 1993 budget talks, when the WA Greens refused to make a quick deal with the government, they were hounded by the press, the two major parties and, eventually, the Democrats. Kernot says that, having been in the Senate longer than the Greens, "we were able to use the issues probably more constructively for a longer-term outcome".

Kernot wants the Democrats to regain the balance of power in their own right. Five of the seven Democrat senators will face election in 1996. This puts extra pressure on them not to step too much out of line.

On the new training wage which will break union awards, Kernot admits that while not being "madly happy" about it, the Democrats did support it after getting "a commitment" from the government that a competency-based scheme would be introduced in the longer term. They are also not entirely happy with the new rules on unfair dismissals. "Small business is absolutely screaming", Kernot said.

She is confident that the party is heading in the right direction. However, she also says that the future of third force politics is "under a big cloud". Support for the Democrats and others has stayed around the 10-16% mark. Other forces, in particular the WA Greens, she says, haven't been keen to work with the Democrats. Would the Democrats still be willing to cooperate in broader electoral alliances? "I don't think most members would any more."

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