Democrats: Can the bastards survive?

June 23, 1999


Democrats: Can the bastards survive?

By Sue Boland

Public outrage at the goods and services tax deal was fuelled by the realisation that the Australian Democrats are just as prepared to do grubby deals as the "bastards" they are supposedly keeping honest.

The unprincipled nature of the Democrats' GST deal was exposed by the party's economic policy adviser, John Cherry, in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 31. Cherry admitted that the Democrats could have forced more concessions from Prime Minister John Howard, but explained that if the negotiations had stretched out longer, the ALP and "special interest groups" would have undermined the Democrats' negotiating position.

While the Democrats' betrayal stunned many, it is not surprising when you consider the party's history. The Australian Democrats, formed as a result of a split from the Liberal Party in 1977, saw themselves as appealing to the "centre" of parliamentary politics, between the Liberal and Labor parties.

Party founder and former federal Liberal minister Don Chipp sought to tap the mood of cynicism towards the two main parties with the slogan, "Keep the bastards honest". The slogan enabled the Democrats to appeal to disillusioned voters from both the right and the left.

The philosophy underlying the slogan was expressed as "against big government and big unions", an expression that Democrat Senator Andrew Murray still uses.

In a 1998 Green Left Weekly article, former Queensland Democrats leader Peter Sykes admitted, "... a significant portion of the Democrat core vote comes from the far right". He said that these voters are usually unaware of, or indifferent to, Democrat policies, but are simply motivated by a desire to vote against the major parties.

Clive Bean, a Queensland University of Technology lecturer, told the SMH that the Democrats "have a very high turnover of support. Only about 30% of those who voted for them at the last election also voted for them at the previous election or will probably vote for them at the next."

Vanishing space

The election of the federal Labor government, led by Bob Hawke, in 1983 presented the Democrats with a problem. The political space between the ALP and the Liberals became wafer thin, as the ALP began to implement its anti-worker, pro-big business agenda.

Needing to secure a new voting base, the Democrats oriented to the mass peace movement of the time. They projected themselves as the only parliamentary party that represented the peace movement.

However, this new voting base was threatened when the Nuclear Disarmament Party formed in 1984. The majority of people who deserted the pro-uranium ALP supported the NDP and saw the Democrats as being too conservative. The Democrats had superficial anti-nuclear policies, while the NDP had a clear and uncompromising anti-nuclear platform.

The Democrats reacted to the NDP with hostility. Former Democrats leader Senator Janine Haines slammed the NDP, saying that it should not have "the effrontery to put itself forward as a serious political force".

Throughout the 1980s, the Democrats maintained an orientation towards the social protest movements as well as small business. Without such an orientation, they could not have survived. This led to conflict within the party.

Some members wanted the party to move further to the left and dump its anti-union policies, while other sections pushed for it to be more explicitly pro-business. Despite adopting a many progressive policies on social issues during the 1980s, it retained its anti-union policies.

In 1984, the Democrats blocked an attempt by the Labor government to repeal sections 45D and 45E of the Trade Practices Act, which outlaw "secondary boycotts" — i.e., union solidarity. In 1987, it called for a review of penalty rates, the abolition of holiday leave loading and the introduction of "labour contracts".

It was not until February 1992, under the leadership of Senator Janet Powell, that Democrat policy was changed to support the repeal of the two sections of the Trade Practices Act.

The Democrats' constituency was again threatened when environment and social justice activists began forming the Australian Greens in 1990. There were two views within the Democrats on how to respond. One was that a new green party was unnecessary because the Democrats were already a green party and were in parliament. It was argued that greens should join the Democrats and abandon the idea of a green party.

The other view was that the Democrats and Greens should work towards a merger because of the similarity between their policies. This view gained prominence when Senator Janet Powell was elected party leader after the 1990 federal election.

Faction fight

The conflict was resolved through a bitter faction fight, leading to the resignation of Powell and half of the Victorian membership.

While the new leadership of Senator John Coulter represented the victory of the right wing and a hostile approach to the Greens, it was Senator Cheryl Kernot who cemented this right-wing trajectory when she won the leadership in 1993.

With their voter base being squeezed by the Greens on their left, the Democrats sought to pitch themselves as the "responsible" alternative, unlike the irresponsible "loony" Greens.

The Democrats joined the ruling-class attack on the WA Greens senators Christobel Chamarette and Dee Margetts when they blocked the Labor government's 1994 budget and native title legislation on social justice grounds. Kernot accused Chamarette and Margetts of being "anarchistic mavericks".

The Democrats' view of themselves as a party that balances conflicting interests is what leads to political contradictions and right-wing compromises. One of the Democrats' 23 objectives is "to be even-handed to employee and employer, and reconcile their real interests".

The Democrats' attempt to reconcile the opposing interests of employees with employers means that they have never been progressive, despite having a number of progressive policies on paper. This leads the party to support rotten legislation, albeit with token amendments.


Underlying the approach is a belief that what is good for business is good for everyone. In 1996, the Democrats supported the weakening of unfair dismissal legislation and passed the government's draconian anti-union Workplace Relations Act. In 1997, Democrat senators passed legislation introducing entry fee bonds for nursing homes, and initially tried to amend the Coalition government's native title legislation rather than opposing it outright.

During the 1998 federal election, the Democrats pledged that if the ALP was elected and attempted to repeal nursing home fees, individual contracts (Australian Workplace Agreements) or award simplification provisions, they would block them in the Senate.

This right-wing course continued into 1999 with the agreement to introduce a GST and the call for national wage case increases to be frozen in return for bringing forward tax cuts for low-income workers.

That the Democrats are not part of the progressive movement is evident in their allocation of preferences in elections. The party often directs preferences to the major parties — sometimes even far-right parties — before left and progressive candidates. The Democrats continue to split their preferences between the Liberal and Labor parties, as if it does not matter which party forms government.

Because the Democrats have no ties with any progressive, mass social organisation, they have no mass base that can hold them accountable to their policies. Along with the freedom of Democrat parliamentarians to vote according to their "conscience", this makes the Democrats just as unaccountable and susceptible to grubby deals as the major parties.

The Democrats claim their membership decides party policy, but the reality is very different. While policy questions are decided by a plebiscite of members, members have no control over how parliamentarians vote.

A 1998 opinion poll found that 66% of people are unhappy with the major parties. This dissatisfaction makes it likely that the Democrats will survive as a vehicle for a protest vote, although they are clearly targeting Liberal voters who are appalled by the social conservatism of the Howard government.

The Murdoch-Packer media, worried by the increasing disenchantment with the major parties, will help the Democrats survive by promoting them as the responsible alternative to the major parties. This has been the line of the big business media in the last two federal elections.

The Meg Lees leadership is keen to live up to this role. In recent media interviews, Lees has indicated that the Democrats want a continuing relationship with the government. She emphasises that the Democrats want to be a "player" and not a lobby group.

We can expect to see a lot more dirty deals like the GST deal, as the Democrats seek to negotiate with the Coalition government over legislation to be passed by the Senate.

That the Democrats are looking to get support from the right is confirmed by a series of seminars that they have initiated to build links with business groups. They are using the forums to solicit corporate donations.

Can the Democrats survive? Yes, but not as a progressive party.

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