By Pat Brewer
The leadership challenge in the Australian Democrats appears to have set back plans for early electoral unity between greens and Democrats.
Last week a senior official of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Paul Rutherford, issued a personal statement castigating Democrat senators for their public wrangling, which he saw as a betrayal of the support given to the party by environmental groups like the ACF and the Wilderness Society in previous federal elections.
The peak environmental councils were known to be supportive of moves by Janet Powell and Bob Brown from the Tasmanian Independents to form a national green party, or, failing that, to offer a joint ticket at the next federal election. Tony Douglas outlined this perspective in the August edition of the ACF magazine Habitat:
"A new strategy needs to be put in place to influence electoral outcomes. Greens on the mainland need look no further than the Tasmanian experience to see what benefits can flow from direct parliamentary representation. The alternative with the most chance of success is a coalition between the greens and the Democrats ... There is also a new breed of Democrat politician exemplified by Janet Powell — who is more community based, and less wedded to the party system as currently practised. The Democrats have very few members and lack a grassroots support base. The Green movement can provide those people and an exciting new range of candidates."
Brown took a merger proposition to the national meeting of greens in Sydney August 17-18 but received an unfavourable response from many delegates. However, in Tasmania a questionnaire has been issued to green party members and a range of movement activists on issues relating to the national green formation, the Democrats, electoral alliances and the future form of policies and activities of the Tasmanian Independents.
According to the August 27 Financial Review, Rutherford thought it unlikely the Democrats could undo the damage they had inflicted on themselves. He called on Democrats to consider joining the greens.
"Sincere pro-green Democrats senators may well need to think about sitting in parliament as independent green senators", he said.
The article said that "other senior green lobbyists
supported" Rutherford's comments but did not want to be quoted. "They said the leadership row within the Democrats was highly damaging to the party's electoral credibility, and would greatly diminish the attraction to green groups of taking a united front in the election."
Within the Democrats, there are moves to reassert the rights of ordinary members, which are seen as under attack from some of the parliamentarians. In the middle of the membership ballot on the leadership, six senators voted not to accept Janet Powell if she is elected. Paul McLean resigned as senator and publicly called for the Democrats to change party rules to allow the parliamentarians to elect their leader.
The Victorian State Council of the Democrats, which met August 24-25, condemned the party's National Executive and six senators for their roles in the leadership challenge and their flouting of the constitutional rights of members. It called for an end to violations of the constitution which reportedly included ignoring the requirement of a 75% majority to pass National Executive resolutions, applying decisions retrospectively and denying access to membership lists, thus preventing differing opinions being circulated to the membership prior to the ballot.
Democrat Victorian president Hans Paas told the Financial Review that McLean's proposal to change the rules was out of step with party members. "That goes against everything that Democrats stand for."
This will be put to the test as senators and the National Executive face the membership at state meetings early this month. What is not likely to be resolved quickly is the contradiction between attempting to give the ranks control over parliamentarians through the leadership ballot and plebiscites on policy, while giving parliamentarians free rein through the conscience vote.