By Peter Boyle
MELBOURNE — Most of the leadership of the Australian Democrats' progressive Victorian division and five out of nine of their candidates in the coming Victorian elections have left the party. Their departure comes in the wake of the resignation from the party by former Democrat parliamentary leader Senator Janet Powell on July 31.
According to Christine Craik, a candidate for the suburban seat of Mill Park, who was found by Democrat polls to have the best chance in the state elections, about 300 members (more than half) of the Victorian branch did not renew their party membership when it fell due in July.
Ken Peak, a former state vice-president of the Democrats, told Green Left Weekly: "We left because the right had taken over the party and put it on a timid and middle-of-the-road course. Instead of taking a strong stand on the major issues, the party's leadership was talking about substituting chocolate bilbies for Easter bunnies."
Christine Craik agrees. She said that the Democrats should have come out clearly against the Liberals' Fightback policy and taken a clear position against their anti-union industrial policies. They had made a mistake in opposing the government's legislation to bring industrial subcontractors under industrial awards. As an independent, she would totally oppose Jeff Kennett's plans to introduce New Zealand-style anti-union laws in Victoria if the Liberals win power in the state elections.
As part of a shift to the right, Peak said in his resignation statement, the party leadership had interfered with attempts by the Victorian branch to work with other green and progressive groups. One critical test, said Craik, was the "Work and Economic Justice" statement put together by the Victorian Democrats, the Rainbow Alliance, the New Left Party and several unions. "It represents the positions of those of us who have left the Democrats", she said, "but the national executive rejected it".
The key principles of the statement were:
- Full employment as an urgent and fundamental goal for all levels of government.
- Employment to be ecologically sustainable, available to all who wish to work and protected by industrial awards.
- Encourage the conservation of resources, the development of small-scale, community-based technologies and enterprises, shorter working weeks and more time for caring work, study, creative activities and recreation.
- Radical changes in the way the economy is organised to achieve the above.
"I realised that the Democrats were no longer the party I joined. It was not a party for the radical and reform-minded", said Craik. "The Democrats were supposed to stand for the new progressive movements, but increasingly the activists in these movements were found outside the party."
Hans Paas, former state president and candidate for Footscray, said that the leadership was hostile to other green and progressive forces, including Bob Brown's Green Party. "We wanted to work together with them, but [parliamentary leader Senator John] Coulter saw them as antagonistic. Our efforts to work with other groups were constantly undermined."
Paas said that the Democrats had to take a clearer stand on industrial relations and oppose the Liberals' anti-union plans, which were "confrontationist and inequitable". Instead the Coulter leadership had remained "virtually silent" on Fightback and Hewson and Kennett's attacks on workers' rights.
Darren Koch, former state election campaign director, told Green Left that the Coulter leadership was trying to suggest that the split was about personalities, and particularly about Janet Powell's inability to work with other Democrat senators, but the issues were primarily political. "They know we are radicals, and they were working against us. It is no accident that the mainstream media is promoting the angle on the resignation pushed by the conservative Coulter leadership."
Matters were brought to a head when Coulter's supporters began to work against the re-selection of Janet Powell for the Senate ticket in the next election, according to the former Democrats. When it became clear that many others would follow Powell out, the prominent figures, especially the candidates, received promises of support and top positions on the Senate ticket if they would stay with the Democrats. "This decided the matter for me", said Craik. "We were talking about a 'new politics' in public and here was the dirty 'old politics' being used once again. I knew then that this was the end of my time in the Democrats."
While Senator Sid Spindler, a Democrat who has been associated with the reform and alliance-building efforts of the Victorian division, is remaining in the party, the Democrats appear finished as a force in this state.
One of the few state officials left is newly elected state president (and candidate for Melbourne) Bryce Vissel. He also appears to have decided to stay in the party despite "being with us in policy" according to Paas, Craik and other ex-Democrats. Vissel has made no statement on the split and was uncontactable during the week. All statements on behalf of the Democrats in Victoria were made by Vince Mahon, a state vice-president and a worker in Senator Coulter's office.
Other prominent Democrats who announced their resignations in the week following Powell's departure were state treasurer Frank Fichera (also candidate for the upper house seat of West Melbourne), campaign treasurer and senior vice-president Jill Leisegang, candidate for Clayton Bryan Rogerson, candidate for Altona Peter Haberacht and Gavin Wittington.
"Basically, apart from a few good individuals, all that is left in the Victorian Democrats is a right-wing rump", said Koch. "The candidates who left the party will run as independents in the state election and will work with other green and progressive forces."
Paas, Craik, Peak and Koch were all open to working with other forces and expressed interest in the plans by the Green Political Network to establish a branch of Bob Brown's national Green Party in Victoria later this year. But all said that they had not been approached to join Brown's group and would be cautious about joining another party so soon.
"We've had months of inner-party politicking and we are sick of it", said Peak. "We'll be happy to work with other progressive people for the state elections and beyond that. But at this stage most of us would prefer to work in broad and less formal coalitions. While in the Democrats we were constantly frustrated in our attempts to build relations with other groups; now we feel that constraint has been lifted. No-one is going to tell us who we are not to talk to."