Australian DemocratsAustralian political 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).
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 wealthier suburbs 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), but typically hold one or two of the Federal Senate seats in each state, as well as a handful of representatives in state parliaments and local councils.
One notable characteristic of the Democrats is the succession of female parliamentary leadership. The most recent of whom was Senator Natasha Stott Despoja (leader from 26-Sep-2001 to 21-Aug-2002), succeeding Meg Lees (1997-2001) and before her Cheryl Kernot (1993-97), Janet Powell (1990-91) and Janine Haynes (1986-90). The exceptions are John Coulter (1991-93), Don Chipp (1977-86) and Andrew Bartlett. The deputy leader under Stott-Despoja was Aden Ridgeway, an Aboriginal and the first Aboriginal to hold such an office in any Australian political party.
The current leader is Senator Andrew Bartlett.
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 lead 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 an anti-GST platform but, after negotiations with Prime Minister Howard, agreed to support the legislation almost unchanged. The majority of Democrat voters and a large number of party members regarded this as a betrayal. Many swore that they would never vote Democrat again.
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, but with limited success. (The task was not made any easier by the Tampa affair.) Ongoing tensions between Stott Despoja and Lees (who was expelled from the party in 2002, but was supported by many 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 have found stability and an end to public feuding, but state election results show that as yet they have made little progress toward recovering their traditional share of electoral support.