Australian Democrats – what went wrong?

As various other bloggers have already noted, the UK election campaign is off and running towards a 5 May election date.

I was particularly interested in Antony Loewenstein’s claim that the Liberal Democrats are poised to overtake the Tories as the second most popular political party in Britain. I’m not sure I accept that proposition, but I also can’t claim to have followed British politics closely enough to have an informed opinion.

However, it’s certainly true that the Liberal Democrats in the UK have been much more successful than any “third force” in Australian politics (notably the Australian Democrats) at joining the mainstream and becoming a truly realistic alternative government with a more than fanciful chance of winning. I can’t help wondering why? Certainly the Australian Democrats’ policy stances have generally tended overall to be much closer to my own centrist views than either of the two major parties, and yet I’ve never really been tempted to join or view them as a serious political force (except in an upper house accountability sense). I probably wouldn’t be tempted now anyway, because my general impression is that their policies have drifted perceptibly to the left over the last couple of years. On the other hand, I have to confess I haven’t examined the Democrats’ policies in any detail recently, so I might be quite wrong. Moreover, even if there has been an apparent leftward drift, maybe that’s because the median point itself has moved rightwards in substantive policy terms).

Is it some unique feature of the UK electoral system that makes it easier for a new (or breakaway) political force to rise to prominence? Or did the Australian Democrats (I’ll try to resist calling them Dimocrats out of deep and genuine respect for Andrew Bartlett) just cock it up badly? Or is it a sinister conspiracy between the two major parties and the big end of town (as Loewenstein seems to suggest in a juvenile Indymedia moment)? Did successive Democrats leaders starting with Don Chipp make a serious strategic error in pitching only for the modest goal of “keeping the bastards honest”? Or did successive failures to win a lower house seat indicate that this modest aspiration was the only realistic one in an Australian setting? Could Natasha Stott-Despoja’s apparent attempt to break away from marginal “keeping the bastards honest” status have been successful had it not been for endemic disunity, infighting and disloyalty? Did Meg Lees’ figuratively jumping into bed with Peter Costello over GST (and Cheryl Kernot’s literally doing so with Gareth Evans) terminally doom the party to slow electoral oblivion irrespective of what N S-D or anyone else might have done thereafter? Is the party’s extraordinarily high level of internal democracy (especially rank and file election of parliamentary leadership) an advantage or handicap for a party seeking mainstream status? What do readers think?

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Guido
2022 years ago

It’s my belief that the start of the decline of the Australian Democrats started when Lees did the deal with the government to let the GST through. The AD were of course hailed as a ‘responsible opposition party’ (as opposed to the ALP) bt the government and their cheer squad in the media, but it split the party irreparably.

Why? That was because the strenght of the AD was that it was a party for those who were continuously in opposition to the the Coalition or the ALP. There was no desire from a substantial part of the AD voters to be part of a decision-making process. The fact that they could be in permanent opposition with no prospect of being in government allowed them to continuosly berate the major parties, giving them a sense of being somewhat ‘superior’ to the ‘grubby’ major parties who compromised their principles.

Of course when Lees decided to use power to ameliorate some of the nastiest bits of the GST such as on food etc. the AD found out what any party that actually have to make decisions create: It makes some of its supporters unhappy. This placed lots of AD voters off side and many, I suspect, have drifted to the other whinging party with no prospect of forming a government – The Greens. So they can again happily berate the major parties in the warm fuzzy knowledge that they won’t have to implement any of their policy at all.

As Gough once said: Only the impotent can afford to be pure.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

Loewenstein’s claim is nonsense. The LD’s get a decent vote but it never translates into more than a handful of seats, except in their heartland of Devon and Cornwall. The LD vote is otherwise spread thin across a range of seats in the midlands and especially the southeast. Their vote in the north and Scotland is risible. If the UK voting system was preferential, or proportional, they might in time become a genuine contender for government. But it is first past the post and that dooms them to permanent third place.

On the ADs, all of these things contributed, but you left out the rise of the Greens and in particular Bob Brown. Some would say he filled the vacuum left by the ADs as they fell apart. I would say Brown was the cause, not the effect. The piece of political real estate once occupied by the ADs, now occupied by the Greens, is pretty narrow, and he managed to nudge them out of it. When the Greens were rising, but not there yet, too many Democrats embraced them as ideological fellow travellers and not enough saw them as the deadly threat that they became.

This “attack of the clones” is a constant threat faced by small parties. The Nationals faced it with One Nation and wavered in their response. Some like DeAnne Kelly saw ON as friends; others like Ron Boswell (and, it must be said, John Howard) recognised the threat.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Guido

You might be right, but it still wouldn’t answer my ian question. Why have the Liberal Democrats in the UK succeeded in expanding their electoral support base where the Australian Demorats have failed? Did the LDP embrace tougher but more broadly saleable policy stances rather than being oppositional and “pure” like the ADs? I don’t know enough about their performance through the 1990s to form a meaningful conclusion, but there must be someone around here who follows British politics closely.

Rafe
2022 years ago

Maybe someone can do some arithmetic and see if the local Democrats could have got up in some of their best electorates under the first past the post system.
The other factor is that the British Conservative Party is divided between free traders who had some dynamic under Thatcher and oldfashioned Tory conservatives who hated Thatcher and more or less inherited the party after she departed. Because they have no dynamic the party ended up dead in the water, with no positive program to sell, especially as Tony Blair cheerfully inherited the benefits of Thatcherism.

Mindy
Mindy
2022 years ago

I think Dave hit the nail on the head with the Greens coment. Bob Brown gives better sound bites, and so got more media attention. For the politically naive and uninterested like myself, this translated into – ‘the Greens must be doing something’, haven’t heard from the Democrats for a while, wonder what they are up to. Unfortunately when we did hear from the Democrats it was a personal issue (which the media love) and got far more air time than it deserved, probably got blown out of proportion and didn’t do the party any favours. IMO the Democrats found out the hard way that having an able leader doesn’t necessarily translate into votes.

harry
harry
2022 years ago

I’d go further than Mindy and say that the Democrats this time round fell victim to the perverse attention paid to the Leaders.
You could have been forgiven that it wasn’t parties who were being elected but one of two people: Howard and Latham. Much media attention had gone into the leadership squabbles of Labor and the conclusion that came out was that a party without a ‘strong’ leader is a incapable party. Whether this is correct or not was neither here nor there. The Democrats seemingly went through five leaders in a year. The Greens didn’t. I reckon this was a major contribution to the Democrats’ result in the last election.

I don’t see how any of this is applicable to the LD in the UK, though.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

harry

You might well have a good comparative point with the stability of leadership issue. Charles Kennedy has been LDP leader since 1999, although he didn’t register on my consciousness until quite recently. But conceivably that degre of relative leadership longevity has allowed him to build a stature and perceived substance that the ADs weren’t able to achieve through chopping and changing leader several times (and acrimoniously) during that period.

I guess elections are prone to developing a polarised, presidential atmosphere, especially when it suits the two major players to do that. It suited Howard especially to run a “who do you trust in dangerous times?” message, which militated in favour of focus on the two main contenders to the detriment of third parties like the ADs. The Greens were better able to sustain a viable image of perceived leaderhip substance in that environment because Bob Brown has also enjoyed remarkable longevity and is one of the most skilled cynical publicity seekers national politics has ever seen.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

you miss the point Ken.
The only thing the Aust. Democrats ever had going for them was being the responsible decision maker in the Senate.
The Lees GST completely destroyed that because people voted for the government ( and the Demos) believing they would keep the government but not get the GST.

Natasha merely stopped the inevitable.

The Liberal Democrats have always had that sort of profile in the UK in their various guises sometimes up sometimes down.
They wil never form government or Opposition however their voters are now ‘strategically voting’ in different electorates which makes UK elelctions much more interesting

Meg
Meg
2022 years ago

On a purely personal level, it was the GST that made me lose respect for them, and once lost, respect is very hard thing to win back. Ms Tash tried very hard, but somehow managed to not quite ‘get it’. The various scandals obviously didn’t help! Whether that translates across the population I haven’t been able to gauge, but I expect it could be a factor.

I also believe that there are many people who need something left of the (really very central at the moment) ALP, and the Greens have managed to gain this support, wheras the centre-left has the ALP and thus cannot see the relevence of the Democrats?

As someone who grew up in Tasmania in the 80s-90s, the Greens have always been a part of my understanding of the political landscape – they are actually not that new, their infastructure has been evolving now for a long time as well as having the luck of having a decent wellspoken intelligent leader!

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

I think the party was gradually doomed as it drifted from being a center party able to attract ‘pox on both your houses’ votes from both sides to a ‘latte-left’ party. I think the ‘drift left’ you noted actually has been going on throughout the 1990s. However that is merely my perception.

It was actually founded by disaffected Liberal Party types, and got the bulk of its early support from them. However the party changed to the point where disgruntled Liberal voters really would have to hold their nose to vote for them ( I could never bring myself to do so). Meg Lees’ decision on the GST merely illustrated the trend that had already been there for a while. Once Meg bit the GST apple, the party’s supporters flocked to the Greens who have basically cannibalised their support base.

As for the UK, the modern Lib Dems are formed from the rump of the old Whig/Liberal party that used to do battle with the Tories throughout the 18th and 19th century, together with the Social Democrats who splintered from the old Labour Party in the wake of that party’s more lunatic behaviour in the 1980s. It seems to have a broader consistency then the Australian Democrats, as it seems to me that the UK is a much more ‘left wing’ country then Australia is.

From what I can tell, the LibDems have the same potential problem as the Australian variety- what happens when they actually have to exercise power?

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

There are a lot of theories about the decline of the Democrats. Here’s mine.

When Meg Lees agreed to the GST, she alienated the Democrat ALP/left sympathisers. These struck camp and have been migrating to the Greens ever since.

When NSD took over, she wrenched the Democrats towards Labor and the left: particularly the switch from even-steven how-to-vote cards. In doing so she alienated the Liberal sympathisers.

Since in the upper house, the Democrats rely on sympathy from major party voters to survive, pissing off one and then the other was a great way to diminish the vote.

Now the conservative and liberal senate votes have gone to the Coalition, and the Labor/leftie votes have moved on to the Greens. The Democrats are SOL.

According to the (admittedly unreliable and shady) numbers which circulate about such things, there are approximately 8 Democrats in the whole of the country for each post-2001 CLP member here in the NT. Not a ratio inspiring confidence.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

The Democrats were always vulnerable because they never had a social base large enough to carry them through the inevitable political ups and downs. Whose interests did they represent? Beats me. Which institutions were the linked to? They lacked the business networks of the Liberals, the farms of the Nats, or the unions of the ALP.

As a result, their vote was extremely volatile – more volatile than even the raw election results suggest, since the Australian Election Survey suggests that many Democrat voters had not voted for them in the previous election, while many of the people who had voted Democrat took their vote elsewhere. Where there are higher profile alternatives to the major parties, the Democrats lose out.

It is hard to be a ‘centrist’ minor party in Australia, where the two major parties because of compulsory voting put far more effort into capturing the median voter than they do in bringing out their base, which is done for them by the law. The Democrats went Left, but in the holier-than-thou world of soft leftism how could they beat the sanctimonious Bob Brown?

The Greens will probably last longer, since they have an inner urban sub-culture to sustain them.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Very interesting to read about the Autralian Democrats Ken. Funny thing, they sound a lot like the Australian Democrats.

Alan
Alan
2022 years ago

I think a lot of their problem was the difficulty finding poll workers and campaign workers after a majority of Democrat senators had either bolted the party or threatened to bolt the party. Small parties always struggle to cover booths. The Greens have the advantage of a charismatic leader. The Democrats do not.

Nic White
2022 years ago

I think Jacques has it. The Democrats self-destruction started as soon as they strayed from the middle path. There are many, MANY people out there who are dissaffected with both parties, and these are the people that will vote the democrats every time. My parents voted Dems most of the time – particularly in the upper house – until Howard became a real problem to them, so they voted ALP all the time in an attempt to get rid of him.

By supporting the GST, the democrats pissed off a lot of people and either sent them to the Greens, or made them vote solid ALP. Then after Meg was deposed Natasha pushed the Dems to the left and annoyed their more right-wing voters – because the party no longer had anything to do with them. They may have picked up a few left wing voters, but the vast majority had lost respect for the party and no longer trusted them to stop stupid policies in the Senate, which was a major purpose of the party to them; and they had the Greens to vote for on the left anyway, why bother with the Dems?

They now inhabit the same area of the compass as the Greens, which for a minor party is suicidal, and especially for the Dems. The Greens havent made a blunder like the GST, and they havent alienated their base or appeared not be be able to organise their way out of a paper bag. Therefore the Greens are a better choice for voters, and because the Dems are drawing exactly the same voter type as the Greens they have shafted themselves into irreleventcy.

As a centrist, Id have voted for the Democrats 15 or maybe even 10 years ago. But instead I completely ignored them at the last election.

Geoff Robinson
2022 years ago

The UK LDs benefit by 1) the self-destruction of the Tories in 1992-97 which alienated many Tory voters and 2) Blair’s hostility to left-liberalism. The UK Liberals also have a traditional regional support base, which even at their lowest ebb enabled them to retain a parliamentary presence; the Dems do not have this. Also the UK parliament is bigger and this gives minor parties more chance of winning a seat somewhere. In 1983-96 the Dems positioned themselves as slightly to the left of the ALP on social issues and won support for this, just as the LDs are doing now (notably on the Iraq war) and being pro-Europe also wins support from Tory moderates. The Dems current problem is that they cannot distinguish themselves from the ALP in opposition.

numbat
numbat
2022 years ago

Mug -as some have unkindly called her – started the rot. Not only passed the iniquitous GST but howard/costello treated her like a dummy. As I understand it the dumocrats promised to keep the GST from study/text books. Meg was “forced?” to repudiate this promise and it was then the dim/dum/dem/ocrats becams liars just like the two major parties. Then of course howard and costello had destroyed the honesty and decency of both meg and her party.No keeping the bastards honest now the democrats became bastards themselves. Then to top it off, to complete their destruction of the party there was the sacking of natasha and the bitter and incredibly stupid fight they had to have.So now the dems could not be trusted to keep their promises nor trusted to have a stable party. End of story as I saw or seen it. Regards, numbat

Guy
Guy
2022 years ago

For the past few years the Australian Democrats seem to have suffered from a severe lack of product differentiation from the major parties – whether or not this perception is right or wrong is unfortunately beside the point. In addition, the ALP have shifteda tad to the centre, and that has left the Democrats with little room to move.

A lot of voters in recent times, it’s probably also fair to say, are more vehemently pro-Liberal or pro-Labor than they have been in the past, thanks to the Rodent’s ability to play at divisive politics. This has not helped the Dems one iota.

Kim
Kim
2022 years ago

Dave, the UK Lib Dems have over 50 seats in the current Parliament. That’s just under a tenth of the chamber, but it’s hardly risible.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

You people are being very harsh on Meg Lees. As far as I am concerned she sat down at the table over the GST and bargained her way into making it more acceptable to those who were worried about it. The ADs were performing a usual function, I didn’t agree with it but I do not deny her mandate.

Why do you think that if she knocked back the GST John Howard would not have got his senate majority even quicker. Lees had a mandate to handbrake Howard but Howard had a mindate to introduce the GST. Just because you guys did not like it doesn’t mean Howard couldn’t or didn’t sell the GST to the greater electorate? I voted for the GST. And I was mighty pissed off at what Lees did to it, but as I said, she had her mandate and she used it properly.

The ADs are a party for trendy urban lefties addicted to the fringe. Undergraduates in docs spinning discs on triple J. Tellingly I’m told that Tash is a fine Senator now doing real work at committee level. Back then she was crap and a show pony.

Mark
2022 years ago

Very interesting post and thread.

Andrew’s point about the lack of a consistent social base for the Demos and the churn in their vote is a good one.

I’ve just posted over at my joint about a related question – the eclipse of small l liberalism in Oz politics:

http://larvatusprodeo.redrag.net/2005/04/07/liberal-illiberalism/

It seems to me that the Democrats’ other problem was a lack of a unifying ideology. They are social liberals but split on economic liberalism. I tend to think that there would be a space for a defence of social liberalism in Oz politics (and I don’t think you get it from the Greens) so perhaps this might have been something the Demos could have emphasised more.

I’d also be reluctant to write them off completely. The electoral cycle has a long time to run. But they do need to think creatively about what they stand for, what message to sell and how to sell it.