This image (new_nat_aden.gif) was on the Democrats' webpage banner after both Natasha and Aden had acrimoniously resigned. The picture has since been removed, but the original mouse-over description remains. Hectic times at the Democrats office!

Discord in the Democrats

No longer so nice at the bottom of the garden...

The current turmoil within the Australian Democrats can best be understood as a clash between the party's original conception of democracy and the current methods of running the party. In this article, David Bennett outlines the history and prehistory of the Democrats, and relates these to the leadership methods which have given rise to the party's current crisis.

By DAVID BENNETT The fluid nature of the travails that are currently assailing the Australian Democrats creates the scope to obscure understanding of the essence of the crisis, which is whether the party's hard left (which now constitute the majority of its membership) should have the right to dictate to its parliamentary wing how they should vote and conduct their internal affairs. This issue of external control over the Australian Democrats' parliamentary wing is one which now threatens to destroy that party because the Australian Democrats' claim to political legitimacy has historically rested on its parliamentarians being free from (and being perceived to be free from) external control, when exercising their parliamentary votes. Indeed, a fundamental, if not endearing founding principle of the Australian Democrats, enshrined at the time of their emergence in 1977, was that a parliamentarian's conscience vote could take precedence over party policy.
The Democrats and 're-selection' The Australian Democrats' current imbroglio can be interestingly compared to a similar crisis that assailed the British Labour Party in the 1980s over the issue of the party machine's right to exercise external control over its parliamentary wing. It is accepted as orthodoxy by many, that the British Conservative Party's political ascendancy in the 1980s and 1990s stemmed from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's astute handling of the Falkland Islands War in 1982. However a plausible argument can also be made that the Tory Party's political dominance was the result of the adverse ramifications that arose from the British Labour Party's 1980 Blackpool Conference. That Party Conference passed a binding motion empowering its party branches to dictate to MPs how they should vote and generally conduct themselves. This policy of denying MPs autonomy and the process by which it was enforced, was called 're-selection'.
The main instigator of 're-selection' was the then leader of the British Labour Party's left wing, Tony Benn. He earnestly asserted that re-selection was a democratising process by arguing that it enabled the party's ordinary rank and file members and the allied trade union movement to keep Labour MPs accountable to party policy. The short term negative ramification of re-selection for the British Labour Party was that it precipitated a split, with an element of its moderate wing breaking away in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party. In the longer term, the negative ramifications of 're-selection' for the British Labour Party were that a significant critical mass of the British electorate (including those who were disenchanted with Thatcherism) became alienated from the Labour Party. Indeed, a plausible argument could be made that a moderate such as Tony Blair could not have successfully tapped into public discontent with Conservative Party rule to win the 1997 general election had his predecessor John Smith not acted courageously by effectively burying the policy of 're-selection'.
The reasons for the British electorate's hostility to 're-selection' was a justified suspicion that it was a process by which far left extreme groups (such as advocates of unilateral nuclear disarmament) could impose their will on the British Labour Party and subsequently move it away from the mainstream of public opinion. Critics of 're-selection' made the point that it offered hard left groups a golden opportunity to stack out moribund party branches and then utilise them as bases by which they could hi-jack party policy.
That the Australian Democrats now find themselves in a situation which previously wracked the British Labour Party is sadly ironic. This is because 're-selection' type processes are at variance with the dynamics that precipitated the Democrats' foundation and sustained the party in the long term. By examining the history of the Australian Democrats a perspective can be established which explains how and why this party now finds itself in such a profound crisis.
Democrat Precursors and Precedents in Australian political history The Democratic Labor Party (DLP) (1957-1978)1 was the antithesis of the Australian Democrats in terms of ideology, philosophy and its social basis of support. Nonetheless the DLP's emergence and success was paradoxically vital to the later foundation of Australian Democrats. This is because the DLP established the precedent for the existence of a 'third force' in Australian politics, whose power was derived from its strategic position in the Senate. The DLP's political significance was not only due to its presence in the Senate (this party held the balance of power in the Senate between 1970 and 1974) but also because its allocation of second preferences to the Liberal Party helped ensure that the Australian Labor Party (ALP) remained in opposition on a federal level between 1955 and 1972. 1 See Democratic Labor Party Oral History Project and Robert Murray, A History of Labour Splits for more information.
The Australia Party (1966-1977) can legitimately claim to be the precursor of the Australian Democrats. (This party was originally called the 'Liberal Reform Group' and then the 'Australian Reform Movement,' before it adopted the name of 'Australia Party' in 1969). This party was in many respects the inverse of the DLP. The DLP was in effect, an anti-Communist breakaway from the ALP, which as mentioned previously, helped deny the ALP federal office by allocating its preferences to the Liberals. The Australia Party by contrast, was a Liberal Party breakaway, which split because of its opposition to Australia's participation in the Vietnam War. It subsequently directed its preferences to the ALP. While the DLP tended to be conservative in terms of its social policy and social democrat in the orientation of its economic/industrial policy, the Australia Party by contrast was libertarian in terms in these respective public policy areas. The differences between these two parties were most glaringly apparent in the field of foreign policy and on the issue of anti-communism.
The level of support for the Australia Party was never as significant as that of the DLP, as the former did not garner sufficient votes to either elect any Senators or appreciably effect election results through its allocation of preferences. Nonetheless, the Australia Party was historically important in the context of the Australian Democrats' later emergence, because it demonstrated that there was a critical mass, which would later support a socially liberal political party.
A split in the South Australian Liberal Party in the early 1970s also established a precedent with regard to the later foundation of a socially liberal political party. The South Australian branch of the Liberal Party -which was known for a long time as the Liberal Country League (the LCL)- owed its political dominance to a notorious gerrymander, which enabled it to gain a majority of seats in state parliament, by gaining less than 20% of the vote! To his everlasting credit, the then Liberal Party Premier of South Australia, Steele Hall abolished the gerrymander. He was rewarded for his efforts by being voted out of office in 1970. The ensuing angst that was directed against Hall by the LCL's old guard resulted in him and his supporters temporarily breaking with their party.
Although Hall and his supporters later rejoined the Liberal Party, the effects of this split are still evident today. The contemporary South Australian branch has the closest approximation within Liberal Party to having formalised factions. Its two formalised factions are the conservative and moderate factions (the latter being descended from Hall's camp). Another legacy that arose from this split was that it subsequently helped the Australian Democrats to gain a high level of support in South Australia, which was such that up until the current crisis, this state was considered to be the closest approximation to a state stronghold for the Australian Democrats.
The conflicting emotions that were aroused during the ALP Whitlam Government's tenure (1972 -1975), the role that the Senate played in deferring supply and the controversial circumstances surrounding the government's downfall were crucial determinants which contributed to the Australian Democrats later emergence in 1977. In the aftermath of the Whitlam Government's dismissal by the Governor-General, due to its failure to obtain supply because of Senate obstruction, a significant portion of the electorate subsequently became aware of the Senate's importance. This increased political awareness, in addition to the disenchantment that respective sections of society felt towards both the previous Whitlam Government and the then Fraser Government, created the necessary electoral scope for the emergence of a new Senate based minor party.
History of the Democrats The scope for such a new political party began to be harnessed when a Victorian Liberal Party Federal backbencher, Fraser critic and former Cabinet Minister Don Chipp resigned from the Liberal Party in March 1977. The eloquence of Chipp's speech (in which he criticised both the Whitlam and Fraser governments) and the publicity that it generated was such that the momentum was created with which Chipp could facilitate the establishment of a new, avowedly centrist political party. The Australian Democrats were formally launched in June 1977 and this fledging political party gained publicity and finance from the public meetings that were held across the country, in which Chipp, as keynote speaker was often the main draw card.
The Australian Democrats were able to elect two Senators in the December 1977 federal election. Due to his public prominence, Chipp won a Senate seat in Victoria and the Australian Democrats also won a Senate seat in New South Wales because its Senate candidate Colin Mason successfully tapped into, and expanded on the former base of the now moribund Australia Party. The important role that the Australian Democrats could potentially play in the Senate was transmitted and encapsulated in Chipp's irreverent catch cry, "Keep the Bastards Honest!"
Chipp claimed that the Australian Democrats differed from the major political parties in that the latter were beholden to external interests, such as trade unions and big business. The fact that Australian Democrat members could directly elect the party's parliamentary leadership was supposed to be reflective of its democratic nature. In Lower House elections Australian Democrat how to vote cards did not specifically instruct their supporters on how to direct their preferences. Furthermore Australian Senators, in accordance with party policy, pledged that they would not block supply in the Senate. The ultimate guarantee which seemed to clinch the parliamentary integrity of Australian Democrat Senators, was that they would be allowed to vote against party policy, if it conflicted with their conscience and that they would not subsequently be punished by the party for doing so.
The Australian Democrats' policies were socially liberal and in keeping with the legacy of the defunct Australia Party; the only real issue that distinguished the party from the political mainstream was its opposition to Australia's alliance with the United States and its advocacy of a ban on uranium mining. The real appeal to the electorate, which enabled the Australian Democrats to win the balance of power in the Senate following the 1980 federal elections, was not so much its espoused policies, but rather the belief that it would exercise its power in the Senate in a fair and even-handed manner.
The Australian Democrats faced their first challenge from a rival minor political party in the 1984 federal election with the emergence of the Nuclear Disarmament Party (NDP). The strength of this party's challenge was derived from the high profile of its New South Wales Senate candidate, the rock star Peter Garrett. Nonetheless the NDP's emergence presaged the current threat from the left, the Australian Greens.
Because he had played such an important role in establishing the Australian Democrats, questions inevitably arose with respect to the party's viability once Don Chipp retired. I should at this point declare my political colours with respect to my providing an assessment of Don Chipp and of the Australian Democrats policy paradigm. As an anti-Communist social democrat who is opposed to abortion and euthanasia, I am philosophically opposed to much of what the Australian Democrats stand for. Nonetheless, I admire Chipp's personal integrity and acknowledge the positive tradition that he bequeathed to the Australian Democrats in terms of its respect for parliamentary processes and the role that this party has played in enhancing the Senate's function as a house of review.
In some respects the Australian Democrats rank and file election of South Australian Senator Janine Haines to replace Chipp following his retirement in 1986, represented a move to the left in the terms of ideological orientation. Indeed Haines' election victory over Senator John Siddons precipitated the Australian Democrats' first split, with the Victorian Senator launching his short lived, pro-business Unite Australia Party (UAP) in 1987. It should also be pointed out that had the Hawke Government not called a double dissolution election in July 1987, the Australian Democrats probably would have lost all their Senate seats.
During her tenure as Australian Democrats leader Haines (1986 to 1990) gave a lot of leeway to individual Australian Democrat Senators to the point that she seemed to be a figurehead. Nonetheless, Haines' decision to contest the federal lower house of Kingston in Adelaide at the 1990 federal election and her undertaking to retire from politics if she failed to win the seat, might very well have helped the Australian Democrats to achieve their highest federal vote to date. Whatever one's ideological disposition, Haines' decision to retire after she failed to win Kingston should be recognized as an act of personal integrity. Her action stood in contrast to then Queensland National Party Senator John Stone's unsuccessful attempt to stay on in the Senate after he had promised to retire if he failed to win the lower house seat that he had contested.
Another historically significant aspect for the Australian Democrats of the 1990 federal poll was not only Haines' election defeat, but also the election of Cheryl Kernot as a Senator for Queensland. Kernot's election should be regarded as historic because she was a figure who was prepared to utilise the party's participatory mode of operation to her advantage by stacking out the party membership.
At the time of Haines' departure in 1990 the Australian Democrats seemed to veer further to the left with the election of Senator Janet Powell. Although Powell was ideologically the Australian Democrats' most left wing leader, she nonetheless respected the party's democratic processes and the right of Australian Democrat Senators to vote according to their conscience. Within a year of her election, Powell was deposed as leader. It was alleged that Senator Kernot helped facilitate Powell's 1991 deposition by raising the issue of her then relationship with Democrats' Victorian Senator, Sidd Spiddler. (Powell subsequently broke with the Australian Democrats and ran unsuccessfully as a Greens Senate candidate in the 1993 federal election).
Powell's successor as Australian Democrats leader was the ill-fated South Australian Senator, John Coulter. During Coulter's tenure as leader from 1991 to 1993 the Australian Democrats were caricatured as 'fairies at the bottom of the garden' because of their leader's seemingly obsessive focus on matters environmental. Under Coulter's leadership the Democrats obtained their lowest vote at the 1993 federal election and subsequently failed to elect a single senator.
Senator Kernot's subsequent election as party leader following the 1993 federal election debacle was, with the benefit of hindsight, an ominous development for the Australian Democrats. This was because Kernot laid the foundation for the Australian Democrats' current crisis by perverting the party's principle of participatory democracy, by supporting the process of stacking out party membership to bolster her capacity to impose her will on her party's parliamentary wing.
Natasha Stott Despoja and the Democrats The rise of Natasha Stott Despoja must be seen as part of Kernot's attempt to transform the Australian Democrats. Stott Despoja first came to prominence as a student political leader at Adelaide University in the late 1980s. Stott Despoja was also a leader of a student faction that was represented within the National Union of Students (NUS), called the 'Independents'. Up until the November 1991 NUS National Conference, the Independents faction was essentially a coalition of the 'soft left' (to which Stott Despoja then belonged) and the ALP Right. Due to the refusal of the ALP Right (which later constituted itself as 'Student Unity') to back her, Stott Despoja lost her bid to be elected NUS National President.
This failure to win the NUS National presidency probably did not faze Stott Despoja because she already had a job with Cheryl Kernot as a staffer to fall back on. Stott Despoja's value to Kernot was that she could recruit some of her student political contacts into the Australian Democrats in order to undermine Coulter's position as leader. Thus not only did Stott Despoja's recruitment activities help Kernot win the party leadership in 1993, but they helped pave the way for her own elevation to the Senate in November 1995 following Coulter's resignation from Parliament.
Kernot's authoritarian leadership style undermined the Democrats' capacity to safeguard the integrity of Australia's democratic processes of government. This was demonstrated in 1996 when the Australian Democrats used their balance of power in the Senate to pass a Bill which banned political electronic advertising, which mainly took the form of political television advertisements. (This Bill was subsequently declared unconstitutional by the High Court of Australia and thereby voided).
Senator Kernot's support of legislation which restricted freedom of speech was reprehensible, as was her insistence that fellow Australian Democrat Senators support the legislation. In an act of political integrity, New South Wales Democrat Senator, Karen Sawoda voted against the legislation. In taking this action Senator Sawoda was not only upholding the principles of free speech, but also exercising her sovereign right as an Australian Democrat to vote against party policy if she felt that it conflicted with her conscience. That Kernot took exception to Sawoda's action demonstrated how she was affecting a cultural shift in the Australian Democrats party which was undermining its capacity to 'keep the bastards honest'.
Cheryl Kernot's October 1997 defection to the ALP and the factors that precipitated it, will be the action for which Kernot will probably be most remembered, rather than the role that she played in undermining her former party's democratic operational ethos. Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that Kernot's power base was itself undermined by the fact that the members that Senator Stott Despoja was recruiting into the party. In her 2001 election night interview, in which she conceded that she had lost the seat of Dickson, Kernot obliquely alluded to the external party machine pressures that had made her previous position as Australian Democrat's leader increasingly untenable. This development was not only ironic, but it was also a form of poetic justice, because Kernot had previously supported Stott Despoja's recruitment activities.
In assuming the Australian Democrats leadership in 1997, South Australian Senator Meg Lees inherited the locus of power that this role now entailed, due to the legacy of the Kernot tradition. (At the time of Kernot's departure, no one disputed Lee's right as the elected deputy leader to automatically assume the party leadership on an interim basis pending her subsequent election as leader by party members). As party leader Lees did nothing to dilute the centralised role of party leader that Kernot had bequeathed. Nonetheless Senator Lees, in contrast to Kernot, was committed to the principle of negotiating with the Howard Government, providing that the scope existed to effect legislative change which reflected the avowed Australian Democrat principles of fairness and equity. (It should be noted however that despite Kernot's general aversion to compromising with the Howard Government, she and West Australian Democrat's Senator Andrew Murray played a significant role in passing the coalition's deregulatory Workplace Relations Act 1996, albeit in a modified form).
This approach of Senator Lees was reflected when she and Senator Andrew Murray negotiated a deal in November 1999 which allowed the passage of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) legislation and the introduction of the new indirect tax from 1st July 2000. Stott Despoja (who had been elected deputy leader in 1997) and Queensland Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett defied Lees and a majority of the party room by voting against the GST.
Although Stott Despoja's and Bartlett's action probably did not endear them to their parliamentary colleges, no one, at this time, denied that it was their right as Australian Democrats to vote according to their consciences. In a similar vein, even though Lees' and her parliamentary supporters' endorsement of a GST was probably contrary to the majority opinion of the Australian Democrats' membership, Australian Democrats Senators were still, at this point, entitled to vote according to their conscience.
Natasha at the Helm Senator Stott Despoja harnessed Australian Democrat membership discontent concerning the GST deal to successfully challenge Lees' leadership in April 2001. Although no one can deny the legitimacy of Stott Despoja's election as party leader in terms of it reflecting the overwhelming majority of membership opinion, her elevation was an ominous development because it perverted the party's traditions of parliamentarians being free from external influences. This shift away from fundamental party principles was effected by Stott Despoja, because the quid pro quo that she was prepared to pay in order to gain the party leadership, was to support the supposed right of the Australian Democrats' predominately left-wing membership (which she had consciously help recruit into the party) to dictate to its parliamentary wing how they should vote and conduct their affairs. Accordingly Stott Despoja supported the enhanced role for the Australian Democrats' National Executive produced by its establishment of a so-called National Compliance Committee, which is specifically charged with monitoring the performance of Australian Democrat Senators. (The grilling to which Senator Lees was subjected by the National Compliance Committee, after having merely canvassed the option of privatising the remainder of Telstra, precipitated her July 2002 resignation from the Australian Democrats).
While Senator Stott Despoja's support for these authoritarian monitoring structures may have helped facilitate her rise to the leadership, they have probably doomed the Australian Democrats in the long term. This is because the Australian public has always been suspicious of external pressure groups which attempt to impose their will on politicians. Arthur Calwell's capacity to become Prime Minister in the 1960s was effectively thwarted by Menzie's jibe that he was hostage to the dictates of 'faceless men' who constituted the ALP National Executive. Similarly, the component of the Australian electorate that has traditionally voted for the Australian Democrats because it trusted the party to responsibly exercise the balance of power cannot be expected to continue to do so if its parliamentary representatives are to be dictated to by a party cabal which is ideologically closer to the Australian Greens.
The Current Crisis Consequently the Stott Despoja camp is currently trying to obscure the issue of external party control by demonising Senator Meg Lees for resigning from the Australian Democrats and by labeling the four Democrat Senators who are trying to maintain their independence from extra-parliamentary control as the 'Gang of Four'. In keeping with terminology and precepts that are related to twentieth century Chinese history, Stott Despoja's recent August 2002 resignation as party leader can be regarded as being in sync with the personal survival stratagem of China's last emperor Pu Yi, which was, 'advance by retreating'.
Stott Despoja's resignation should be analysed in the context of this method of 'advance by retreating'. Although Stott Despoja ostensibly resigned because of the supposed destabilising machinations of the 'Gang of Four', her resignation has actually served to enhance the power of the party's extra-parliamentary wing. Instead of the party's interim leadership automatically going to the elected deputy party leader, New South Wales Senator Aden Ridgeway, (who is a member of the so-called 'Gang of Four') the Australian Democrats' National Executive appointed a relatively obscure West Australian Senator, Brian Greig as interim leader. Therefore Stott Despoja's resignation, far from weakening the proponents of external party control, has actually strengthened it.
Senator Ridgeway's subsequent resignation as deputy leader and refusal to contest the party leadership is indicative of the ascendancy of the party's hard left. Although Senator Ridgeway is currently the only Democrat Senator that has the requisite leadership mantle that could raise the Australian Democrats from their rut, he decided not to run because he knew that he had no chance of being elected leader. This is because the Australian Democrat party's membership, numbering approximately 3000 members, has been stacked out by the hard left. Therefore, the candidacies of the party's two leadership candidates, Senators Greig and Bartlett, are only viable because they are acceptable to that narrow base, which is the Australian Democrats party's rank and file membership. (Amazingly, no Senator declared his/her candidacy for the vacated post of deputy leader).
What Does the Future Hold? Although either a Bartlett or Grieg led Australian Democrats will try to project the image of leading a centre (or left of centre) party, either man would be fooling himself if he believed that an electorate as sceptical as Australia's would not see through such a charade. The so-called 'Gang of Four' seems determined not to lend any credence to any future attempts to repackage the Australian Democrats as still being a centrist force. A discernable move to the left by the Australian Democrats, which is reflective of the ideological orientation of its membership base is also untenable, because the Greens currently hold that ground.
Despite the risks inherent in any attempt to predict the future, I can envisage a scenario in which the Australian Democrats dominant left wing, (i.e., Senators Bartlett, Grieg and Stott Despoja and the party machine led by National President Liz Oss-Emer) could well follow the suggestion of former Queensland Democrat Senator, Michael Macklin and merge with the Australian Greens. Such a scenario would obviously only be viable if the Australian Greens leadership was amenable to it.
While predictions of possible future mergers may seem far-fetched, there is no doubt that the 'Gang of Four' is not going to accommodate the left's ascendancy over the Australian Democrats. Therefore, the time could well come when the 'Gang of Four,' in conjunction with Senator Meg Lees, might actually launch a new political party. Such a move would undoubtedly arouse the vitriol of the hard left (similar to the animosity that Britain's moderate 'Gang of Four' were subjected to, when they split from the British Labour Party in March 1981 and formed the Social Democratic Party, because they would not submit to Tony Benn's policy of re-selection).
Whatever charges of treachery a centrist Australian Democrats' breakaway party might be subjected to, they could be countered by making the point that the integrity of any future parliamentarians belonging to such a new party could not be qualified in terms of them being beholden to external forces. Therefore, a centrist breakaway party from the current Australian Democrats, rather than being a repudiation of the traditions that facilitated the party's emergence in 1977, would actually constitute a re-affirmation of them.
The author, David Bennett, holds a Master of Arts degree in Industrial Relations.

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Copyright 2002 David Bennett. Original image copyright held by the Australian Democrats, reproduced here in original and altered forms for artistic reasons. Copyright for general page concept and format held by Perspectives on World History and Current Events.