Australian Elections 2007: Are the Democrats Keeping the Bastards Honest?

9 Nov

Don Chipp, a former Liberal (the Liberal Party in Australia is actually more like the Conservative Party in the UK) minister and the first leader of The Australian Democrats, remarked at a Melbourne media conference in 1980 that the main aim of the party is “to keep the bastards honest”; the bastards, referring to the major political parties and politicians in general.

Formed in 1977 as a result of the merger of the Australian Party and the New Liberal Movement, the Democrats, today, is led by Senator for Victoria, Lyn Allison with a much less confrontational slogan: “Bring Back Balance” as it fights to gain more or at least retain its seats in the House of Review or the Senate.

The Australian Democrats has its fair share of ups and downs as it rose to prominence in the early 80s and even early 90s as it controlled the balance of power with Labor or Coalition to pass legislations during the Hawke and Keating Labor government.

It is also a political party, plagued with a history of infighting and defections. In 1992, Janet Powell was ousted. Five years later, another leader, Cheryl Kernot joined the Labor.

It is however the internal disagreement over the proposed Goods and Services Tax in the 1998 Federal elections that started to mark the decline of the party with senator Meg Lees and Andrew Murray supporting the legislation with exemptions for most food and some medicines while the more left-wing Democrat voters and party members viewed this act as an act of betrayal, further resulting in erosion of support for the Democrats.

By 2007, the last remaining NSW Upper House representative, Arthur Chesterfield-Evans lost his seat in the state election. The South Australian Democrat party President resigned due to poor 2006 state elections results and South Australian parliamentary leader Sandra Kanck’s comments on the Ecstasy drug. Democrats senator for Western Australia, Andrew Murray; and South Australian senator, Natasha Stott Despoja have also said they would not contest in the upcoming federal elections after serving their terms.

To its credit, in its thirty years of existence, the Australian Democrats have acted as a check and balance or as Don Chipp says, was trying as much as it can to keeping the bastards honest. For example, in 1986, it blocked the merger of the ABC and SBS. It also fought on environmental issues such as conserving the Daintree rainforest through amendments to the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act in the same year. Janet Powell also motioned for a private bill, Smoking and Tobacco Products Advertisement Prohibition Bill, which banned print tobacco advertising in the federal level. The party also blocked the legislation of having an identity card, also known as the Australia Card that would have eroded personal privacy concerns.

Like the Greens, they had a complete list of party policies ranging from climate change to culture and diversity and international relations. On international relations, it advocates, “that our commitment to human rights is non-negotiable. This means we will not ignore human rights abuses for the sake of trade, economic or security deals with other countries.” On the United Nations, it believes “that the Security Council needs to be reformed to broaden its membership and make it more democratic.”

Today, besides its various state branches, it has a Young Democrats branch; a Carter network (name taken from Chris Carter, who was a Democrat and the first openly gay political candidate) which was established in the new millennium as a forum for Democrats to discuss sexuality and gender status policy issues; and supports the Don Chipp Foundation which aims to promote independent research and public debate.

It has also learned to harness the low cost and easy widespread access technology of the Internet and its web 2.0 features such as youtube and myspace to reach out to the younger voters. One can subscribe to the Australian Democrats on youtube which features short clips on parties’ policies on issues such as Indigenous rights and its childcare reform plan. Senator Lyn Allison’s myspace profile photo shows her riding a swanky red motorbike, most possibly the “electric motorbikes as an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional gas-guzzling vehicles” that she is promoting.

The immediate future of the Australian Democrats seems dim given its public image. Yet, it is also a party that has survived its ups and downs for the past 30 years. It may just spring back from what might appear to be its deathbed in the upcoming 2007 Australian Federal Election.



1. A Brief History of the Australian Democrats

2. Australian Democrats on Wikipedia

3. Australian Democrats on International Human Rights

4. Australian Democrats on International Peace and Security

5. Australian Democrats on Youtube

6. Senator Lyn Allison, myspace page


One Response to “Australian Elections 2007: Are the Democrats Keeping the Bastards Honest?”

  1. Luke November 13, 2007 at 11:02 am #

    Not a bad summary, but I take issue with certain points:
    – the prominence of the Democrats extended in the early 2000s (not the early 90s as stated)
    – in 30 years the Democrats have had only one more leadership turnover than the Liberals, so it’s a bit of a myth to say the Democrats are “plagued” by infighting.
    – also, the Democrats went to the election in 1998 promising “No GST on food”. What they finally compromised on was No GST on healthy food and other essential items. Lees should’ve taken the final package back to the members for a vote, but it’s unfair to say it was a betrayal.


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