Democrats: nowhere to hide

31 Jul, 2002 10:00 PM

AUSTRALIANS have become pretty blase about political in-fighting, including the media frenzy which generally accompanies the latest stoush in either the Liberal Party or the ALP.

Unlike the Nationals. They are either better disciplined or maybe it's because the smaller numbers make for a friendlier group, but if they do have any brawls, they certainly keep them very much to themselves.

In a change from normal practice, the nation is now witnessing a major political war of words within a minor party, with the Australian Democrats having a very public free-for-all.

It is not surprising perhaps, because the party has moved a long way since Don Chipp set it up, positioning it philosophically between the Liberals and the ALP with the aim to "keep the bastards honest".

A centre party that attracted the left wing of the conservative party and the right wing of the social democrats was not unusual, but it was the combination of proportional representation and preferential voting in Australia that enabled the Chipp party to take up residence in the Senate.

The Hawke/ALP move to the political right saw the ALP shift into Democrat territory and pick up government, visible proof that Don Chipp was dead right when he claimed that a lot of unhappy voters lived there.

But it also left the Democrats with very little elbow room or choices, because the only pieces of vacant political land available were the areas to the right of the Liberals or to the left of the ALP.

They eventually jumped well to the left, but discovered that the Greens were already there, picking up the voters from the left wing of the ALP who had been left homeless by Hawke's repositioning.

Just as some ALP supporters were unhappy with their party's move to the right, some Democrats feel uncomfortable so far to the left, probably the root cause of their current troubles.

The role of minor parties in Australian politics is much the same as supporters at a footy match, to barrack for the good guys, to boo the baddies and to blame the umpires for everything that goes wrong.

Some Democrats, including Meg Lees, Andrew Murray and Aden Ridgway, have matured to the point where they shown that they could become players and have a direct say in the outcome of government.

This involves negotiations with the government and forcing the adoption of Democrat policies in return for support for the governments, an attitude that requires knowledge of both society and government.

It appears that the leaders of the Democrats, parliamentary and organisational, lack the intellectual force for this system and much prefer to stay in the sidelines and throw bricks at the umpire.

The decision to appoint the young, pretty Stott Despoja to lead the party was probably a smart PR move, but it ignored the fact that she knows nothing about life, the work force or leadership.

She is much like other professional politicians, moving from university to a politician's office and then into the Senate, not a lot in common with Meg Lees who joined the party the year it was founded.

When asking for electoral support, the Liberals, Nationals and ALP must tell the voters what they are seeking to do, whereas the Greens and Democrats talk about what they are against.

The grown-ups in the Democrats, like Meg Lees, already a bit uncomfortable so far to the left in the political spectrum, obviously want to do what they were elected to do - help govern the country.

If the leadership insists that the political members of the party must revert to their role of highly paid critics, then they must expect some unhappiness and signs of rebellion.

The difference between the Greens and Democrats has a lot to do with personalities and very little to do with policies, so a merger of those far-left inhabitants makes a lot of sense.

Voters who are interested in electing politicians to run the country probably include the original group identified by Don Chipp, those who are unhappy with the dry policies of the Liberals but not keen to embrace that creature of the trade unions, the ALP.

Maybe it's time for a new centre party to emerge, one that would embrace the sort of policies that Meg Lees, Andrew Murray and friends seem to stand for, a blend of compassion and common sense.

Maybe they could call themselves "The Democrats" and perhaps they could also adopt a mission statement that committed the new party to "keeping the bastards honest".

Maybe they could actually help to formulate government policies and work on behalf of their electorate instead of the resident powerbrokers.

It might just work.



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