The Australian Democrats was a centrist political party in Australia with a social-liberal ideology. The party was formed in 1977, a merger of the Australia Party and the New Liberal Movement, with former Liberal minister Don Chipp as its high-profile leader. Though never achieving a seat in the House of Representatives, the party had considerable influence in the Senate for the following thirty years. Its representation in the Parliament of Australia ended on 30 June 2008, after loss of its four remaining Senate seats at the 2007 general election. As of October 2012, the organisation had disintegrated and control was contested by two factions associated with two former parliamentarians. The party was deregistered by the Australian Electoral Commission on 16 April 2015 due to the party's failure to demonstrate requisite 500 members to maintain registration. Even before its deregistration and since it became extinct as a parliamentary party anywhere in Australia, the party saw many of its prominent members defect to the Greens, including former federal party leaders Janet Powell and Andrew Bartlett and former NSW MLC Arthur Chesterfield-Evans.
The party was founded on principles of honesty, tolerance, compassion and direct democracy through postal ballots of all members, so that "there should be no hierarchical structure ... by which a carefully engineered elite could make decisions for the members." From the outset, members' participation was fiercely protected in national and divisional constitutions prescribing internal elections, regular meeting protocols, annual conferences—and monthly journals for open discussion and balloting. Dispute resolution procedures were established, with final recourse to a party ombudsman and membership ballot.
Policies determined by the unique participatory method promoted environmental awareness and sustainability, opposition to the primacy of economic rationalism (Australian neoliberalism), preventative approaches to human health and welfare, animal rights, rejection of nuclear technology and weapons.
The Australian Democrats were the first representatives of green politics at the federal level in Australia. They played a key role in the cause célèbre of the Franklin River Dam.
The party's centrist role made it subject to criticism from both the right and left of the political spectrum. In particular, Chipp's former conservative affiliation was frequently recalled by opponents on the left. This problem was to torment later leaders and strategists who, by 1991, were proclaiming "the electoral objective" as a higher priority than the rigorous participatory democracy espoused by the party's founders.
Over three decades, the Australian Democrats achieved representation in the legislatures of the ACT, South Australia, New South Wales, Western Australia and Tasmania as well as Senate seats in all six states. However, at the 2004 and 2007 federal elections, all seven of its Senate seats were lost. The last remaining State parliamentarian, David Winderlich, left the party and was defeated as an independent in 2010.
On the evening of 29 April 1977, Don Chipp addressed an overflowing Perth Town Hall meeting which unanimously passed a resolution to form a Centre-Line Party, which Chipp was invited to lead—but he firmly declined to reverse his avowed decision to quit politics, having resigned from the Liberal Party and been offered a lucrative position as a radio public affairs commentator. The Centre-Line Party was the provisional title of the Australian Democrats party. The occasion was a meeting at the Perth Town Hall to which Don Chipp had been invited in the hope that he would accept the position of leader of the new party, which would be an amalgamation of the Australia Party and the New Liberal Movement. On that occasion, Chipp declined to commit himself but did so at a corresponding public meeting in Melbourne on 9 May 1977. Chipp received a standing ovation from over 3,000 people, including former Prime Minister John Gorton, and decided to commit himself to leading the new party which was already being constructed by a national steering committee. The new party was eventually renamed the Australian Democrats by a ballot of its membership. "Fifty-six suggestions produced by members were listed on the ballot paper, including Uniting Australia Party, Australian Centre Line Party, Dinkum Democrats, Practical Idealists of Australia and People for Sanity Party!! After the ballot, the suggestion of the Steering Committee, 'Australian Democrats', was overwhelmingly accepted." The name "Australian Democrats" was already in informal currency before this decision.
The first Australian Democrats (AD) federal parliamentarian was Senator Janine Haines who filled Steele Hall's casual Senate vacancy for South Australia in 1977. Surprisingly, she was not a candidate when the party contested the 1977 federal elections after Don Chipp had agreed to be leader and figurehead. Members and candidates were not lacking in electoral experience, since the Australia Party had been contesting all federal elections since 1969 and the Liberal Movement, in 1974 and 1975. The party's broad aim was to achieve a balance of power in one or more parliaments and to exercise it responsibly in line with policies determined by membership.
The grassroot support attracted by Chipp's leadership was measurable at the party's first electoral test at the 1977 federal election on 10 December, when 9.38 per cent of the total Lower House vote was polled and 11.13 per cent of the Senate vote. At that time, with five Senate seats being contested in each state, the required quota was a daunting 16.66 per cent. However, the first 6-year-term seats were won by Don Chipp (Vic) and Colin Mason (NSW).
The Australian Democrats' first national conference, on 16–17 February 1980, was opened by the distinguished nuclear physicist and former governor of South Australia, Sir Mark Oliphant, who said:
I was privileged to be in the chair at the public meeting in Melbourne when [Don Chipp] announced formation of a new party, dedicated to preserve what freedoms we still retain, and to increase them. A party in which dictatorship from the top was replaced by consensus. A party not ordered about by big business and the rich, or by union bosses. A party where a man could retain freedom of conscience and not thereby be faced with expulsion. A party to which the intelligent individual could belong without having to subscribe to a dogmatic creed. In other words, a democratic party.
At a Melbourne media conference on 19 September 1980, in the midst of the 1980 election campaign, Chipp described his party's aim as to "keep the bastards honest"—the "bastards" being the major parties and/or politicians in general. This became a long-lived slogan for the Democrats.
At the October 1980 election, the Democrats polled 9.25 per cent of the Senate vote, electing Janine Haines (SA) and two new senators Michael Macklin (Qld) and John Siddons (Vic), bringing the party's strength to five Senate seats from 1 July 1981 .
A by-election in the South Australian state seat of Mitcham (now Waite) saw Heather Southcott retain the seat for the Democrats in 1982. Since 1955 it had been held by conservative lawyer Robin Millhouse whose New Liberal Movement merged into the Democrats in 1977, and who was resigning to take up a senior judicial appointment. Southcott was defeated later that year at the 1982 state election. Mitcham was the only single-member lower-house seat anywhere in Australia to be won by the Democrats.
Don Chipp resigned from the Senate on 18 August 1986, being succeeded as party leader by Janine Haines and replaced as a senator for Victoria by Janet Powell.
At the 1987 election following a double dissolution, the reduced quota of 7.7% necessary to win a seat assisted the election of three new senators. 6-year terms were won by Paul McLean (NSW) and incumbents Janine Haines (South Australia) and Janet Powell (Victoria). In South Australia, a second senator, John Coulter, was elected for a 3-year term, as were incumbent Michael Macklin (Queensland) and Jean Jenkins (Western Australia).
1990 saw the voluntary departure from the Senate of Janine Haines (a step with which not all Democrats agreed) and the failure of her strategic goal of winning the House of Representatives seat of Kingston.
The casual vacancy was filled by Meg Lees several months before the election of Cheryl Kernot in place of retired deputy leader Michael Macklin. The ambitious Kernot immediately contested the party's national parliamentary deputy leadership. Being unemployed at the time, she requested and obtained party funds to pay for her travel to address members in all seven divisions. In the event, Victorian Janet Powell was elected as leader and John Coulter was chosen as deputy leader.
Despite the loss of Haines and the WA Senate seat (through an inconsistent national preference agreement with the ALP), the 1990 federal election heralded something of a rebirth for the party, with a dramatic rise in primary vote. This was at the same time as an economic recession was building, and events such as the Gulf War in Kuwait were beginning to shepherd issues of globalisation and transnational trade on to national government agendas.
The Australian Democrats had a long-standing policy to oppose war and so opposed Australia's support of, and participation in, the Gulf War. Whereas the House of Representatives was able to avoid any debate about the war and Australia's participation, the Democrats took full advantage of the opportunity to move for a debate in the Senate.
Because of the party's pacifist-based opposition to the Gulf War, there was mass-media antipathy and negative publicity which some construed as poor media performance by Janet Powell, the party's standing having stalled at about 10%. Before 12 months of her leadership had passed, the South Australian and Queensland divisions were circulating the party's first-ever petition to criticise and oust the parliamentary leader. The explicit grounds related to Powell's alleged responsibility for poor AD ratings in Gallup and other media surveys of potential voting support. When this charge was deemed insufficient, interested party officers and senators reinforced it with negative media 'leaks' concerning her openly established relationship with Sid Spindler and exposure of administrative failings resulting in excessive overtime to a staff member. With National Executive blessing, the party room pre-empted the ballot by replacing the leader with deputy John Coulter. In the process, severe internal divisions were generated. One major collateral casualty was the party whip Paul McLean who resigned and quit the Senate in disgust at what he perceived as in-fighting between close friends. The casual NSW vacancy created by his resignation was filled by Karin Sowada. Powell duly left the party, along with many leading figures of the Victorian branch of the party, and unsuccessfully stood as an Independent candidate when her term expired. In later years, she campaigned for the Australian Greens.
Because of their numbers on the cross benches during the Hawke and Keating governments, the Democrats were sometimes regarded as exercising a balance of power—which attracted electoral support from a significant sector of the electorate which had been alienated by both Labor and Coalition policies and practices. The party's parliamentary influence was weakened in 1996 after the Howard Government was elected, and a Labor senator, Mal Colston, resigned from the Labor Party. Since the Democrats now shared the parliamentary balance of power with two Independent senators, the Coalition government was able on occasion to pass legislation by negotiating with Colston and Brian Harradine. Following the 1998 election the Australian Democrats again held the balance of power, until the Coalition gained a Senate majority at the 2004 election.
The party's integrity as a neutral third party suffered a serious blow from the resignation and defection of leader Cheryl Kernot in October 1997, with revelations of her sexual relationship with Gareth Evans and her aspirations to a ministerial position in a Labor government.
Under Lees' leadership, in the 1998 federal election, the Democrats' candidate John Schumann came within 2 per cent of taking Liberal Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's seat of Mayo in the Adelaide Hills under Australia's preferential voting system. The party's representation increased to nine senators.
Internal conflict and leadership tensions from 2000 to 2002, blamed on the party's support for the Government's Goods and Services Tax (GST), was damaging to the Democrats. Opposed by the Labor Party, the Australian Greens and independent Senator Harradine, the GST required Democrat support to pass. In an election fought on tax, the Democrats publicly stated that they liked neither the Liberal (GST) tax package nor the Labor package, but pledged to work with whichever party was elected to make their tax package better. They campaigned with the slogan "No GST on food".
In 1999, after negotiations with Prime Minister Howard, Meg Lees, Andrew Murray and the party room Senators agreed to support the A New Tax System (ANTS) legislation with exemptions from GST for most food and some medicines, as well as many environmental and social concessions. Five Australian Democrats senators voted in favour. However, two dissident senators on the party's left Natasha Stott Despoja and Andrew Bartlett voted against the GST.
In 2001, a leadership spill saw Meg Lees replaced as leader by Natasha Stott Despoja after a very public and bitter leadership battle. Despite criticism of Stott Despoja's youth and lack of experience, the 2001 election saw the Democrats receive similar media coverage to the previous election. Despite the internal divisions, the Australian Democrats' election result in 2001 was quite good. However, it was not enough to prevent the loss of Vicki Bourne's Senate seat in NSW.
The 2002 South Australian state election was the last time an Australian Democrat would be elected to an Australian parliament. Sandra Kanck was re-elected to a second eight-year term from an upper house primary vote of 7.3 percent.
Resulting tensions between Stott Despoja and Lees led to Meg Lees leaving the party in 2002, becoming an independent and forming the Australian Progressive Alliance. Stott Despoja stood down from the leadership following a loss of confidence by her party room colleagues. It led to a protracted leadership battle in 2002, which eventually led to the election of Senator Andrew Bartlett as leader. While the public fighting stopped, the public support for the party remained at record lows.
On 6 December 2003, Bartlett stepped aside temporarily as leader of the party, after an incident in which he swore at Liberal Senator Jeannie Ferris on the floor of Parliament while intoxicated. The party issued a statement stating that deputy leader Lyn Allison would serve as the acting leader of the party. Bartlett apologised to the Democrats, Jeannie Ferris and the Australian public for his behaviour and assured all concerned that it would never happen again. On 29 January 2004, after seeking medical treatment, Bartlett returned to the Australian Democrats leadership, vowing to abstain from alcohol.
Support for the Australian Democrats fell significantly at the 2004 federal election in which they achieved only 2.4 per cent of the national vote. Nowhere was this more noticeable than in their key support base of suburban Adelaide in South Australia, where they received between 7 and 31 per cent of the Lower House vote in 2001, and between 1 and 4 per cent in 2004. Three incumbent senators were defeated—Aden Ridgeway (NSW), Brian Greig (WA) and John Cherry (Qld). Following the loss, the customary post-election leadership ballot installed Lyn Allison as leader and Andrew Bartlett as her deputy.
From 1 July 2005 the Australian Democrats lost official parliamentary party status, being represented by only four senators while the governing Liberal-National Coalition gained a majority and potential control of the Senate—the first time this advantage had been enjoyed by any government since 1980.
On 5 January 2006, the ABC reported that the Tasmanian Electoral Commission had de-registered that division of the party for failing to provide a list containing the required number of members to be registered for Tasmanian state and local elections.
On 18 March 2006, at the 2006 South Australian state election, the Australian Democrats were reduced to 1.7 per cent of the Legislative Council (upper house) vote. Their sole councillor up for re-election, Kate Reynolds, was defeated.
After the election, South Australian senator Natasha Stott Despoja denied rumours that she was considering quitting the party.
In early July, Richard Pascoe, national and South Australian party president, resigned, citing slumping opinion polls and the poor result in the 2006 South Australian election as well as South Australian parliamentary leader Sandra Kanck's comments regarding the drug MDMA which he saw as damaging to the party.
On 5 July 2006, Australian Democrats senator for Western Australia Andrew Murray announced his intention not to contest the 2007 federal election, citing frustration arising from the Howard Government's control of both houses and his unwillingness to serve another six-year term. His term ended on 30 June 2008.
On 28 August 2006, the founder of the Australian Democrats, Don Chipp, died. Former prime minister Bob Hawke said: "... there is a coincidental timing almost between the passing of Don Chipp and what I think is the death throes of the Democrats. "
On 22 October 2006, Australian Democrats Senator Natasha Stott Despoja announced her intention not to seek re-election at the 2007 federal election due to health concerns. Her term ended on 30 June 2008.
In November 2006, the Australian Democrats fared very poorly in the Victorian state election, receiving a Legislative Council vote tally of only 0.83%, less than half of the party's result in 2002 (1.79 per cent).
In the New South Wales state election of March 2007, the Australian Democrats lost their last remaining NSW Upper House representative, Arthur Chesterfield-Evans. The party fared poorly, gaining only 1.8 per cent of the Legislative Council vote. A higher vote was achieved in some of the Legislative Assembly seats selectively contested as compared to 2003. However, the statewide vote share fell because the party was unable to field as many candidates as in 2003.
In the Victorian state by-election in Albert Park District the Australian Democrats stood candidate Paul Kavanagh, who polled 5.75 per cent of the primary vote, despite a large number of candidates, and all media attention focusing on the battle between Labor and Greens candidates.
On 13 September 2007, the ACT Democrats (Australian Capital Territory Division of the party) was deregistered by the ACT Electoral Commissioner, being unable to demonstrate a minimum membership of 100 electors.
The Democrats had no success at the 2007 federal election. Two incumbent senators, Lyn Allison (Victoria) and Andrew Bartlett (Queensland), were defeated, their seats both reverting to major parties. Their two remaining colleagues, Andrew Murray (WA) and Natasha Stott Despoja (SA), did not run for new terms. All four senators' terms expired on 30 June 2008—leaving the Australian Democrats with no federal representation for the first time since its founding in 1977. An ABC report noted that "on the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) website the party is now referred to just as 'other'".
The last of the party's state upper-house members, David Winderlich, resigned from the party in October 2009 and was defeated as an independent at the 2010 election.
In March 2012, the Australian Electoral Commission queried a Democrats submission of 550 names of purported members and proposed deregistering the party for having fewer than 500 members, the threshold needed for registration. The Commission later satisfied itself that the party had sufficient membership to continue its registration.
The Democrats did not nominate a single candidate in the 2014 South Australian election, in the party's state of origin.
On 16 April 2015, the Australian Electoral Commission deregistered the Australian Democrats as a political party for failure to demonstrate the requisite 500 members to maintain registration.
The Australian Democrats have said they will appeal the AEC decision, which under the legislation is reviewable. However the party does not appear on the AEC Current Register of Political Parties and could not contest the 2016 Federal Election.
The party's original support base consisted of voters alienated by perceived unproductive adversarial conflict between the two mainstream parties and an emerging new constituency of people with a desire to participate more effectively in government and to promote concerns for environmental protection and social justice. The party aimed to combine liberal social policies with centrist, particularly neo-Keynesian economics and a progressive environmental platform.
The original agenda included 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, open government, constitutional reform, progressive approaches to social issues such as sexuality and drugs, and strong support for human rights and civil liberties. Its membership largely comprised tertiary-educated and middle-class constituents. The party also appealed to voters opposed to untrammeled government power and wishing to have alternative views aired in parliaments and media.
The party has a platform of participatory democracy, with policies supporting proportional representation and citizen-initiated 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, Australian Democrats parliamentarians generally had extensive freedom in interpreting them.
However, by 1980, the Australian Democrats had employed the postal-ballot method at both national at state levels to develop an extensive body of written policy covering not only the political agendas of the day but also innovative and far-sighted policies for environmental and economic sustainability, water and energy conservation, e.g., through development of alternative energy sources, expanded public transport, etc. To the community's growing concerns about human rights, the Australian Democrats added finely detailed policies on animal welfare and species preservation. The material is available in election manifestos and copies of the party's journals, obtainable in major public libraries.
In a 2009 "rebuild" process, the party announced creation of a new policy process, attempts to improve internal communication, and envisaged development of a new party constitution.
Prior to the 2013 federal election, the party, though factionally divided into two separate organisations, was able to publish a comprehensive package of member-balloted policies.
Support for the Democrats historically tended to fluctuate between about 5 and 10 per cent of the population and was geographically concentrated around the wealthy dense CBD and inner-suburban neighbourhoods of the capital cities (especially Adelaide). Therefore, they never managed to win a House of Representatives seat. During the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s they typically held one or two Senate seats in each state, as well as having some representatives in state parliaments.
Following the internal conflict over GST (1998–2001) and resultant leadership changes, a dramatic decline occurred in the Democrats' membership and voting support in all states. Simultaneously, an increase was recorded in support for the Australian Greens who, by 2004, were supplanting the Democrats as a substantial third party. The trend was noted that year by political scientists Dean Jaensch et al. Elsewhere, Jaensch later suggested it was possible the Democrats could make a political comeback in the federal arena.
Following Tony Abbott's displacement of Malcolm Turnbull as federal leader of the Liberal Party in 2009, the Democrats sought to attract the support of "those Liberals who no longer feel they can support their party".
Federal parliamentary leaders
Of the party's nine elected federal parliamentary leaders, six were women. Aboriginal senator Aden Ridgeway was deputy leader under Natasha Stott Despoja. Ridgeway was technically leader between Stott Despoja's resignation and the appointment of Brian Greig as interim leader.