Thursday, June 26, 2008

Australian Democrats exit Senate stage left

Three of the four outgoing Democrat senators made their farewell speeches in the Australian Senate last night. Andrew Bartlett, Natasha Stott Despoja and party leader Lyn Allison all gave their valedictory addresses to the parliament (the fourth, Andrew Murray, made his final contribution (pdf) the night before) before their term of office expires on 30 June. Allison and Bartlett failed in their bid to be re-elected in last November’s federal election. Murray and Stott Despoja both retired and their successors also lost in what was a dismal electoral failure for the Democrats.

The foursome’s departure marks the end of over 30 years of Democrat representation in Canberra. Most of the media attention centred on the departure of the charismatic 38 year old former leader Natasha Stott Despoja. She announced her retirement in 2006 to spend more time with her husband and children. Her final message to parliament was that Australia needed to do more to encourage women to enter politics. "It's 106 years since women gained the right to vote and stand for parliament and yet look at the numbers,” she said. “Women comprise less than a third of the federal parliament."

Andrew Bartlett used his farewell speech to reflect on his own career and extol the Democrat influence on parliament. Bartlett lamented the fact Queensland (like NSW) now had no representation from the minor parties. He said this loss of diversity was a problem that would mean that some issues may not get on the political agenda. He praised Democrat efforts in bring attention to the gap in life expectancy between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals, calls for disarmament, a focus on renewable energies and its pro-independence stance on East Timor. He said the Democrats kept a crucial focus on issues that didn't fit into the dominant political narratives. “Our role in speaking out on issues that are not popular is one that is crucial to a democracy,” he said.

Party leader Lyn Allison finished the round of Democrat valedictory speeches (pdf). She said the Senate’s strength was its encouragement of collaboration and negotiation particularly when neither major party had the numbers to control it. She thanked her three party colleagues for giving her “a smooth ride” in the party leadership and like Stott Despoja, called for more attention to be paid to working women. She criticised “dangerously repressive family planning guidelines [which] are still intact thanks to religious zealotry” and the fact spending on family planning has dropped to one-sixth of what it was 12 years ago. She also berated the lack of action on climate change. “It seems that neither major party has the guts to tell people that high petrol prices are here to stay,” she said. “The inevitable pricing of carbon will push them even further, much less encourage alternatives.”

Allison’s was probably the last ever speech the parliament will hear from her party. Bernard Keane, writing in Crikey today, called it “the death of the Democrats” and said their farewell was testimony to how important getting the right leader was. He cited a number of factors in their demise including Cheryl Kernot’s defection and the party’s “idiotic failure” to get behind the leadership of Stott Despoja. But it was then-party leader Meg Lees decision to support the GST that did the most damage. “That Lees later ran off and failed miserably to start her own party revealed just how badly out of touch she was,” said Keane.

The only seats the party subsequently won was under Stott Despoja’s leadership in 2001. But the rot had already set in. Andrew Bartlett agrees the party was in crisis by then and split into pro- and anti- Lees factions. He told parliament yesterday that the catchcry ‘keep the bastards honest’ turned out to be as much a curse as a blessing for the Democrats. While it was probably the most memorable slogan in Australian political history, it also confined the party to an honest broker role. According to Bartlett “we did a lot more than that”.

But as Andrew Norton points out, the Democrats never found a stable constituency among the ‘concerned’ middle class. “People would vote for them, but vote for someone else next time,” he said. Now, it would appear there will be no next time for the Democrats. From next week onwards, the Senate balance of power passes to the unlikely and unstable grouping of the Greens, Family First and Nick Xenophon. Allison and Bartlett can only wonder what might have been.

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