RIP Don Chipp (1925-2006) and an analysis of the Democrats’ future

RIP Don Chipp
Don Chipp, founder of the Australian Democrats, died yesterday in Melbourne aged 81. His legacy is the creation of a space for minor parties in the Australian political system unprecedented until the rise of the Australian Democrats as the “third force” in Australian politics. I agree with Kim Beazley’s assessment that the country is poorer for his passing – he was relentless to the very end in promoting the values of democracy in this country. He brought into the Australian idiom the phrase “keeping the bastards honest”, one which resonates clearly today. The need for this is no more clearly demonstrated than in the Howard Government’s moves to undermine democracy through Senate committee processes now that it has gained control of the Senate.

The Democrats – What on earth happened?
It is beyond doubt among even the most optimistic observers that the Australian Democrats are no longer a political force in Australia. Nobody is quite sure why and everybody has something to point the finger at, but all we do know is that at the 2004 election, in every state and territory, support for the Democrats plunged to between 1 and 3% from a variety of levels, and this has been repeated in every State election held since that election in which the Democrats have taken part. My own thoughts are that after the departure of Don Chipp and Janine Haines (another person for whom I have tremendous respect, who sadly passed away last year) from the parliamentary party, the party struggled to find an identity for itself, and collapsed in a factional mire that had been a ticking timebomb for many years.

The two explanations heard most often from the commentariat, depending on political affiliation, are either:

  • that Lees’ support of the GST – seen as a compromise taken too far by left-wing commentators – or;
  • the party’s perceived drift to the left under Stott-Despoja and others – an odd criticism given that the party has always been socially liberal and environmentally conscious.

While it’s difficult to read the minds of 600,000 voters, and the fact that when the AD vote dissipated, it didn’t go anywhere in particular, my own reading of it is that the party had shifted all over the place up until Kernot’s leadership, that Kernot’s defection to the ALP had a deep psychological impact upon the remaining Democrat members and the right wing gained ascendancy and took the party places that its voting public never wanted it to go, but the ascendancy of Stott-Despoja halted the vote slide as she presented well, was intelligent and coherent, and people regained confidence in a return to the party’s old values (particularly given Chipp’s strong support of her). However Stott-Despoja was in a minority within the parliamentary party and the public slanging made them look like the very parties they were supposed to be keeping honest. The voters Stott-Despoja had convinced to vote Democrat in 2001 after the GST shock were then lost, as were an additional large number of less ideologically committed voters who were tired of the public spectacle and thought the Democrats had lost their vision and their right to represent them. My conclusions in this paragraph come from talking to about 50 ex-Democrat voters from four states, as well as extensively studying AEC and state electoral statistics from all states and territories except Victoria (no reason why the exclusion – just haven’t got to it yet)

Where to from here?
Now the interesting bit follows – Stott-Despoja was not up for election in 2004. In fact, in SA, her former colleague Meg Lees had quit the party and ran on the “Australian Progressive Alliance” ticket, receiving about 2% of the vote in the Adelaide Hills and negligible everywhere else, while a non-incumbent tried to win the Democrat vote. Next time will not be a split ticket and voters may well cast a personal vote for Stott-Despoja. I’ll be very interested to see if this happens – especially after the shock Xenophon result in the 2006 State election which demonstrates that SA voters are happy to reward independently minded candidates with a perceived genuine focus on issues over politics. My prediction is that she will be the last Democrats MP in Australia and could even do a Harradine, carving out a niche vote every 6 years. However, this depends on whether people see the name or the party. Should she not win it, the chances of Family First getting the seat in the only state where they have a serious chance in 2007 (Victoria was a freak result) are quite real.
I think it’s inevitable that Bartlett and Murray will lose their seats in 2007 in a vote largely consistent with 2004 when their colleagues met the same fate. It’s been my observation that in states with a significant Green vote, the Democrat has been replaced with a Green, while in others they’ve been replaced by a major party representative (usually a Liberal). SA and NSW both elected three of each, while Queensland elected three Liberals and a National in what I see as a one off – the Hanson and One Nation votes were still reasonably high in Queensland (~4% each) and directed towards the Coalition, while the Democrat vote collapsed, creating a vacuum. Queensland is the hardest to predict in 2007 – all the others are all but certain based on past voting history unless a massive swing occurs to the ALP or one of the larger minor parties besides the Greens preferences Labor (however, there are very few of these left).

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