Monday, October 20, 2008

The last Hurrah!

The Ryde by-election on Saturday is probably the last hurrah for the party that Gordon Barton started.

I know popular mythology is that Don Chipp started the Australian Democrats, but the reality was that Don Chipp was the long sought after "high profile" candidate that galvanised the Australia Party and SA's Liberal Reform Movement into a viable force.

On Saturday the Democrats candidate Peter Goldfinch scored 1.7% of the vote. This should be contrasted with the 11.6% to the Greens. While as usual the Democrats struggled to mount a campaign, this is an election in the kind of environment that might suit "third party insurance" campaigns - Labor is imploding but there is nothing about Barry O'Farrell's team that inspires confidence.

Meanwhile up on the North Coast an independent held Port Macquarie, showing there is still capacity for the electorate to look beyond the major parties.

As is on the public record I joined the Democrats late in the piece and contested the 2007 State election in Epping. I also encouraged Peter Goldfinch to run in Ryde - if ever the Democrats could have found a bounce this was it. My interest in the Democrats position began back in the early 70s when I broke away from my parents support of the conservatives and found a first home in the liberal and libertarian Australia Party. Much of the Democrats platform and almost all their rules had its genesis in the Australia Party of that era.

My own political journey took me into the ALP twice, leaving the first time because of a lack of time to contribute and the second time because (biazrrely) I had read Graeme Freudenberg's history of the ALP. The lesson I learnt in the Freudenberg book was that the ALP had never changed fundamentally from the inside, only from outside. The piece the Liberals keep hating about Labor, its strong union links, are becoming the ALPs biggest weakness, as the party selects its "stars" from a small gene pool of full-time politicians with limited additional experience to draw upon (the excellent Fabians lecture by Rodney Cavalier on Could Chifley win Labor preselection today made this point well.) The institutionalised factions are as much a problem - because the factions are no longer means of contending philosophical positions but separate patronage pools.

The other bizarre part of the NSW by-elections is the extent to which they play out as contests between management teams not political philosophies. Who can run the hospitals better, rather than why public health care is an equity issue. The Liberals campaign theme was "Start the Change" - but to what?

This results in the experience of general elections being the selection of a electoral college to choose the Premier and little else. Out of this the occassional independent thrusts through - picking up the despair of the citizenry about the hollowness of organised politics.

So where to for the great democratic experiment of the Australia Party/Australian Democrats? The short answer would appear to be that they should adopt a position as a political society rather than a political party. A place to promote discussion and at times support candidates, but not to try to wear the mantle of party. By being a non-party the society can better criticise parties. By being a non-party they can advocate real reforms like an elected executive President that therefore creates a meaningful legislature.

Peter Goldfinch has served the Democrats well, hopefully his greatest service will be in delivering the message - 'The party is over".


Brett said...

David, you appear to have forgotten to mention a few points as you summarise the Australian Democrats history and future.

David, Peter Goldfinch and all the other candidates were receiving this low vote when you desperatly tried to gain pre-selection at last years senate nominations for the party where you lost dismally. However the low results the party had been recieving in the last few years certainly didn't provoke the dismal and inaccurate view of the party that you are projecting now. I wonder if it would have been different if you had won the preselection? Would your view of the party be different then?

This view by David Havyatt clearly highlights that there are many who look at the Australian Democrats for what they can get from the party rather than what the party stands for. The rich history of the Democrats shows that it really does have it's own idiology, character, purpose and future.

The Democrats will have rats running from the ship when they discover that there is nothing to gain from it for themselves. However I am delighted to be reasured at the loyal members who have supported candidates like Peter Goldfinch for what the party can do for our way of life rather than an individuals ambitions.

David Havyatt said...

Brett, I don't think I exactly ignored that fact, I just wasn't choosing to dwell on it. My view of the party would be exactly the same had I won preselection and got the same result. I think to claim I "desperately tried to gain pre-selection" is dramatically over stating it. I joined, I offered myself - twice - I stood in Epping, I helped revive the Bennelong-Berowra Branch, I campaigned vigorously for the State election, I volunteered to serve as Treasurer. I hardly did the swan in and expect to be candidate thing. In fact, by recollection a certain Brett encouraged me to nominate for National Executive.

I did lose the preselection dismally but let's not dwell on exactly how many "loyal members" ultimaetely participated in that decision. I won't also mention that the successful person has also similarly "walked away" though her expressed ideal was to "rebuild he party." I walked from the campaign because I knew what a mess it would be, and having seen the State campaign knew exactly how the blame allocation would go. Though I note that the campaign manager's report somehow or other suggested I was the "culprit".

I also won't go into the sheer lunacy of a membership that preselected the same person for the State Upper House and Senate elections in 2007.

I would have appreciated this comment if it had had some semblence of connection to reality. I would have been pleased if there was some comment about what it was that the Democrats were going to do "for our way of life" rather than merely wistful reminisences and thoughts of a glory days that never existed. As soon as the Democrats genuinely had a balance of power it became the poisoned chalice that ripped them assunder as their decisions finally had real repercussions.

For the record, I helped Peter Goldfinch on Saturday.

Finally, if Brett you really mean what you say you might recognise that everything the Democrats stand for, and the things it can do "for our way of life" can be achieved as a political society not a party. Too many of the remaining Democrats think in terms of election campaigns, throwing on the logo and some slogan about third party insurance, whereas what stood it in great stead in its first thirty years was the hard yards of organising policy debates - something that has not occurred in NSW for at least five years.

Jeffrey G said...

I do not think it will be the last hurrah because the Democrats are intent on fielding candidates as long as they continue to have the party status to do so. Unfortunately, the necessary structural reforms are not being uindertaken due to a lack of human resources, a lack of financial resources and a clear message from a select few that those with different opinions on such a review are no longer welcome.

I declare that I am a lapsed member of the Democrats. I intend to rejoin merely to keep an eye on things. The conduct of many remaining in the party ion roles of influence bellies the principles the party pupports to support - at least in NSW.

I welcome your post Mr Havyatt. Good to see something like that on record.

coconaut said...

Well, I see a way forward for the party as a pioneering online political party, with quick, transparent online policy ballot processes.

You mentioned the party becoming more like a "political society" which I think is an incorrect reading of the current situation where the party has to re-orientate itself from being a parliamentary party to an activist, member-driven party. To a professional politician that may look like a "society" but it is needed for a non-MP party to survive and rebuild.

Jeffrey ... structural reform is coming.

Strangely I am finding the democrats more exciting since they lost their senators - a lot of stuff has started moving.

Edward O said...

As perhaps the most recent and high-profile casualty of the NSW purge where those who don't toe the party line are asked to leave, I feel I can offer some context, and this is really more an open comment to David in the absence of me opening my email program, but I think Brett, with whom I remain on good terms, should read it too.

The party is over. Everyone knows it, which is why NE is trying to block a ballot - they know that even if it didn't succeed, the quite low turnout and the decently sized "yes" response would indicate a party whose members are not consumed by passion but by apathy.

NSW in particular is over. The human capital to rebuild is simply not there in that State. Its state executive is, perhaps apart frm Brett and one other person, populated by Pollyannas with no actual administrative ability.

The current NE is, frankly, a hilarious joke with a punchline I don't get. The "team" that got elected railed against John McLaren and Lyn Allison doing stuff to try to change the Party for apparently doing this without the will of members and not consulting in a bottom-up way but their current tack is even more top-down dictating than before.

Aron Paul is not up to the job as President - that he posted details of in-camera discussions on his blog shows this. The State Presidents, by and large, are good people and I would never say a bad thing against Laura Chipp whom I adore. But the DNPs, answerable to nobody and deluded into thinking they have a "mandate" are not consulting members, they are puritans intent on keeping the party going even though:

1) The party cannot contest campaigns
2) The party does not have high quality candidates among its membership
3) The party doesn't have the money or clout it used to

Frankly, these people are more loyal to the party's name and branding than to its aims. Do I love the Democrats? Sure, what they were. What they are now is rather different. They truly DO act like they want to be another left wing of the Labor party. "Oh, you can't vote for the Liberals, Edward." someone said to me in March 2007.

As Reagan said of the US Democrats, I didn't leave them, they left me. And I'm not coming back.

I still don't like the Greens, but they've won and we won't catch them because frankly they're fielding better candidates than we are, they have more members and more money and gravitas, albeit unearned.