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".