Australian Democrats Turn Thirty
It was a night of dining with colleagues and getting regalled on some of the past successes of the party, such as our instrumental role in developing the Senate as a house-of-review, our pivotal legislative action to save the Franklin River wilderness, and our getting into superannuation law of recognition of the rights of same sex couples.
I had fun hanging with old friends and meeting some of the newer members who are committed to the party even in its most dire of times. Current Leader and Deputy Leader Lyn Allison and Andrew Bartlett gave moving and informative speeches. It was fantastic to meet once more some of the inspiring figures from our past such as Karin Sowada (who preceeded Natasha Stott Despoja in holding the record of youngest woman in Federal Parliament) and Aden Ridgeway (one of only two Indigenous Australians to be Federal Parliamentarians and the only to hold a leadership position in a Parliamentary party).
A booklet documenting our thirty years was launched that evening and includes interviews with all living current and former ADs parliamentarians (even those who abandoned the party at one time or another). I have since read the booklet, but on the night I let the photos in it tell the story. There were lots of posed group photos and mug shots which are all a bit clinical and contrived...
Our original Federal Parliamentary Leader was Don Chipp and Janine Haines was his Deputy. Haines became Leader following the retirement of Chipp in 1986 and she was a brilliant leader till her retirement from Parliament following the 1990 Federal Election. It was in that election that I started my association with the party and Haines was an inspirational public figure. It is a pity she lost her bid for the House of Representatives (rather than stay safe in the Senate) and a tragedy that she lost her life in 2004 to a degenerative neurological condition. We never met yet I still kinda miss her...
In reflecting on our three decades, the thing that strikes me most is that we have existed at all. Australian political history is dominated by the hegemony of two-party competition. A whole host of factors, from hereditary voting habits, to media laziness, to electoral laws, to vested interests, serve to keep Labor and the Liberal-Nationals big while keeping any third party small (particularly if that party is constructive rather than controversy-seeking). That we have done as well as we have surprises the political historian in me. For a minor party we hold the record for longest parliamentary representation and the record for largest number of senators. In all that time there has been a fine balance of competing factors serving to both keep us alive yet also keep us small. Any shift in that fine balance can spell disaster for a minor party like ours.
If we falter at the coming election then the wider electorate will miss us only once we are gone. However I feel that politics is full of surprises and that in the few months till the election we may see the Dems defy the vibe of doom that has been cast over us.