The Australian Democrats have been arguably the most successful minor party in Australia’s political history and one that (unlike the National party or the DLP) consistently performed best in South Australia. Established firmly in both the Legislative Council and the Senate for more than two decades, the party also drew four of its national leaders from this state: Janine Haines (1987–90), John Coulter (1990–93), Meg Lees (1997–2001) and Natasha Stott Despoja (2001–2).
Founded in 1977 by a disgruntled Victorian Liberal, Don Chipp, the party was originally made up largely of supporters of earlier breakaways from the Liberal Party (the Australia Party and Liberal Movement) who did not return to the fold after the split in the state Liberal and Country League was healed in the mid 1970s. Its first leader in South Australia was Robin Millhouse, barrister and long-term House of Assembly member for Mitcham. He had been a spokesman for Adelaide’s middle classes which, like Labor, were underrepresented by the ‘Playmander’, the electoral system that favoured country South Australia. Deputy leader of the Liberal and Country League and New Liberal Movement leader for its brief life in 1976–77, Millhouse responded to Chipp’s call for a party of moderation. When Millhouse left state parliament five years later, Heather Southcott retained the seat of Mitcham for the Democrats for six months until it reverted to the Liberals at the election of November 1982. Democrats contested but never won lower house seats in South Australia, despite being runners-up several times in Adelaide Hills electorates where their vote was highest.
Democrats in the SA Legislative Council
Once this chamber was reformed in the mid-1970s by premiers Steele Hall and Don Dunstan, the quota system of proportional election enabled the Democrats to win seats and hold the balance of power there for most of the period since Lance Milne’s election in 1981. Long-term members Ian Gilfillan (1982-93; 1997-2006), Mike Elliot (1985-93; 1994-2002) and Sandra Kanck (1993-2009) continued a concern with heritage and the environment, social justice and equity issues, and parliamentary accountability. The party’s early championing of the environment forestalled the rise of a separate Green political party in South Australia, and their policies and democratic grassroots ideology appealed particularly to women. The Democrats became an accepted part of the political landscape in this state, in contrast to their chequered careers in the other states. They continued the reforming and liberalising aspects of the Dunstan era, and fitted well with South Australia’s generally sedate and civilised political culture.
SA Democrats in the Senate
On the federal scene, Janine Haines became the first sitting Democrat Senator during the first six months of 1978, when she completed Steele Hall’s term after he left the Liberal Movement to return to the Liberal Party. Elected in her own right in 1980, she became the first woman to lead a national party when she succeeded Chipp in 1986, having deflected challenges from several men, including local polymath, David Vigor (1984-87). Haines’s failure to win Kingston in 1990 suggested that lower house seats were beyond Democrat reach (although singer/song-writer John Schumann ran quite a close second on preferences to Alexander Downer in the Adelaide Hills seat of Mayo in 1998). John Coulter (1987-95) was respected for his scientific credentials and green passion, but he lacked popular appeal during his time as leader, 1991-93. Natasha Stott Despoja (1993-2010) helped raise the Democrat profile, especially among younger people. South Australia recorded the highest Democrat vote in all elections since 1980, and maintained two senators from 1985 until 2007
The Recent Chapter (2001-2010)
The Australian Democrats have now vanished from all parliaments in Australia, remarkably quickly given that their parliamentary representation peaked at three Legislative Councillors (1997-2006) in SA and seven to nine Senators (1985– 2001). Protected to some degree by the staggered half elections for the upper houses, they were, like any such situated minor party, only ever two elections away from extinction. No new Democrats were elected at the 2006 and 2010 SA elections, nor at the 2007 and 2010 Federal elections, replaced largely by Greens and independent Senators like Nick Xenophon. How did they fall so rapidly?
As always in small parties, much hinged on the quality of the leader. At the national level, the defection of Cheryl Kernot so soon after the Democrats’ creditable vote in the 1996 federal election and stellar 16.7% in the SA state election of 1997 rocked the party to its foundations. They were never again to have such a competent and appealing national leader, and subsequent internal dissension began to receive more media attention than their parliamentary achievements. Wrangling over how to handle real power, as epitomised by Lees’s deals on the GST, unseemly squabbles over the leadership fuelled perceptions of a party that had lost its way.
This had an impact also on the quieter local scene. The Democrat vote dropped by half at the 2002 state elections, and the resignation soon after of Mike Elliott, burned out after nearly 17 years, cost the Democrats their most personable and credible Legislative Councillor. His replacement, Kate Reynolds, struggled to achieve a profile, failing, like Gilfillan, to be re-elected in 2006 as the Xenophon juggernaut sucked up a fifth of the vote. Sandra Kanck, re-elected for an 8-year term in 2002, was eventually the last state/territory Democrat left standing, as internal bickering and a wider choice of alternative ‘protest’ candidates took its toll on party morale and appeal everywhere. Democrat chances of retaining Kanck’s spot in 2010 in the face of a burgeoning Green presence and Family First candidates diminished as the media made the most of her personal eccentricities and espousal of causes like voluntary euthanasia and changes to laws on drugs and prostitution. Resisting party pressure to go earlier, Kanck’s retirement in January 2009 left her successor, David Winderlich, too little time to rebuild the party’s fortunes. With the Democrat ‘brand’ now trashed, he chose to desert the party in October, losing as an Independent in March 2010. It was a sad and ignominious ending for a minor party with three decades of solid parliamentary achievements in South Australia in particular.
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