The Last Democrat.

The Last Democrat.
When http://andrewbartlett.com/?p=7172 I wrote about David Winderlich being sworn into the South Australian Parliament as a Democrat MP back in January, it was no great feat of future telling to predict that he could well be the last Democrat to serve in an Australian Parliament.  The next South Australian election was due in March 2010 and the party hadn’t successfully got anyone elected at any election – state, territory or federal – since Natasha Stott Despoja finished up as leader in August 2002.
However, I didn’t expect the end would happen six months before that SA election.  However, http://www.news.com.au/adelaidenow/story/0,22606,26177316-2682,00.html today David made good on his threat from http://www.sa.democrats.org.au/2009/docs/winderlichchallenge.pdf three months ago to quit the party if 1000 new members weren’t recruited in that time – a feat which I’d have to say was basically unachievable.
It’s been done before and no doubt it will happen again, but I still think it’s poor form to resign from the party that put you into Parliament while keeping the seat unless there are very exceptional circumstances.  However, there’s not much point getting worked up about it. People can make their own judgement on that, and as far as South Australians go, they get to have a direct say on it in March next year.
However, it has once again led to widespread commentary about the Democrats being at the end of the road.  I’ve stated my own views on that in the past when asked, including on this blog – which is basically that it is best for the party, the members and the party’s very significant legacy that the party is wound up.  But others have obviously disagreed with me, which is understandable, especially given the angst which many members would feel at having to do this.  So the party has continued on.
In that context, it’s instructive to look at the experience of the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_Democrats Progressive Democrats in Ireland, a party with some similarities to the Australian Democrats. The Irish party was formed in 1985, while the Australian Democrats were established in 1977. Both were minor parties that were socially liberal, although the Irish version was more economically liberal.
But the main point of relevance in this context is that the members of the Irish Progressive Democrats decided last year that the party’s support and viability had diminished sufficiently that they voted to http://www.rte.ie/news/2008/1108/pd.html wind up the party, even though they still had elected members in the Irish Parliament. Indeed, some of those members were serving as Ministers – and continue to do so – as part of the Coalition that forms the current Irish government. The party’s founder supported the wind up, and the party’s final leader called on members to “vote with their heads and not their hearts in bringing the party to a dignified end.”
A political party is a vehicle for achieving positive change, not an end in itself.  The Democrats achieved many good things in their time, and have made some positive, lasting changes to Australia’s political landscape, including opening up the field for more minor parties to appear and significantly increasing the recognition and role of the Senate as a crucial house of accountability and review.  If the vehicle is no longer capable of achieving those changes or enhancing the values the Democrats promoted, people would be better off exploring other vehicles and pathways for positive change.
However, at the end of the day that is a matter that only the party’s current members can decide.  People rarely join a party with the specific aim of trying to wind it up (at least not openly), so a formal winding up will only occur if there is a proactive decision from amongst the current members to go down that path.  I don’t think that’s likely to happen for a some time yet.

When I wrote about David Winderlich being sworn into the South Australian Parliament as a Democrat MP back in January, it was no great feat of future telling to predict that he could well be the last Democrat to serve in an Australian Parliament.  The next South Australian election was due in March 2010 and the party hadn’t successfully got anyone elected at any election – state, territory or federal – since Natasha Stott Despoja finished up as leader in August 2002.

But I didn’t expect the end would happen six months before that SA election.  However, today David made good on his threat from three months ago to quit the party if 1000 new members weren’t recruited in that time – a feat which I’d have to say was basically unachievable.

It’s been done before and no doubt it will happen again, but I still think it’s poor form to resign from the party that put you into Parliament while keeping the seat unless there are very exceptional circumstances.  However, there’s not much point getting worked up about it. People can make their own judgement on that, and as far as South Australians go, they get to have a direct say on it in March next year.

However, it has once again led to widespread commentary about the Democrats being at the end of the road.  I’ve stated my own views on that in the past when asked, including on this blog – which is basically that it is best for the party, the members and the party’s very significant legacy that the party is wound up.  But others have obviously disagreed with me, which is understandable, especially given the angst which many members would feel at having to do this.  So the party has continued on.

In that context, it’s instructive to look at the experience of the Progressive Democrats in Ireland, a party with some similarities to the Australian Democrats. The Irish party was formed in 1985, while the Australian Democrats were established in 1977. Both were minor parties that were socially liberal, although the Irish version was more economically liberal, and both achieved some significant electoral success for a small party.

But the main point of relevance in this context is that the members of the Irish Progressive Democrats decided last year that the party’s support and viability had diminished sufficiently that they voted to wind up the party, even though they still had elected members in the Irish Parliament. Indeed, some of those members were serving as Ministers – and continue to do so – as part of the Coalition that forms the current Irish government. The party’s founder supported the wind up, and the party’s final leader called on members to “vote with their heads and not their hearts in bringing the party to a dignified end.”

A political party is a vehicle for achieving positive change, not an end in itself.  The Democrats achieved many good things in their time, and have made some positive, lasting changes to Australia’s political landscape, including opening up the field for more minor parties to appear and significantly increasing the recognition and role of the Senate as a crucial house of accountability and review.  If the vehicle is no longer capable of achieving those changes or enhancing the values the Democrats promoted, people would be better off exploring other vehicles and pathways for positive change.

However, ultimately that is a matter that only the party’s current members can decide.  People rarely join a party with the specific aim of trying to wind it up (at least not openly), so a formal winding up will only occur if there is a proactive decision from amongst the current members to go down that path.  I don’t think that’s likely to happen for some time yet.

I’ve written further on this topic over at Crikey.

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5 Comments

  1. “It’s been done before and no doubt it will happen again, but I still think it’s poor form to resign from the party that put you into Parliament while keeping the seat unless there are very exceptional circumstances. However, there’s not much point getting worked up about it.”

    “A political party is a vehicle for achieving positive change, not an end in itself.”

    They pretty much sum it up for me AB.

  2. Andrew:

    I think David’s actions are unforgivable. If he resigns from an upper house position then he should be replaced by a Democrat.

    To take the seat (a gift from the party) and then resign is a very low act indeed. If he had contested and won that seat, then he may have had a claim to remain. But in these circumstances I think he should be replaced by another Democrat.

    In lower houses, we would of course have a by election but when an upper house resigns I think it only fit that a democrat remain in the house of review to maintain the integrity of the vote of all South Australians. Minor parties rarely get elected without the support of other minors. By him resigning he is showing both contempt for the party that gifted him the seat and all other minors who helded the democrats gain the seat.

    Tony

  3. Tony,

    I would suggest you have a listen to an interview with David Winderlich on Radio Adelaide: http://radioadelaidebreakfast.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/winderlich.mp3

    The reasons he gives for leaving the Democrats to sit as an independent aren’t unforgivable… they are understandable. The most profound statement that David has made is that since this appointment to the SA Legislative Council, he has been sitting virtually as an independent anyway.

    From what David has also said, the Democrats members had lost their fighting spirit and were unable to make any significant contributions to recruiting new members to renew the party. Similarly, members of the community weren’t drawn to the Democrats to help with its revival.

    The seat currently held by David was ‘won’ by the Democrats back in 2002. A lot has changed since then. I believe Andrew is correct in saying that the Democrats of the past should be respectfully acknowledged for their achievements but it is now time to move on.

    If you have a read of David’s website (in particular the ‘What I stand for’ page), then you’ll notice that, aside from the dropping of the ‘Democrats’ label, nothing has changed. I think it is fairly safe to say that David will continue on with the work that the SA Parliament has appointed him to do and he will have up until 20 March 2010 to complete what he set out to accomplish and South Australians can then decide whether David should continue with work as an upper house MP.

  4. BRANCH STAKER

    Branch Staker says: The reasons he gives for leaving the Democrats to sit as an independent aren’t unforgivable… they are understandable

    He was gifted the seat by the Democrats. If he doesnt want to stand then he should vacate and be replaced with another Democrat.

    Whether or not is is happy with the party has nothing to do with it. He gained this seat without contesting it.

    You dont get any lower than that, and I’m sure that the people of SA will let him how low an act it was

    Tony

  5. I’m for a radical reform of the senate. I think we should appoint senators via a lottery system instead of via elections. That would give us a represenatative body, free of professional politicians, free of concerns about popularity, to oversee and where appropriate veto legislation introduced by the government. I’d include some sort of pre-qualification test before people could enter the lottery (eg get a petition of support with the names of 500 fellow citizens) so that only motivated individuals ended up in the senate. It would give us the best attributes of the old British House of Lords (pre Tony Blairs reforms) without the elitism.

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