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.