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The Australian Democrats is an Australian political party espousing a centrist or social liberal ideology. It was formed in 1977, by a merger of the Australia Party and the New Liberal Movement, after principals of those minor parties secured the commitment of former minister Don Chipp, as a high profile leader. The party's 30-year representation in the Parliament of Australia ended on 30 June 2008, after the loss of its four remaining Senate seats, two of the senators having retired from politics and the other two having been defeated at the 2007 election in which the party polled only 1.29% of the national Senate vote. The party lost its last state MP in October 2009, David Winderlich in the South Australian Legislative Council, who quit the party in protest and became an independent.

The party is based on the principles of honesty, tolerance, compassion and direct democracy through postal ballots of all members, so that "there should be no hierarchical structure ... by which a carefully engineered elite could make decisions for the members." From the outset, members' participation was fiercely protected in national and divisional constitutions prescribing internal elections, regular meeting protocols, annual conferences—and monthly journals for open discussion and balloting. Dispute resolution procedures were established, with final recourse to a party ombudsman and membership ballot.

Policies determined by the unique participatory method promoted environmental awareness and sustainability, opposition to the primacy of economic rationalism, preventative approaches to human health and welfare, animal rights, rejection of nuclear technology and weapons.

The Democrats were the first representatives of green politics at the federal level in Australia. They played a key role in the cause célèbre of the Franklin River Dam.

The party's centrist role makes it subject to criticism from both the right and left of the political spectrum. In particular, Chipp's former conservative affiliation was frequently recalled by opponents on the left. This problem was to torment later leaders and strategists who, by 1991, were proclaiming "the electoral objective" as a higher priority than the rigorous participatory democracy espoused by the party's founders.

Over three decades, the Democrats achieved representation in the legislatures of the ACTmarker, South Australiamarker, New South Walesmarker, Western Australia and Tasmaniamarker as well as Senate seats in all six states. However, at the 2004 and 2007 elections, all seven of its Senate seats were lost.



On the evening of 29 April 1977, Don Chipp addressed an overflowing Perth Town Hall meeting which unanimously passed a resolution to form a Centre-Line Party, which Chipp was invited to lead —but he firmly declined to reverse his avowed decision to quit politics, having resigned from the Liberal Party and been offered a lucrative position as a radio public affairs commentator. However, at a meeting in the Melbourne Town Hall on 9 May, Chipp received a standing ovation from over 3,000 people, including former Prime Minister John Gorton, and decided to commit himself to leading the new party which was already being constructed by a national steering committee. The name "Australian Democrats", already in informal currency, was confirmed by the membership, being the most favoured of 56 alternative names on the postal ballot paper. >

The first Australian Democrats (AD) federal parliamentarian was Senator Janine Haines who filled Steele Hall's casual Senate vacancy for South Australia in 1977. Surprisingly, she was not a candidate when the party contested the 1977 federal elections after Don Chipp had agreed to be leader and figurehead. Members and candidates were not lacking in electoral experience, since the Australia Party had been contesting all federal elections since 1969 and the Liberal Movement, in 1974 and 1975. The party's broad aim was to achieve a balance of power in one or more parliaments and to exercise it responsibly in line with policies determined by membership.

The grassroot support attracted by Chipp's leadership was measurable at the party's first electoral test at the 1977 federal election on 10 December, when 9.38 per cent of the total Lower House vote was polled and 11.13 per cent of the Senate vote. At that time, with five Senate seats being contested in each state, the required quota was a daunting 16.66 per cent. However, the first 6-year-term seats were won by Don Chipp (Vic) and Colin Mason (NSW).


At a Melbourne media conference in 1980, Chipp described his party's aim as "to keep the bastards honest" --the "bastards" being the major parties and/or politicians in general. This became a long-lived slogan for the Democrats.The Australian Democrats' first national conference, on 16-17 February 1980, was opened by the distinguished nuclear physicist and former governor of South Australia, Sir Mark Oliphant, who said:
I was privileged to be in the chair at the public meeting in Melbourne when [Don Chipp] announced formation of a new party, dedicated to preserve what freedoms we still retain, and to increase them.
A party in which dictatorship from the top was replaced by consensus.
A party not ordered about by big business and the rich, or by union bosses.
A party where a man could retain freedom of conscience and not thereby be faced with expulsion.
A party to which the intelligent individual could belong without having to subscribe to a dogmatic creed.
In other words, a democratic party.
At the October 1980 election, the Democrats polled 9.25 per cent of the Senate vote, electing Janine Haines (SA) and two new senators Michael Macklin (Qld) and John Siddons (Vic), bringing the party's strength to five Senate seats from 1 July 1981 .

A South Australian by-election in the state seat of Mitcham (now Waite) in 1982 saw Heather Southcott retain the seat for the Democrats from Robin Millhouse since 1955 (Democrat since 1977), however it was lost later that year at the 1982 state election. Mitcham was the only single-member lower house seat anywhere in Australia to be won by the Democrats.


See 'Give a Damn: Vote Democrat 1' campaign commercial
1990 saw the voluntary departure from the Senate of Janine Haines and the failure of her strategic goal of winning the House of Representatives known as the seat of Kingston. Her casual vacancy was filled by Meg Lees several months before the arrival of Cheryl Kernot, elected to replace the retiring deputy leader Michael Macklin. The ambitious Kernot immediately contested the Senate leadership. Being unemployed at the time, she requested and obtained party funds to pay for her travel to address members in all seven divisions. In the event, Janet Powell was successful and John Coulter was chosen as deputy leader.

Despite the loss of Haines and the WA Senate seat (through an inconsistent national preference agreement with the ALP), the 1990 federal election heralded something of a rebirth for the party, with a dramatic rise in primary vote. This was at the same time as an economic recession was building, and events such as the Gulf War in Kuwait were beginning to shepherd issues of globalisation and transnational trade on to national government agendas.

Election Results
Senate - National
Janet Powell attacked both the government and opposition which had closed ranks in support of the Gulf War. Whereas the House of Representatives was thus able to avoid any debate about the war and Australia's participation, the Democrats took full advantage of the opportunity to move for a debate in the Senate.

Possibly because of the party's opposition to the Gulf War, there was mass-media antipathy and negative publicity which some construed as poor performance by Janet Powell. Before 12 months of her leadership had passed, the South Australian and Queensland divisions were circulating the party's first-ever petition to criticise and oust the parliamentary leader. The explicit grounds related to Powell's alleged responsibility for poor AD ratings in Gallup and other media surveys of potential voting support. When this charge was deemed insufficient, interested party officers and senators reinforced it with negative media 'leaks' concerning her openly established relationship with Sid Spindler and exposure of administrative failings resulting in excessive overtime to a staff member. With national-executive blessing, the party room pre-empted the ballot by replacing the leader with deputy John Coulter. In the process, severe internal divisions were generated. One major collateral casualty was the party whip Paul McLean who resigned and quit the Senate in disgust at what he perceived as infighting between close friends. The casual NSW vacancy created by his resignation was filled by Karin Sowada.


The party's original support base consisted of voters alienated by perceived unproductive adversarial conflict between the two mainstream parties and an emerging new constituency of people with a desire to participate more effectively in government and to promote concerns for environmental protection and social justice. The party aimed to combine liberal social policies with centrist, particularly neo-Keynesian economics and a progressive environmental platform.

The original agenda included interventionist economic policies, commitment to environmental causes, support for reconciliation with Australia's indigenous population through such mechanisms as formal treaties, pacifist approaches to international relations, open government, constitutional reform, progressive approaches to social issues such as sexuality and drugs, and strong support for human rights and civil liberties. Its membership largely comprised tertiary-educated and middle-class constituents. The party also appealed to voters opposed to untrammelled government power and wishing to have alternative views aired in parliaments and media.

The party has a platform of participatory democracy, with policies supporting proportional representation and citizen-initiated referenda. Many important internal issues (such as electoral preselection and leadership) are decided by direct postal ballot of the membership. Although policies are theoretically set in a similar fashion, Democrat parliamentarians generally had extensive freedom in interpreting them. Since the early 1990s, the ballot mechanism had been susceptible to fluctuations in information flow and to charges of manipulation or obstruction by the party officers charged with authenticating and actioning member-initiated petitions.

However, by 1980, the Democrats had employed the postal-ballot method at both national at state levels to develop an extensive body of written policy covering not only the political agendas of the day but also innovative and far-sighted policies for environmental and economic sustainability, water and energy conservation, e.g., through development of alternative energy sources, expanded public transport, etc. To the community's growing concerns about human rights, the Democrats added finely detailed policies on animal welfare and species preservation. The material is available in election manifestos and copies of the party's journals, obtainable in major public libraries.

Electoral fortunes

The Democrats' electoral fortunes have fluctuated throughout their history.

During the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments (1983-96), the Democrats held a theoretical balance of power in the Senate: the numbers were such that they could team with Labor to pass legislation, or team with the Coalition to block legislation on occasions when the Coalition decided to oppose a government bill.

Their power was weakened in 1996 after the Howard Government was elected, and a Labor Senator, Mal Colston, resigned from the Labor party. This meant that the Democrats now shared the parliamentary balance of power with two Independent senators. As a result, the Coalition government could often bypass the Democrats, and pass legislation by negotiating with Colston and Brian Harradine. Following the 1998 election the Democrats again held the balance of power, until the Coalition gained a Senate majority at the 2004 election.

The Hawke and Keating governments pursued economic policies that drew on economic rationalist and neoliberal thought, and the Democrats positioned themselves to the left of the ALP government, and thus at the left end of mainstream Australian politics. However, the party's progressive-liberal politics remained attractive to middle class ("wet") Liberal supporters who were disaffected by the Liberal party's social conservatism.

Cheryl Kernot became leader in 1993. She had strong media appeal, which increased media and public awareness of herself and the party. She was known to have interests in industrial relations and was able to cultivate solid relationships with Labor government frontbenchers, which also added to her credibility in the press gallery.

Lack of clear direction other than, possibly, senators' common ambition to play a more productive role in government manifested itself in tensions over Cheryl Kernot's policy on industrial relations (see the Workplace Relations Act 1996). Under Kernot, after negotiations and some compromises from the government, the Democrats voted for the Howard Government's right-leaning industrial relations legislation which decreased union power and allowed a larger role for individual employer-employee contracts.

Kernot, however, remained broadly opposed to the Liberal government. This, together with her personal ambition for a role in government, led her to defect to the ALP in 1997. In the 1998 federal election, the Democrats' candidate John Schumann came within 3 per cent of taking Liberal Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's seat of Mayo in the Adelaide Hills under Australia's preferential voting system.

Internal conflict over the government's proposed Goods and Services Tax (GST), during the 1998 federal election and in Parliament in 1999 was damaging to the Democrats. Meg Lees campaigned on a modified GST platform, opposing the GST on food and books. After negotiations with Prime Minister Howard, Meg Lees and Andrew Murray (both part of the centrist element within the Democrats) agreed to support the GST legislation with exemptions for most food and some medicines. Many left-wing Democrat voters and a large number of party members regarded this as a betrayal, and two senators on the party's left, Natasha Stott Despoja and Andrew Bartlett, voted against the GST. Despite this, the Democrats' election results in 1998 and 2001 were both good.

In 2001, Lees was replaced as leader in a coup by the left-leaning senator, Natasha Stott Despoja. Despite criticism about her age and lack of experience Stott Despoja was not able to bring back enough voters to prevent the loss of a seat to Greens Senator Kerry Nettle, indicating the loss of Democrat votes on the left. Ongoing tensions between Stott Despoja and Lees, who quit the party in 2002 led to Stott Despoja standing down from the leadership. It led to a protracted leadership battle in 2002, which eventually led to the election of Senator Andrew Bartlett as leader. However, the tension led to Meg Lees leaving the party, becoming an independent and forming the Australian Progressive Alliance.

On 6 December 2003, Andrew Bartlett stepped aside temporarily as leader of the party, after an incident in which he assaulted Liberal Senator Jeannie Ferris on the floor of Parliament while intoxicated. The party issued a statement stating that Deputy Leader Lyn Allison would serve as the Acting Leader of the party. Bartlett apologised to the Democrats, Jeannie Ferris and the Australian public for his behaviour and assured all concerned that it would never happen again. On 29 January 2004, after seeking medical treatment, Bartlett returned to the Democrats leadership, vowing to abstain from alcohol.


Support for the Democrats fell significantly at the 2004 Federal election in which they achieved only 1.24 per cent of the national vote. Nowhere was this more noticeable than in their key support base of suburban Adelaidemarker in South Australia, where they received between 7 and 31 per cent of the Lower House vote in 2001, and between 1 and 4 per cent in 2004. Three incumbent senators were defeated—Aden Ridgeway (NSW), Brian Greig (WA) and John Cherry (Qld). Following the loss, the customary post-election leadership ballot installed Lyn Allison as leader and Andrew Bartlett as her deputy.

From 1 July 2005 the Democrats lost official parliamentary party status, being represented by only four senators while the governing Liberal-National Coalition gained a majority and potential control of the Senate—the first time this advantage had been enjoyed by any government since 1980.


On 5 January 2006, the ABC reported that the Tasmanian Electoral Commission had de-registered that branch of the party for failing to provide a list containing the required number of members.

On 18 March 2006, at the 2006 South Australian state election, the Democrats were reduced to 1.7 per cent of the Legislative Council (upper house) vote. Their sole councillor up for re-election, Kate Reynolds, was defeated.

After the election, South Australian senator Natasha Stott Despoja was obliged to deny rumours that she was considering quitting the party.

In early July, Richard Pascoe, national and South Australianmarker party president, resigned, citing slumping opinion polls and the poor result in the 2006 South Australian election as well as South Australian parliamentary leader Sandra Kanck's comments regarding the drug MDMA which he saw as damaging to the party.

On 5 July 2006, Democrats senator for Western Australia Andrew Murray announced his intention not to contest the 2007 federal election, citing frustration arising from the Howard Government's control of both houses and his unwillingness to serve another six-year term.. His term ended on 30 June, 2008.

On 28 August 2006, the founder of the Democrats, Don Chipp, died. Former prime minister Bob Hawke said: "... there is a coincidental timing almost between the passing of Don Chipp and what I think is the death throes of the Democrats."

On 22 October 2006, Democrats Senator Natasha Stott Despoja announced her intention not to seek re-election at the 2007 federal election due to health concerns. Her term ended on 30 June 2008.

In November 2006, the Democrats fared very poorly in the Victorian state election, receiving a Legislative Council vote tally of only 0.83 per cent., less than half of the party's result in 2002 (1.79 per cent).


In the New South Wales state election of March 2007, the Democrats lost their last remaining NSW Upper House representative, Arthur Chesterfield-Evans. The party fared poorly, gaining only 1.8 per cent of the Legislative Council vote. A higher vote was achieved in some of the Legislative Assembly seats selectively contested as compared to 2003. However, the statewide vote share fell because the party was unable to field as many candidates as in 2003.

In the Victorian state by-election in Albert Park District the Democrats stood candidate Paul Kavanagh, who polled a respectable 5.75 per cent of the primary vote, despite a large number of candidates, and all media attention focusing on the battle between Labor and Greens candidates.

On 13 September 2007, the ACT Democrats (Australian Capital Territory Division of the party) was deregistered by the ACT Electoral Commissioner, being unable to demonstrate a minimum membership of 100 electors. As as result the party was ineligible to contest the ACT election in October 2008. The disqualification does not affect federal elections.

As was widely expected, the Democrats had no success at the 2007 federal election. Two incumbent senators, Lyn Allison (Victoria) and Andrew Bartlett (Queensland), were defeated, their seats both reverting to major parties. Their two remaining colleagues, Andrew Murray (WA) and Natasha Stott Despoja (SA), did not run for new terms. All four senators' terms expired on 30 June 2008—leaving the Democrats with no federal representation for the first time since its founding in 1977. An ABC report noted that "on the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) website the party is now referred to just as 'other'".


Andrew Castrique, an Adelaide Hills resident who contested Mayo in 2007, stood in the 2008 Mayo by-election. The Democrat vote in Mayo was reduced even further, though turnout was down by 15 per cent.

In 2008 the party began reorganising efforts aimed at increasing its membership and supporter base.


The party launched a series of micro-campaigns, including a website opposing introduction by the Rudd government of an internet filter.

In July 2009, the party's sole remaining parliamentarian, David Winderlich, announced he would leave the party and sit as an independent unless the South Australian Democrats could recruit 1,000 new members by November 2009. When this clearly could not eventuate, he resigned from the party on 7 October 2009, declining to relinqish his seat to a Democrat successor and vowing to contest the 2010 election as an independent. His action ended almost 32 years of continuous presence by Australian Democrat parliamentarians since the appointment of Janine Haines to the Senate in December 1977.


Support for the Democrats historically tended to fluctuate between about 5 and 10 per cent of the population and was geographically concentrated around the wealthy dense CBD and inner-suburban neighbourhoods of the capital cities (especially Adelaidemarker). Therefore, they never managed to win a House of Representatives seat (despite coming close on a number of occasions, particularly Haines in Kingston in 1990). During the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s they typically held one or two Senate seats in each state, as well as having some representatives in state parliaments and local councils.

However, disenchantment over internal divisions led to a dramatic decline in the Democrats' membership and voting support in all states, almost exactly counterbalanced by increasing popularity of the Australian Greens who have virtually replaced the Democrats as a substantial third party. Opinion is divided as to whether the Democrats may be able to make a political comeback. Political scientists Dean Jaensch and Ian Cook recently suggested it might be possible in the right circumstances.

Young Australian Democrats

In 2007, the latest of a series of efforts was made to boost support by establishing a youth wing of the party.


Of the party's eleven federal parliamentary leaders, six have been women. Aboriginal senator Aden Ridgeway was deputy leader under Natasha Stott Despoja.

The federal parliamentary leaders of the Australian Democrats have been:

Former senators

Former Members in the states and territories

Australian Capital Territory

New South Wales

Western Australia

South Australia


Notes on former parliamentarians

  1. Appointed interim senate leader from 23 August 2002 until 5 October 2002.
  2. Resigned from party in November 1986 and sat as an independent senator until defeat at the 1987 election as a Unite Australia Party candidate.
  3. Resigned from party in July 1992 and sat as an independent senator until defeat at the 1993 election.
  4. Resigned from party in July 2002 and sat as an independent senator until defeat at the 2004 election as an Australian Progressive Alliance candidate.
  5. Resigned from party in 1996 and sat as an independent MLC until retirement at the 2003 election.
  6. Resigned from party on 7 October 2009 and currently sits as an independent MLC.


  1. Democrats History at
  2. 2007 Senate election: (National tally of) First Preferences by Group
  3. Chipp D and Larkin J The Third Man Rigby, Melbourne (1978) ISBN 0 7270 0827 7
  4. Such as the then Socialist Workers' Party and early green-left parties such as the United Tasmania Group.
  5. The first substantive reason given by rebellious senators for deposing leader Janet Powell in 1991 was her alleged failure to develop a media profile which would attract more electoral support. The first conclusive constitutional abandonment of founding principles was probably the July, 1993, decision of the party's national executive to terminate monthly publication of the members' National Journal and to replace it with less frequent publication of glossy promotional material.
  6. Hewat T & Wilson D Don Chipp (1978) p. 84: "[In mid-June, 1977] the party ... was still without a formal name but operating as the Australian Democrats."
  7. 1980 Conference Proceedings, Beyond our Expectations
  8. AD National Journal June 1990, p.5
  9. The sole independent member in the House, Ted Mack, was unable to launch his critical motion for lack of a seconder.
  10. Ted Mack's speech on Gulf War
  11. Senate Hansard, 21 Jan, 1991
  12. Stott Despoja resigns as Democrats leader, ABC 7.30 Report, 21 October 2002
  13. Disgraced leader steps aside, The Age, 7 December 2003. Retrieved on 2007-04-03.
  14. Australian Democrats Deregistered in Tasmania, ABC News, 5 January 2006
  15. Stott-Despoja denies rumours she is quitting, ABC News, 22 March 2006
  16. Political analyst predicts Democrats' demise, ABC News 11 July 2006
  17. Former leader sees Democrats in 'tatters', ABC News 11 July 2006
  18. Kanck says rave party safer than the front bar, The Advertiser 5 July 2006 Article no longer available online.
  19. Sydney Morning Herald 8 July 2006
  20. Hawke predicts end is near for Democrats, ABC News 29 August 2006
  21. Stott-Despoja to bow out of politics, ABC News 22 October 2006
  22. Victorian Electoral Commission: Results for Upper House, 2006
  23. Victorian Electoral Commission: Results for Upper House, 2006
  26. Caldwell A Democrats to lose parliamentary representation 26 November 2007
  27. 'More Power to the Members' 2008 National President overview on transforming the Democrats 24/10/2008
  28. " No Internet Censorship", launched on 20 May, 2009.
  29. Australian Democrats to fight Government Internet Censorship with new site, proposals Australian Democrats press release 20/5/2009
  30. Democrats MP divides party with 1,000-member ultimatum
  31. David Winderlich quits, Democrats are no more
  32. Dean Jaensch radio interview,, accessed 28/7/09; and Ian Cook radio interview,, accessed 28/7/09

Further reading

  • Beyond Our Expectations—Proceedings of the Australian Democrats First National Conference, Canberra, 16-17 February, 1980. [Papers by: Don Chipp, Sir Mark Oliphant, Prof. Stephen Boyden, Bob Whan, Julian Cribb, Colin Mason, John Siddons, A. McDonald]

  • Chipp D (ed. Larkin J) Chipp, Methuen Haynes, North Ryde NSW, 1987 ISBN 0 454 01345 0

  • Paul A and Miller L The Third Team July 2007 A historical essay in 30 Years—Australian Democrats Melbourne 2007. (A 72-page anthology of historical and biogaphical monographs about the state and federal parliamentary experiences of the Democrats, for the party's 30th anniversary.)

  • Sugita H Challenging 'twopartism'—the contribution of the Australian Democrats to the Australian party system, PhD thesis, Flinders University of South Australia, July 1995

  • Warhurst J (ed.) Keeping the bastards honest Allen & Unwin Sydney 1997 ISBN 10 1864484209

See also

External links

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