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16 March 2016
By Matt Hrkac

Downfall of the Democrats: why the Greens aren't going anywhere

I have been seeing a lot of nonsense claims in recent weeks that claim that the Greens support for Senate voting reform will send them the 'the way of the Democrats', or that Richard Di Natale is the 'Meg Lees of the Greens', among other similar lines. Not only is it ridiculous (and a borderline fallacy) to compare the implementation of voting reform with the implementation of a regressive tax (it's like comparing apples and oranges), it is also a ridiculous argument that the Democrats' support of the GST was the sole instigator of their downfall. Fact is, there were a number of factors that led to the downfall of the Democrats that don't apply to the Greens at all.

Factor 1: Leadership

Not only was the rotating chairs of party leadership a problem, so too was their method of electing parliamentary leaders. This resulted in long, protracted and often bloody leadership contests between the Left and the Right of the party and was always going to result in dissolution., and undermining, by the side that lost.

Furthermore to this, because the decision of parliamentary leadership was in the hands of the party grassroots membership; it often produced ineffective parliamentary leaders because the party membership foisted upon the parliamentary party, leaders that the parliamentary party couldn't work with effectively.

Not to mention the fact that there was a revolving door of leaders following the retirement of party founder Don Chipp:

As can be seen from the above table, between 1986 and 2008, spanning a period of over 22 years between Don Chipp's retirement (an event which resulted in an immediate and significant collapse of support for the Democrats as a whole) and the end of the Democrats in Federal Parliament, the Democrats had a total of eight separate leaders, ten if you include the two interim leaders. The longest any of these leaders was able to serve before retiring or being deposed (one even defected to the Labor Party) was four years.

This gave a strong perception of disunity. Who was going to continue putting their faith in a party that wasn't sure of its own self?

Of course, none of these problems exist within the Greens federal parliamentary leadership, and leadership is a lot more stable:

In 24 years, from 1992-present, the Greens had only three different leaders; all resulting in the retirement of the previous leader. This indicates a great deal of leadership stability and there being no bad blood between members of the parliamentary party, and the broader membership, alike.

Factor 2: Ideological differences and party structure

Another large factor that people often fail to mention is the fact that the Democrats, attempting to position themselves in the centre, between the Labor Party and the Liberal Party, resulted in not only attacks against them from the Left and from the Right outside of the Democrats; but the Democrats themselves drew support from both the Left, and the Right, resulting in internal bickering between the two factions that developed within the party.

Effectively, the party was divided between a pro-business small-l-liberal wing, and a pro-environment, anti-development Left and these divisions were often profound between the state branches. It was a relationship that was never going to stand the test of time.

Of course, no such major ideological differences exist within the Greens. Attacks by the Labor Party against the Greens lack credibility at best and have no effect on swaying Greens supporters back to Labor (the opposite is likely true). Of course, Liberal Party attacks against the Greens are really only communicating to their already converted, not necessarily to win Greens supporters over to the Liberal Party.

Factor 3: Support

Another key difference between the Democrats, and the Greens (and why the Greens are not going the way of the Democrats) is the fact that they failed to consistently sustain a broad level of support across the electorate. I've written about this in the past, and the full piece can be viewed here.

Arguably, a solid chunk of Democrats support in its first decade of existence was the personal vote of its leader Don Chipp, and the high profile of his successor Janine Haines. Haines was defeated in an attempt to win a House of Representatives seat in the 1990 election (which saw the Democrats peak at 12% of the vote), resulting in a substantial collapse in support in the 1993 election. Democrats support never really fully recovered beyond this point.

It also failed to consolidate support at the grassroots level, and although it came close in South Australia, it never really had a chance of consolidating itself in similar demographics elsewhere.

The Greens have been able to sustain their specific demographic of voters in not only their key electorates, but also elsewhere around the country and have been able to more effectively weather any electoral setbacks.

Factor 4: Representation and entrenchment

Another key factor that led to the demise of the Democrats was their thin representation. They had very little in the way of representation on local councils - which is seen as a building block for attaining experience for higher office at the state and federal level, and also has the effect of raising the profile of a party locally and for its ability to be able to consolidate and sustain support at the grassroots level.

The Greens, by contrast, currently have dozens of local councilors across, in particular, Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales (coincidentally, those are the states where the Greens perform best in State and Federal elections).

Because the Democrats lacked representation at the very basic local level - they were never able to achieve significant representation at the state level either. They never managed to enter the Victorian Parliament, and their presence in other state parliaments was never consistent except for in South Australia.

The most important part of this factor, however, is the fact that the Democrats were never able to win lower house seats. It is often said that a party winning lower house seats, particularly in parliaments that elect members from single member constituencies, entrenches support for a particular party and this is true; because winning a single-member constituency relies on the condensing of local support as a mass scale. Lower house MPs, particularly from smaller parties, bring with them a higher profile for their party too. Once a party is entrenched, it becomes very difficult to remove it.

The Democrats had significant Federal representation in the Senate at their peak, but they were never truly entrenched.

The Greens have significant representation, and have won lower house seats in New South Wales, Victoria and in the Federal House of Representatives (and there are other seats where they are coming close) and are coming close to gains in the South Australian and Queensland lower houses. They also achieved lower house representation in Western Australia and Federally, albeit temporarily, through by-elections in the past. This is a feat that the Democrats were never able to achieve.

Factor 5: Voting in contrary to their own policy platform

Of course, the decision to support the GST was a significant factor that ultimately led to the demise of the Democrats. Broadly, the Democrats were against the GST, as too was its membership. All hell was always going to break loose when they instead supported the GST, regardless of how many amendments they put through along with it. It was seen as a treacherous deal from within the party's membership and support base, which was severely split as a result.

As mentioned from the onset, the GST alone wasn't responsible for the Democrats downfall, as they did perform reasonably well in the 2001 Federal Election. It was how the party handled the fallout, and it was a combination of the other factors explained above too.

Not only have the Greens simply been voting according to their policy platform; as already mentioned, the other factors explained above simply do not apply for the Greens. Partisan attacks that claim otherwise simply do not stick.

Factor 6: The Greens themselves

It can be said that a lot of support for the Democrats eroded in favour of the Greens, which is true. Of course, the same factor doesn't apply to the Greens as there is no significant third party contender that is currently chipping away at its support; and the current Greens support base isn't likely to go jumping ship back to the two major parties any time soon.

About the author:

Matt Hrkac is a writer and photographer based in Geelong. He has particular interests in politics, elections, social movements and the trade union movement.

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