A salutary tale for the Australian Greens



There once was a political party that claimed it was not like the others.

The party was led by a wizened political warrior who spoke compellingly about the major parties being out of touch. His party advocated environmental protection, recognition for indigenous Australians, law reform for gays and equality for all Australians.

The party offered Australian voters a third force in politics and vowed to impose accountability upon the major parties.

Over time, the party grew in popularity and its candidates won enough votes to secure the balance of power in the Senate.

Do you know which party this story is about?

Well think again, because this party, the Australian Democrats, held or shared the balance of power with other minor parties or independents in the Australian Senate for nearly 25 years (1981 to 2004). At their peak, the Democrats also held the balance of power in the upper houses of several state parliaments: NSW from 1988 to 1991, SA from 1979 for the following two decades and WA for one term following the 1996 election.

Today they hold no seats – in any Australian parliament.

How did this happen? And more importantly – could it happen again?

This is the question that should be occupying the minds of the Australian Greens right now, as they prepare to take up the Senate balance of power on 1 July 2011.

There are both similarities and differences between the Democrats and the Greens. Both parties positioned themselves where there was a perceived absence of political representation. The Democrats were considered a centrist party, attracting the first preference votes of the disillusioned major-party faithful, who then returned to the fold with second preferences on a roughly 50-50 basis.

Despite campaigning on many of the same issues, the Greens have positioned themselves to the left of Labor, with around 80 percent of their second preferences heading back to the Labor Party.

Perhaps the most significant similarity between the two minor parties is the amount of voter goodwill and accompanying high expectation that each party generated.

It was the Democrats’ inability to fulfil this voter expectation that ultimately proved to be their undoing and this should be a salutary lesson for the Greens.

Many observers point to the Democrats’ decision in 1999 to support passage of the GST in the Senate as the beginning of the end. This is instructive in itself, for the Democrats took a pro-GST policy to the preceding election. Nevertheless, the decision was portrayed as a sell-out of Democrat principles, reinforced by a number of Democrat Senators crossing the floor to vote against the tax. This undoubtedly contributed to the leadership tensions and internecine manoeuvrings that wracked the Democrats from that time onwards, until they lost their last Senate positions in the 2007 Federal Election.

When the Greens attain the balance of power in July this year, they will discover, as did the Democrats, that it is much more difficult to be a political or policy purist when your vote actually counts. Negotiations will inevitably lead to concessions, sometimes on the part of the Government but also of the Greens. The Greens will need to manage member expectations better than the Democrats did to avoid the pitfalls that decision-making can bring.

This article first appeared at The King’s Tribune.