Wednesday, 25 June 2008
I echo the fact that, as many have said, not only do we farewell four Democrat senators but, quite remarkably and historically, we farewell the Australian Democrats itself as a political and Senate entity. Therefore, we are engaged right here and now in what will be seen by history as an extraordinary occasion.
I have been very actively and indeed involved full time in Liberal Party politics since 1977, when the Democrats first emerged as a political force, so they have been a permanent feature throughout my active political life. So the party’s demise, certainly as a federal entity, has great poignancy for me and of course for most Liberals. We all recall that the party’s genesis lay in a renegade Liberal, none other than Don Chipp, who was a great Liberal. We were all desperately sad to see him leave our ranks and start another party—and what a party it has turned out to be!
The other element of poignancy for me is that the great strength of the Democrats has been, quite unusually, in my own state of South Australia. The smallest mainland state has produced much of the engine room of the Australian Democrats. It has produced four of the nine Democrat leaders, those being some of their most significant and high-profile leaders in John Coulter, Janine Haines, Natasha Stott Despoja and Meg Lees, all of whom, because of their domicile, have been good friends of mine over the course of the Democrats’ existence. To add to that, the only remaining Democrat after 30 June in Australia will be Senator Sandra Kanck in the South Australian Legislative Council, so it is an unusual phenomenon of South Australia.
It is interesting that one of the things I managed to achieve in Australian politics was keeping Janine Haines out of the House of Representatives because I had responsibility for managing the Liberal campaign in Kingston in the election of 1990. I was genuinely very fearful of Janine capturing a seat in the House of Representatives which, from my perspective and the perspective of my party, would have been a dreadful thing to have occurred. I remember having a real fight with Andrew Peacock, our then leader, in which I tried to convince him that we should direct preferences to the Labor Party to keep Janine out. He insisted that we could not do that and that we always put Labor last, therefore we had to direct preferences to Janine. The problem with that was we were running third in the ballot 10 days out and our preferences were going to elect her to the seat. In my role as the state director, I then ran the most negative campaign that has ever been run against the Democrats anywhere.
The thing about the Democrats—and I do not mean this as a criticism—is that they have since gone below the radar. While Liberal and Labor have been attacking each other throughout the last 30 years, the Democrats have quietly fed off our preferences and stayed below the radar. That campaign in Kingston proved to me that, if you put the spotlight right on the Democrats and some of their more odd policies, you can take them down. I know you do not like to hear that but that is what happened in that campaign. I think we took 10 points off Janine’s polling in a week to ensure that she came third and the Labor Party retained the seat. It is tragic what has since happened to Janine. I think she was one of the most extraordinary politicians Australia has produced and a very capable woman. That is why, from our very selfish point of view, we needed to keep her out of the House of Representatives.
What has happened to the Democrats reminds us all that no party at all can take its continued existence for granted. It teaches us that it is especially difficult for smaller parties to survive, and I therefore think the Democrats really should take a lot of credit for and be proud of the fact that they have survived for well over 30 years and certainly lasted much longer than others from the passing parade of parties like One Nation, the liberal movement, and Australia First. The DLP, I suspect, did not last as long as that. That is not much consolation, but in the tough game of politics with the difficulty of survival that is something quite extraordinary about the Democrats.
Proportional representation as a system of election has a balance sheet with positives and negatives. I think one of the downsides of proportional representation for election to the Senate is that it puts minor parties in a position of enormous influence in one of the most powerful upper houses in the world. Parties that might achieve only eight or 10 per cent of the vote can dictate to a nation the fate and direction of that nation. But I think it can be said of the Democrats, frankly, that they have been, if you assess their record over the years, very responsible in the exercise of that great influence. I truly hope that those who succeed the Democrats will learn from that and be equally responsible in the exercise of the enormous influence which proportional representation and the method of election to the Senate hands to parties that represent small minorities of the Australian people.
Much has been made tonight of the slogan which the Democrats made famous: ‘Keep the bastards honest.’ I think only ‘It’s time’ ranks with that slogan in the annals of Australian political history. Unfortunately, on our side of politics we have never come up with anything as good as either of those two slogans.