Politics, Poetry and Reviews

Federal Election 2019: Meet the Australian Democrats


Website: https://www.australian-democrats.org.au/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/australiandemocrats/
Not Left. Not Right. Just Forward.
Keep the Bastards Honest
Themes: Inclusiveness, compassion, community, collaboration, transparency.  Science-based policy.  Making sure people in rural and regional Australia have access to resources.
Upper House: NSW, SA, VIC
Lower House: Adelaide
Preferences: The Democrats seem to have a penchant for tiny parties.  In NSW, they are voting Science, Together, Sustainable, Pirates and ICAN – a fun, progressive ticket that cares about science and inclusiveness.  In Victoria, we have the Secular Party, Hinch, the Republicans (ten to one they have not looked at that mess of a website), ICAN again, and HEMP – a little more centist, but progressive overall.  And in SA, they vote Sustainable, HEMP, Centre Alliance, Greens, ALP, and then all of a sudden they completely jump the shark and put a seventh party on their ballot, and it is the Great Australian Party, of all things.  Australian Democrats, what are you *thinking*???  I can’t see the Democrats as closet conspiracy theorists, and I am baffled at this particular preference choice.
Previous reviews

Policies & Commentary

Ah, now here’s a blast from the past!  Remember when the Australian Democrats were a force in Australian politics?  This really is a day for nostalgia, isn’t it…?

For those of you who were too young to vote back then – and frankly, I’m not young, and I’m nearly in that category – the Democrats were the Sensible Centre of Australian politics long before Nick Xenophon came along to claim the title.  They were founded in 1977 by Don Chipp, who famously promised to “Keep the bastards honest”, and were the largest minor party in politics for around 30 years.  Their downfall was the GST, which the Democrats controversially supported when it came to a vote in 1999, and their membership rapidly declined over the next five years.  They managed to hold on for another few years, but lost their last Senators in 2008,  and were formally deregistered by the AEC in 2015, when they couldn’t muster up the requisite 500 members.

Having said that, the cracks were showing well before then – last time I wrote about the Democrats I had a lot of trouble working out which website was the actual website for the Australian Democrats, because there were two rival groups both claiming the name.  And their recent return to registered party status (after a merger with Country Minded) was opposed by the Queensland division, who view themselves as the true heirs of the Australian Democrats’ legacy, and the South Australian branch presumably as mere upstarts.

All of which makes it pretty hilarious to me that the inspirational quote on their front page says

No matter our differences. There is more that unites us than divides.

(Grammar is not one of those things).

The Democrats’ motto is ‘Not Left. Not Right. Just Forward.’, suggesting that they are still claiming the centre as their territory.  The centre has moved a bit since they were last a serious force in politics, so this could be interesting.  They have four sets of links directing us to the different sections of the website:

  • Our Vision: An Australia we all feel a part of.  A future we can help create.
  • Our Story: A new chapter. An important legacy.
  • Policy: Led by our principles. Informed by evidence. Guided by kindness.
  • Support us: Even the smallest action can help spark genuine change.

There is a clear emphasis on inclusiveness here, and on the power of the individual to change the world, which I appreciate.

Under ‘Our Vision’ they tell us that they are seeking ‘common ground, not middle ground’, and they want to engage all sides of the political spectrum and evaluate all ideas against the evidence.  Words like community, kindness, collaboration, transparency and contribution are central.

They want inclusive democracy, that recognises that ‘we all have diverse opinions, worldviews and priorities’ and that collaboration is the key to finding answers.  Everyone is welcome in the conversation, but there are some parameters.

We have a code of conduct that all members and representatives agree to, that encourages civil discourse and the importance of sharing ideas in a calm, rational manner. We take a stand against personal attacks, insults, abuse and arguments made in bad faith, and reject ideological attachments  that block conversation and stand in the way of collaboration.

While everyone is welcome to have a say, they will prioritise the opinions of those who will be affected by legislation, which is definitely a good place to start, and they ‘accept the scientific method and other research processes, and we must be guided by the facts as they are available’.

I have to say, I strongly approve of this worldview.

Like many small parties, they have Strong Feelings about transparency, and take a dim view of lobby groups, corporations, and political donations, and they have the usual (justified!) complaints about safe seats never getting any love (oh, I know).  But these two questions are nice:

  • Why do we have parties (and indeed a Parliament) that seems overly made up of one very narrow demographic, when in reality Australia is hugely diverse?
  • Why is there such a distance between party stances and the recommendations made by respected organisations in the Science community, the Human Rights community, and other experts in their field? Who is really shaping the policies?

They also have rather a lovely set of guiding principles, which I won’t quote in full, but are worth your attention.  They include honesty and ethical behaviour; attention to evidence and the scientific method, bless their delightful souls; upholding principles of freedom, self-determination, fairness, human rights, personal responsibility and equal opportunity (these last two are more usually found in opposition to each other); a culture of stewardship, preserving Australia’s natural resources; recognition of rural and regional communities and also of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; inclusiveness; excellence; and a sustainable economy which is ‘open to the need for Government intervention where markets fail ‘.

I actually appreciate the Democrats’ determination to view these policies as centrist, because I think they probably are, but in the current political environment they look rather radically left wing.

Let’s see if their policies follow suit.

Their energy policy is so deliciously sane after some of the things I’ve read this week that I almost want to cry.  They want to ensure

a transition to a sustainable, diverse and decentralised energy economy based on renewable sources, employment growth, reduced prices, increased public owned assets and responsive to consumer needs.

The economy is completely underwritten by the energy market in Australia.  The challenge remains to provide adequate supply cheaply for today’s consumers while ensuring that the impact of the generation and consumption of that energy is not unfairly borne by future generations.

Yes, please.  They are concerned about both affordability and reliability, they want to reduce fossil fuel dependence, and they want to ‘protect the energy sector from undue influence and distortion from vested interests and partisan politics’.  They want to extend the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target and retain the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.  Essentially, they think climate change is real, and they want to do something about it, and this shouldn’t be something that makes them stand out for the crowd, but it totally is.

Oh, and here’s a nice policy that I don’t think I’ve seen elsewhere:

  • includes the transfer of appropriate technology and other forms of aid to developing countries to enable them to develop sustainable energy economies

Which is of course vital.  We can’t fix climate change alone, and developing countries can’t necessarily afford to take on the cost of fixing it in their area.  We need to both act ourselves, and support others in acting.

Speaking of climate, they have a Climate and Environment Policy which is also delightful.  I am remembering why I missed the Australian Democrats so much.

They want to ensure that we both contribute to global reduction of greenhouse gases and prepare for the consequences of climate change.  I mean, everything in this policy is great, but I’ll point out a few of my favourites.  They want legislation that:

  • ensures partnerships between environment and industry to achieve economic growth, jobs, and a sustainable clean environment
  • supports population density in a way that is in keeping with the environment’s capacity to sustain human numbers and that acknowledges Australia’s international human rights obligations
  • supports the work of and encourages partnership with, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in land management and regeneration
  • contributes directly to international initiatives pressuring developed nations to financially support developing countries to choose less damaging environmental options

It’s the combination of paying attention to things economic and also caring about people that makes my heart sing.  This review is turning into a how to vote card for the Australian Democrats, and I don’t even care.

They Democrats have a Rural policy, and this is going to be interesting given their merger with Country Minded.  But again, they have managed to be perfect delightful snowflakes of a political party, and want to do things like limit foreign investment, support farmers in innovative practices that ‘increase profitability and productivity, reduce resource use and maintain ecosystem health’, build social and financial resilience in rural and regional communities, support animal welfare, and foster greater understanding and equity between city and country dwellers.

Can we have all of these things at once?  I don’t know, but I would really like to see someone try to make it happen.

Under Political Accountability, they remind us that there are some things that all small parties have in common.

Public sentiment clearly reflects the loss of trust and respect for our political system. There exists a dysfunctional political culture partly created by the bureaucracy becoming an industry in itself, shifting from an enabling culture to a constraining one.

And they want a federal integrity commission for politicians, parties and public servants.  They also want truth in political advertising, and a charter of government accountability.

Under health, the Democrats continue their theme of blatantly seeking my vote in the Senate.

To support governments to have a holistic approach to health by investing in prevention as much as cure. We must better integrate various health services (including research) with each other, funding all aspects of health including mental and social wellbeing. We must empower health care in rural and remote contexts and support local community health initiatives.

They want to make sure that health care is provided on the basis of need, not ability to pay, they view drug abuse as a health issue, and want more support for carers.  They have some great stuff for rural Australians, including better telecommunication services for telehealth (including for mental health), and a funding mechanism or tax deductibility for health-related travel expenses for rural and regional patients. I haven’t seen that latter policy before, and I think it’s something that needs to be implemented yesterday.  Also, they support health education in schools, including sexual health, and they are pro-choice and support the right to refuse medical treatment and the right to a ‘dignified end of life’.

Under Education, the Democrats support free public education that ‘equips students with understanding of community, civic responsibility, critical thinking, and meaningful connections to job/career opportunities’.  They want more funding, including better pay for teachers, they want to revitalise trade schools and apprenticeships, they want University access to be based on ability to learn, not ability to pay, and they want to make sure rural Australians also have access to these things.  Once again, better telecommunication services for rural and regional areas are underlined.  I sense an unmet need.

Under the Economy, they want both free *and* fair trade, and also fair and progressive taxation systems.  They want more infrastructure spending, but also a balanced budget.  They also want to make sure unpaid labour (such as caring for children, the elderly, or disabled family members) is recognised, though they don’t say how.  And they don’t much like the sale of assets to private companies.

Finally, the Democrats have a policy on Community.  They are worried at how our society has fragmented, and they want to build communities that are ‘more tolerant, compassionate and mutually respectful’.  Reducing unemployment should be ‘Australia’s highest social priority’, and they are worried about mental illness.

They want to create more public spaces to help bring neighbourhoods together, and they want equitable access to housing and better public transport.  They want to protect religious freedom while maintaining a separation between church and state, and they recognise and support ‘a multicultural society which values all those who live in Australia, to be part of a strong, safe, harmonious and prosperous nation and assists those new to Australia with community support’.  They want to end prejudice and discrimination, they want to recognise ATSI people as the rightful custodians of their cultures, and they want to support veterans.

And that’s it!  As you may possibly have gathered, I really like the Australian Democrats’ approach, and they have some excellent policies.  There are a couple of absences of interest to me; nothing is said about refugees, immigration, or indeed, foreign affairs, nor is vaccination mentioned in their health policy.  I am hopeful that their emphasis on science-based policy and on compassion will inform these subjects usefully, but it does seem worth noting that they aren’t mentioned, and if I put on my Cynical Catherine Hat for a moment, I think it’s also worth noting that these are the sort of policies that polarise people – their omission may not be accidental.

Edited to add: Elisa Resce, the National President of the Democrats has responded to my concerns in a comment below.  Thanks, Elisa!

But all in all, it’s a fine showing from the Australian Democrats, and they will definitely be among the top parties on my ballot paper.

Eurovision Theme Song as determined by me, very objectively

This one writes itself.

Years ago, when I was younger, I kinda liked a political party I knew. 

But then

every day, they started fighting…

I don’t know what they were doing
But suddenly they fell apart.

And for a long time

I couldn’t find it
But when I do
We’ll get a brand new start.

I really have slightly fallen in love with the Australian Democrats and I hope that they will manage to fight their way back to being a significant part of Australia’s political life.  Do I think that this is likely to happen?  Or is it just a fairy tale?

Well, either way…

I’m in love with a fairytale
Even though it hurts

Still, you never know your luck.


  1. Simon

    I was briefly a member in the mid 90s, while i was at Uni. I let my membership lapse after the 1996 election, because I was uncomfortable with certain dodgy preference deals, and Cheryl Kernot’s increasing sectarianism to the Greens (whereas at the time I joined, there was still some discussion about a possible merger between the two parties). My own politics were moving leftward, whereas the party under Kernot was shifting subtly in the other direction (at least compared to where they’d been under her two predecessors) – at the time I thought Kernot so terribly right-wing. In retrospect, I’d much rather have Kernot’s ‘right-wing’ version of the Democrats than most of the senators we have now.

    Immigration was a fraught issue in the party when I was there, as there was a strong “sustainable population” lobby in the party, particularly around Sandra Kanck in the SA Branch. I gather she’s still a central figure in what’s left of the party. That may also explain the lack of any mention of vaccination, because she was a bit dodgy on that issue too. They were always pretty good on refugees though, so no idea why they wouldn’t run on their record there.

    • Catherine

      Interesting. Sandra comments here sometimes, and I had a feeling she was actually in Sustainable, but I could be wrong.

  2. Elisa Resce

    Hi Cate, my name is Elisa Resce and I’m National President. Thanks for the review! And some good feedback too, that our positions on such important issues aren’t easily apparent. Something for us to fix up.
    For the record, since amalgamating with CountryMinded in late 2018 we’ve been overhauling all our policies to harmonise both group’s styles and ideas. Policies get written as drafts, published to members, feedback collated, amendments made, finals voted on, etc…and then of course the election was upon us!

    We’re hoping people will apply our Principles to any policy areas that are not there yet, to get a sense of where we would likely stand.
    Short cheat-sheet though (because these positions are important for our Party and members):

    – Vaccinations = vital
    – Refugees = welcome
    – Immigrants = should never be blamed for infrastructure issues!
    – Immigration NUMBERS = can be talked about from an environmental sustainability perspective, but never, ever on racial or any other discriminatory grounds
    – Foreign Aid = a responsibility

    Thanks for the blog – it’s great reading!

    • Catherine

      Thank you very much Elisa – it’s fantastic when candidates come by to clarify things I’m not sure about! I’ll note at the top of my post that you have replied and addressed these issues. I’m very glad to see the Democrats back in the race – I wish you very well on the 18th!

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