What could bring the Democrats back?

A discussion paper reflecting on our past, present and potential future. Join the conversation by leaving comments below. Written by Robert Ollington, January 2017

Many commentators and scholars have written about the decline of the Australian Democrats.  While a number of contributing factors have been identified, the root cause of the decline is often cited as being a failure of the Democrat’s implementation of participatory democracy.

This paper first provides a brief overview of this argument, and then suggests a plan to correct flaws in the implementation of participatory democracy and reinvigorate the Party.  A key part of this plan is the development of a modern online system for member management and online voting.

Rise and Fall of the Australian Democrats

A (very) Brief History

The Australian Democrats, led by former Liberal Party minister Don Chipp, were founded in 1977 with a strong focus on participatory democracy and centrist policies (Madden 2008).  

The participatory democracy practiced by the Democrats was in stark contrast to the oligarchical tendencies (Ghazarian 2008) of the major parties and emphasised the ideals of consensus, rational debate and citizen participation (Gauja 2005).  Postal ballots were conducted to establish policy and elect the Party leadership.  This encouraged member engagement and, with a varied membership, naturally led to centrist policies.

In the 1977 election, the Party attracted over 10% of the vote in the Senate, and two senators (Don Chipp and Colin Mason) were elected.  The 1980 election saw the birth of the “keeping the bastards honest” mantra and the Party again polled strongly gaining three more senators.

The period from 1987 to 1993 saw the emergence of ‘green’ politics and green parties, and this led to a power struggle between members in favour of a merger with green parties, and those opposed.  This resulted in leadership tension and the Party saw a sharp dip in the primary vote to around 5% in the 1993 election (Ghazarian 2008).  However, 1996 saw a rebound in support to previous levels.

By 1998, the total number of Democrats senators had increased to nine and the Party held the balance of power in the Senate (Gauja 2010).  Party membership had reached around 8000.  The Australian Democrats had changed the culture of Australian politics by promoting the role of the Senate as a house of review.  They successfully lobbied for amendments to legislation and demonstrated that a vote for a minor party is not a wasted vote (Gauja 2010).

The period from 2001-2004 saw more leadership tension, this time related to support for the GST.  As a result, the 2004 election again saw a marked decline in popularity attracting only 2.1% of the vote.  Unlike in 1996, the Party has never recovered from this poor performance and has not held a single Senate seat since 2007.

Reasons for Decline

Political scholars suggest several factors that contributed to the decline of the Australian Democrats, with the most often cited being:  

Support for the GST.  In 1999 Party Leader Meg Lees and some Senate colleagues agreed to support the GST legislation proposed by the Howard government, after successful negotiations for some exemptions.  Two Democrats senators (Natasha Stott-Despoja and Andrew Bartlett) voted against the GST.  This led to continuing divisions within the Party and these divisions undermined public support (Madden 2008; Gauja 2005).

Leadership.  In 1997, Party leader Cheryl Kernot defected to the Labor Party.  This was followed by many leadership changes in the following years, including the period following the GST debate.  Leadership changes were frequently followed by changes in policy.  These leadership and policy changes also undermined public support (Madden 2008).

Role and recognition. The Party failed to articulate a positive point of difference beyond “keeping the bastards honest”.  Work in the Senate went unnoticed and the general public were unaware of the structure and policies of the Party, or of the unique way in which these policies were formulated (Madden 2008).

The rise of the Greens.  The decline in popularity of the Democrats from 1998 onwards, almost exactly mirrors the rise in popularity of the Greens.  The implication is that many Democrats voters shifted their vote to the Greens – even though the Democrats were promoting green values and policies years before (Madden 2008).

Beneath these superficial reasons for decline there are common themes that suggest a failure of participatory democracy was at the core of the Party’s problems.

In the GST debate, the Democrat’s vote was split in the Senate, and in fact it was not uncommon for the Party vote to be split.  This should be a rare occurrence if participatory processes are functioning correctly.   

Similarly, it is not clear why leadership change should result in policy change in a Party practicing participatory democracy.  Would the members suddenly change their mind on policy simply because of a change in leadership?

The Democrats were founded as a centrist party, while the Greens are clearly on the political left. However, the shift in allegiances from the Democrats to the Greens implies that the Democrats’ policies at the time were closer to the political left than centre (or at least closer to the Greens than to the major parties).    

This all suggests a failure of participatory democracy, but why?  

Despite policy being decided by a ballot of members, Democrats parliamentarians are allowed (if not encouraged) to vote according to their conscience.  While it was presumably thought that this would be a rare occurrence when the Party constitution was drafted, it instead turned out to be quite common (Kanck 2015).  According to some parliamentarians this was largely because the policy positions of the party (decided by member ballot) were rarely directly applicable to legislative debate (Gauja 2005).  This left representatives with no clear direction from the Party.  It is also possible, if not likely, that internal Party divisions led to strategic voting in order to undermine leadership (Kanck 2015).

This inevitably leads to member disengagement.  If members perceive little value in participation, what is the point in voting?  On average, between 1990 and 2002, only 12% of members voted in the Party’s policy ballots (Gauja 2010).  For example, on the GST issue, only 5% of the Party membership voted (Kanck 2015).

With only small numbers of members voting, it becomes easy for factions within the Party to mobilise small groups of members to affect change (Gauja 2010).  The party becomes effectively the same as the major parties where policies are decided by a small group.

It is possible that this same process also led to policies drifting to the political left (i.e. closer to the Greens).  This may explain why the Democrats’ voter base and members (including ex-parliamentarians) shifted allegiance to the Greens, or it may simply have been a result of the leadership turmoil.  

A Plan for Revival

The failure of participatory democracy boils down to low member participation.  Member participation can be increased by:

  • increasing the rate of member engagement, and/or
  • increasing the number of members overall.  

The most sensible approach would be to first address the member engagement problem, and then increase membership.

Increasing Engagement

When members believe that they have little impact on the actions of parliamentarians, they are less likely to engage with policy debate and vote in ballots.  There are two major factors that contribute to the poor connection between members and the actions of parliamentarians:

  • parliamentary representatives are not required to conform to Party policy and may instead exercise a conscience vote
  • the mechanisms for consulting members are insufficient or too slow, leaving parliamentarians to guess the Party’s view on important issues

To reduce disincentives to participation, both of these issues should be addressed.  

First, parliamentarians (and the Party in general) must have confidence that they understand the Party position on all important issues.  This may have been difficult in the past, but with modern online and mobile methods, ballots can be conducted more frequently and with short turn-around times (effectively instantaneous) for determining a result.

Second, parliamentarians should be more accountable to members.  This could be achieved through constitutional change (e.g. by modifying clause 11.3).  Alternatively, it may be sufficient to simply make Party discussions, and the results of Party ballots, highly visible and transparent.  Representatives would then be acutely aware that any behaviour contrary to this publicly available information would seriously hurt their chances of reselection.  Again, a modern online system can help to achieve this.

Increasing membership

The other way to increase participation is to increase membership overall.  History suggests that the Party should plan for engagement rates as low as 5% in some ballots.  In order to ensure that small groups are not able to control the outcome of a ballot, that 5% must represent a significant pool of voters.  Obviously the more the better, but for the sake of argument 50,000 members would be a good aim.

This represents a massive increase over the current membership.  Marketing would obviously have to play a big part in attracting new members, but there are other strategies that should also be considered.

Membership fees for Democrats are at the higher end of the spectrum (Alexander 2013).  Reducing the annual fee would remove one barrier to membership and have the added benefit of making membership affordable for a wider segment of the population, hence increasing diversity.  One option would be to introduce a very low cost voting-rights-only membership.

In a survey of members conducted in 2004-2005, 76% of respondents agreed that participatory democracy was a big reason for joining the Party (Gauja 2010).  However, it is likely that most Australians are not aware that the Democrats practice participatory democracy; and even if they were, they may not understand what this means in practice.  The best way to communicate this is by example – i.e. by making policy discussions and ballots publicly and easily accessible.

Whatever strategies are employed, the current website, member communication, and ballot procedures are not ideal for recruiting and supporting a large membership.  To address this, further development of the current online system is required.  This should include:

  • semi-automated member management
  • online discussion and policy debate
  • online voting and reporting for major ballots (e.g. policy and leadership)
  • fast turn-around ‘quick-polls’ (perhaps with mobile interface) for rapidly evolving issues (e.g. legislative debate)

Some may argue that online voting is not sufficiently secure, and it is true that no online voting system will be 100% secure.  However, a properly designed system can be functionally secure with any information loss or vote tampering immediately detectable.  Such a system would require an expensive, bespoke online solution.  

To fund the development of this system, crowd-funding could be used.  Crowd-funding would be a relatively novel approach in Australian politics, which could have the added benefit of attracting both traditional and social media attention, hence partially addressing marketing needs for very low cost.

Crowd-funding has been used for political fundraising in the past to good effect.  Indiegogo (www.indiegogo.com) is one crowd-funding platform that allows political fundraising.  For example:

In the UK, political crowd-funding has been particularly popular:


The Australian Democrats were founded on the principles of participatory democracy and this played a big part in its success.  However, relatively minor flaws in the implementation of participatory democracy, partly caused by technological limitations, also led to the Party’s decline.  This paper has recommended the development of a modern online system to manage the machinery of participatory democracy, and help to correct these flaws.

In summary, the major recommendations are:

  • further online development to manage memberships, policy discussions and party ballots
  • make online discussions and ballots transparent and visible to members and the public
  • use the online system to increase the frequency and reduce the response time for ballots
  • introduce a low-cost membership
  • conduct a crowd-funding campaign to both fund the development of the online system and help with marketing

In addition, there are some minor constitutional changes that could be implemented to help support the above strategy:

  • modify clause 11.3 to make it clear that parliamentarians must make every effort to consult the Party on all important issues
  • modify clause 14.10 of the constitution to reduce or remove the period of voter ineligibility for new members
  • modify various constitutional clauses that refer to the Journal so that it is clear that suitable alternatives may be used
  • clarify wording surrounding the frequency of policy ballots to allow and encourage more frequent polls
  • add a clause (or modify existing clauses) to explicitly allow and encourage non-policy ballots (e.g. on matters of legislature not initiated by the Party)

With some minor changes and a new online member management system, the Australian Democrats can implement an improved system of participatory democracy and once again play an important role in Australian politics.


Alexander, C., 2013. The party’s over: which clubs have the most members? Crikey.

Gauja, A., 2010. Evaluating the Success and Contribution of a Minor Party: the Case of the Australian Democrats. Parliamentary Affairs, 63(3), pp.486–503.

Gauja, A., 2005. The pitfalls of participatory democracy: A study of the Australian Democrats’ GST. Australian Journal of Political Science, 40(1), pp.71–85.

Ghazarian, Z., 2008. Vale the Australian Democrats: organisational failure and electoral decline. In Australian Political Studies Association Conference.

Kanck, S., 2015. Sandra Kanck: Who I blame for demise of the Australian Democrats. The Advertiser.

Madden, C., 2008. Australian Democrats: the passing of an era. Research Paper No, 25.

2017-03-11T19:14:29+00:00Tags: , , |


  1. Nathan Bullivant March 13, 2017 at 6:05 pm - Reply

    It’s good to see some genuine and critical reflection.
    I think the current political climate is calling for a Democrats return.Being clear as to why things didn’t work is a great start in not repeating earlier failure.

    • Robert Ollington March 17, 2017 at 5:13 pm - Reply

      Thanks Nathan. I think recent election results around the world (e.g. Dutch) show that many voters are now realising that extremism (of any sort) does not lead to stability – or even, necessarily, progress. That’s not to say that there is not a large section of the population who feel they are not being heard.

      And that’s why I think the Democrats are in the best position, structurally and philosophically, to make a big difference in the near future. But only if we can tap into, and truly represent, those unheard ordinary and extraordinary people.

  2. Chris Ward March 25, 2017 at 7:11 am - Reply

    An excellent summary.
    My observation was that Kernot’s betrayal was far more significant in AD’s subsequent decline – it evinced an initial confirmation of support for AD based on indignation & other, more noble sentiments. But huge damage had been done. Uncertainty did the rest.
    But AD was not the only victim of ALP attack.
    The Labor Party is a grand master of destruction. In my lifetime (7 decades) only 3 ALP leaders have been able to wrest government from the tories – Whitlam, Hawke & Rudd. All 3 were brought to their knees by the ALP itself. In Whitlam’s case it was by the excesses of his crazy ministers. The other 2 were victims of petty power plays.
    IMHO leadership is very important and should be given due consideration. Haynes & Chipp were masterful at providing participatory democracy with the requisite leadership. a figurehead that was strong, unambiguous and with unarguable integrity.
    Find a similar leader, build her/his reputation and impress on all senior leaders that the Captai, in accepting the top role, is not entitled to jump ship or betray the organisation in any way.

  3. Tony Gentile April 11, 2017 at 5:31 pm - Reply

    An interesting if of necessity limited summary. I was the last national secretary of the Australia Party when we merged. I chaired the Committee of Interested Citizens for the Formation of a Third Party (NSW) and was its first hon. State Secretary.
    So why did I leave? The Party moved to far to ta he left and away from the centrist focus of Don Chipp and Colin Mason. I am now in the Liberal Party and as moderate’ always fighting the Conservatives. It has given me purpose in thus pursuing my liberal philosophy. Would love to see the Democrats back – it can be done but requires not just participatory democracies but a commitment to work within a set of political guiding principles. It of course also requires funding. The rules prevent my rejoining and remaining a member of another political party. But I do wish you well.

    • Elisa April 18, 2017 at 11:40 am - Reply

      Thank-you Tony! If you ever feel like your time with the Liberal Party is nearing an end, we’d love to have you back on board!

      Kind regards,
      Elisa Resce
      National Communications Officer

      • Vern Hughes October 14, 2017 at 11:03 am - Reply

        Like Tony, I also left the Democrats because of its turn to the Left. I joined in 1988, and left in 1990. I joined again in 1993, seeing a huge need for a centrist party, but left in 1994 after attending a Victorian function in which the majority seemed to think the answer was to move further to the Left.

        The turn away from the political centre and the social mainstream is the main reason for the collapse of the Democrats, aligned with a number of related trends. One of these was what called in the 1980s ‘parliamentary cretinism’, which referred to the tendency for the party to be run out of Senator’s offices by staffers – in the same way the Liberal and Labor parties are run by staffers who are biding their time till they get the nod for a parliamentary seat themselves. The Democrats offered the promise of politics led by citizens, not politicians or careerists. The party let many Australians down badly by walking away from this promise.

        Another factor was the rejection of sensible market economics in favour of leftist central planning. In the context of the 1980s, when neo-liberal economics was on the rise around the world, it was understandable that socially responsible parties would reject neo-liberalism. But the Democrats response was flawed and went to the other extreme. Instead of leading the economic debate based on widespread ownership, strong small businesses, employee participation in governance, and inclusive economics, the party rejected market economics and widespread business ownership and opted for an approach to the economy that earned it the tag ‘fairies at the bottom of the garden’. It was fully deserved.

        Can these things be turned around? Can the Democrats once again become a centrist mainstream party, led by citizens not politicians, and based in small business and market economics at a time when the public is crying out for these things like never before?

        • Robert Ollington October 14, 2017 at 1:13 pm - Reply

          Hi Vern, great to hear from you.

          Since I joined the Party and wrote this article, a lot has changed. The Party is actively seeking to improve it’s participatory processes and increase membership. Admittedly, a lot of that progress is not yet visible, but say tuned.

          I think you will agree that this is the key to finding that strong “centrist” position that may have been lost or tarnished.

    • Robert Ollington May 2, 2017 at 6:25 pm - Reply

      Thanks Tony. My first draft had a paragraph on the shift of the Party to the left and how that exacerbated problems created by the emergence of the Greens. Almost by definition, a party that practices participatory democracy and has a broad membership base must be centrist! It’s another thing that makes me believe that democratic practices within the Party were failing and need a revamp.

  4. Shane McWhinney April 18, 2017 at 12:10 am - Reply

    I’ve started longing for the return of the Democrats and I think the paper very nicely sets out some of the issues and a way forward.
    I think there could also be a range of other complementary actions that address other needs and make the party more unique, attractive and relevant. Why aren’t people joining groups and organisations the way they used to? How to make participation fun, social and engaging? How to make a difference on the ground? If there’s a way to basically make the party like a genuine community then I think we’d really be on to something. I think the core of this could be some mix of great social events, volunteering events, leading action-oriented campaigns to fix real problems, empowering / enabling people to connect and help each other.

    • Elisa April 18, 2017 at 11:39 am - Reply

      Thanks for the feedback, Shane. Are you a member? We need more active members to be able to achieve some of these ideas!

      Elisa Resce
      National Communications Officer

      • Shane April 19, 2017 at 5:32 am - Reply

        Hi Elise I’m living abroad at the moment but returning in late July, so am planning to update my AEC details and then join up and get involved when I get back. Regards, Shane.

        • Elisa April 19, 2017 at 8:27 pm - Reply

          Great, look forward to working with you!
          Safe travels!

    • Robert Ollington May 2, 2017 at 6:27 pm - Reply

      Great ideas Shane!

  5. Bob July 18, 2017 at 11:16 am - Reply

    When I was a member it was $25 to join, now I believe it is more but less than a dollar a day. You only give away voting rights cheaply if they are not valued or worth anything. Serious parties dont do it.
    I only Voted in policy ballots when the subject matter engaged me and the Consumption Tax policy ballot was one I did vote in.
    If you reduced the time to be eligible to vote, then you could easily flood your party with short term members, especially at a low cost of membership. Hence buying a particular outcome. The LDP would be hovering. Also all voting office holders could be changed by newly joined members’ votes.
    I remember when a Senator used to hold member meetings to discuss upcoming legislation, the meetings were poorly attended and most attendees actually learnt about the issues from the Senator.
    I was happy to be lead by the experience of the elected parliamentary team, acting within the broad breadth of the party policy and key objectives.
    If you dont have trust and faith in your party public officials – parliamentarians you end up in the fights for leadership positions as happened to Natasha, Meg and Grieg. Yes sometimes they may have a minority vote against the party line, but that should be monitored and documented and play a part in preselection.
    Also the Journal is the name of the publication that effects a ballot, not the media used. It doesnt have to be paper, it can be electronic. Rules should be made that dont tie you to delivery mechanisms. So the Journal is not said to be paper.
    But as someone who doesnt have much computer access, then if you make all voting electronic you would exclude people like me or members who are in remote areas without online access, do not have the means with either financial or computer savvyness. And dont you pride yourself on inclusiveness ?

    I think Shane sums it up best, get lots of local activity happening and people like me will get involved again.

    Best Wishes Bob.

    • Robert Ollington July 18, 2017 at 7:27 pm - Reply

      Thanks Bob, it’s great to have feedback from someone who has been around for longer than I have. I think that when I wrote this piece I may have been a little naive. It would be nice if the risks that you point out were not serious, but the more I have become involved with politics, the more I can see that it is a dirty business.

      I would like that to change. I think the voting public would like that to change.

      But in the meantime, the risks are real and I am glad you have raised them here. However, with a low membership, the risks are even greater. The best defence, in my opinion, is to increase membership. It seems to me that if you halve the cost of membership, but have double the members, the risk is the same right? So it’s not a matter of higher memberships are better, or lower is better, but what is the optimal amount? Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer to that question – perhaps the current rate is about right?

      But I do know that the more ideas we have for increasing membership and increasing member engagement the better. I hope that we can increase online member engagement. It would also be great to increase local activity as you suggest – and I would definitely like to hear more if you have specific ideas.

      If that works, great! If it doesn’t, I’d rather take some risks. 🙂

  6. Mark Underwood March 1, 2018 at 2:56 pm - Reply

    This is a really well written article and it seems like there are some great strategies to increase membership and engagement.
    I believe that the return of the Australian Democrats would be a force in Australian politics and could really help bring voter confidence back to the political system. I think a lot of people are disillusioned by the Liberal and Labour parties and are yearning for an option that isn’t the Greens, Pauline Hanson, Clive Palmer or Nick Xenophon. I believe people are latching onto these minority parties because they are not Liberal and Labour, rather than because they are in favour of the policies of the minority parties.
    A strong Australian Democrats party with clear member engagement and policies developed by its members would be very attractive to a large segment of the voting public. I believe utilising social media and online systems to engage with members and let the wider public know of the policies etc would really let people engage on political issues whereas I think at the moment, there is very little to allow voters to do this, so we just keep quiet.
    I was really inspired reading this and want to say thanks for taking the time to write and publish it.

    • Robert Ollington March 1, 2018 at 4:35 pm - Reply

      Thanks Mark. We are working very hard to make this happen, but we need all the help we can get. So, if you have any specific ideas, or would like to help in any way, please get in touch.

  7. Cecile April 30, 2018 at 10:15 am - Reply

    Basically, debates, polls, votes, membership management and fundraising can all be handled by Facebook Groups.

    This includes creating smaller subgroups and working committees.

    No need to build a whole new interactive website. Why haven’t you done this yet?

    • Robert Ollington May 6, 2018 at 3:06 pm - Reply

      Hi Cecile, thanks for the comment.

      Some of this stuff we are already doing, some will be coming soon. We do have a members Facebook group, but it is a little ad hoc. FB is not the best medium for everything. We have also seen recently why some people may be reluctant to use FB – especially for political debate. Online voting in particular is problematic, forum and FB polls can be useful, but they are far from reliable.

      I hope that there will be an announcement soon about a new home for members to discuss and debate policy directions. Once we get that up and running I hope I will see you there.

  8. Duncan McEwan July 9, 2018 at 11:59 pm - Reply

    I come to the Democrats as a Greens voter unhappy with the party not recognising that breaking the duopoly of the two major parties should be the goal. With the debacle that is our current political environment, it is a huge failure that the Greens didn’t seize the opportunity with both hands and develop policy, marketing and language that connected with a broader audience to reach 20% of the primary vote.

    Yet I’m now disappointed with the comments here, that the Democrats want to remain a centrist party. In case the bleedingly obvious is in fact not, the populous does not want a centrist party. We want a party with rational policies reflecting socially left and economically centre policies….with sometimes a touch of right when and where the issue demands it. If you call that centrist…don’t. Your words fall on deaf ears.

    Mainly what we don’t want is a party beholden to vested interests, infighting and leadership challenges. We also want a party that tells it as it is, admits errors and changes policy when wrong.

    The Democrats have a strong brand, that lays dormant. What you need is a popular left social policy that the media will buy into and a marquee leader or candidate to be the face of a campaign.

    Australia is ripe for a party to challenge the majors. The Greens have failed. One Nation has failed. Come on, stand up and win my vote!

    • Robert Ollington July 10, 2018 at 7:38 pm - Reply

      Good comments Duncan. First of all, this article represents my view (at a particular point in time), so please don’t judge the whole Party based on this article. 🙂 As an ex-Greens voter, I sympathise with your view. IMO, the Greens are not only incapable of winning a greater share of the vote, by all appearances they actively discourage it!

      In the Democrats, every member is entitled to their own views and every member is entitled to propose, debate, and ultimately vote on policy. We value fairness and accountability and are focused on evidence-based solutions. We don’t care which side of politics those solutions come from. As a Party I don’t think we really want to be labelled ‘centrist’ (or anything else for that matter), but that tends to be how others label us.

      At the time I wrote this, I didn’t have a problem with the term, but since then I’ve come to realise the negative connotations that others associate with it. To me, everybody’s views are valid, and a truly democratic system is, almost by definition, centrist. But some people associate that term with ‘sitting on the fence’ on every issue – that simply is not what we are about. As you say, sometimes the best solution comes from the left, sometimes the right, but really – who cares? We want the greatest good for Australia and we believe that all Australians have something valuable to add in helping us find the best solutions.

      Maybe the Party isn’t quite where you want us to be right now, but you can help nudge it in the right direction by becoming a member and having your say. 😉

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