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.
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.
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.