29 June 2008

The hamster dies, but the wheel still spins

The first Democrat-free Senate in thirty years starts on Tuesday. The last-ever leader of the Democrats, the hapless Lynn Allison, tried to do both a fond farewell and a phoenix-like determination to rise again - and failed at both, as you might expect.

Had Allison been defeated in 2001 she wouldn't have undermined Stott Despoja, her party's last best hope. The RU-486 ban would have passed anyway. She wouldn't have been able to say to her party "cheer up, it could be worse!", then set about making it so. Instead, she could have come back in 2004 and she'd have a freer hand to remake the Democrats in her image than she has, or deserves to have on the basis of this piece.
The public should acknowledge that the Democrats were always good for democracy, no matter what their views of our platform and philosophy.

Much the same can be said for the failure to ban the Communist Party, notwithstanding the public's revulsion of that party's (those parties' ?) platform and policy. This sounds like a reproach of voters for not being good enough to maintain Allison in the role to which she had become accustomed: a bad look in any democracy, a stupid move by someone who should be prepared to live or die in the name of democracy.
We transformed the Senate from a rubber stamp into a genuine house of review. But, sadly, most won't remember us for our policy and legislative contributions, choosing instead to focus on those few inglorious moments in our history that effectively sealed the party's death - notably, the divisive GST negotiations of 1999 and leadership stoush of 2002.

I won't focus on the Democrats' real achievements if you won't, Lynn. The reason the Democrats failed was not because the voters lacked focus - it was because the Democrats dropped their focus on reforming law and other aspects of government.

Let's look at some issues since 2002, issues that the Democrats in their heyday would have gone after for the sake of both good government and positive headlines:

  • The commitment of Australian troops to Iraq, their activities there and care for those who have returned

  • Suicides and sexual harassment in the defence forces

  • Blowouts of defence projects, insufficient government scrutiny of expenditure before committing public funds and Australian defence strategies

  • The backdown of Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty about how Iraq has made Australia less secure

  • Immigration detention centres

  • Immigration and the job market

  • Education. The whole policy area, really. Pre-schoolers to postdoctorates.

  • Innovation in industry

  • Oligopolies and corporate regulatory failures generally

  • Giving welfare to people who don't need it, many examples of

  • Housing prices

  • Civil rights

  • Disparity between quality of food grown in Australia and price of said food vs quality/price of foodstuffs available for sale, obesity and other health-related effects of, including diminishing public sympathy for farmers

  • Easy credit, concerns about

  • Telco services in remote areas

  • Any kind of services in remote areas

  • Any kind of services to Aboriginal people and communities

  • Public broadcasting

  • Pharmaceuticals and other drugs

  • Mental and other endemic illnesses

  • Land clearing in Queensland

  • The entire Murray-Darling Basin

  • Donations to major parties

  • Any time there was any sort of disagreement between the Coalition Federal government and the Labor states/territories (see Abbott, T.), where was the censorious more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger Democrat calling for bipartisan co-operation for the public good?

  • Violence against women (why were the Liberals allowed to take the running on this before the 2004 election, and drop all funding and support once Latham was gone?)

  • Any of those issues raised in my criticism of Rudd below

Maybe the Democrats did things on those issues, but they were fiddling around the edges rather than addressing them directly. One of the legacies of Stott Despoja is that she took the Democrats' eyes off policy, big-picture and detail, and turned them into just another bunch of PR dollies. Once that happened they were buggered. If you're going to talk about the Democrats' heyday and their record of achievement, talk about them. Instead, as you might expect, the response from Allison is piss-weak:
I know that many Democrats senators would do things differently if we had our time over.

Do what, exactly? The whole point of accepting blame is not for others to rub it in, but to learn from what should be done to avoid such a similar situation recurring. Allison goes on to talk about an issue she wouldn't change, lack of party discipline, which only became a problem when Democrats lacked any reason for voting one way or another.
Surely Australian politics is mature enough to accept this of a party?

Again, it's we voters who are not mature enough for the Democrats rather than the other way around. Like all failed politicians, she refuses to accept blame or to learn from her mistakes as the rest of us must. Like other failed politicians, she deflects attention from her failures by projection:
And despite all the hype surrounding the Greens, they've managed to pick up only half the number of seats we held in our heyday.

The Democrats held nine seats in their heyday, the Greens have five Senators from Tuesday.

While Brown is an extinct volcano but Milne and Siewert have the sort of dedication to both policy and publicity that the Democrats had in their heyday. You'd be a fool to bet against the Greens getting between seven and nine Senators next time, especially now that Allison has (however inadvertently) helped nobble their competition. She helps even more by revealing her ineptitude as a political strategist:
But I glimpse a window of opportunity for a new third party. The Rudd Government has already experienced trouble getting its legislation through the Senate, and things will only become worse. Under the newly composed chamber, the Government will be impotent to pass laws unless it has support either from the Opposition or the full crossbench - five Greens, Family First's Steve Fielding and independent Nick Xenophon. A fairly diverse bunch, to say the least.

More diverse than the Democrats? Really?
Is this not the perfect recipe for a double-dissolution? If I'm right, that would significantly improve the chances of a new party picking up seats, given that it would need just half the ordinary quota of votes, and the Greens would be seen to have caused the dissolution problem. Those not inclined to vote Labor or Liberal would seek a sensible third force to play the role of negotiator.

The key phrase in there is: "if I'm right". Other political leaders have a vision - Allison has a "glimpse".

In the Senate, the Coalition have placed all their faith in Minchin and Abetz. They will oscillate between point-scoring and pandering to the right, but will always snap back from the latter to avoid a double dissolution. A half-Senate election would hammer the Coalition and a double dissolution would be worse, with five or even four Senators from twelve in each state. The Coalition does not want to go the way of the Democrats, and more importantly will act to avoid that fate.

Nick Minchin was the South Australian State Director of the Liberal Party who acted to have a Labor minister returned in the electorate of Kingston than to have Janine Haines win it in 1990. Minchin is also responsible for ensuring that in the 18 years since, the Liberals have held that seat for five.

The Greens, as I said, stand to double their numbers at the next half-Senate election. At a double dissolution they would be lucky to get one from each state, a slight increase on their current situation.

Xenophon might fancy his chances in a double dissolution but Fielding must dread the approach of the polls. The perfect storm that enabled him to translate <2% of his state's vote to a Senate position has passed, and his role as an ineffectual goober becomes more pronounced the more he thrusts himself before the media. The press gallery think they're doing their job by paying attention to him, but actually they diminish themselves further.

A double dissolution election would deliver Labor six or seven seats from every state, i.e. a clear majority. The only issue where it would arise would be the workplace relations changes - see above for how the Coalition would react to that. Can you think of a single issue where the Coalition and the Greens would unite against Labor, and which would force Labor to the polls? Me neither.

Where does all this leave Allison? Stuffed, actually, and same with anyone who'd stand with her. As we learned from Opes Prime, nobody wants a broker who is themselves broke. A negotiator is someone who comes in for a fixed period to solve a fixed problem. A negotiator does not have an agenda like "liberal economic ideals and a progressive social agenda" that might get in the way of the problem at hand. If you want a negotiator, you'd want the next Governor-General or Sir Laurence Street, not Lynn bloody Allison.

Given that this scenario is unlikely, and that Allison's assumptions about other players are crap flawed, how absurd is this call:
The new party, if it is to succeed, must form quickly in anticipation of such a scenario.

Even if it does come off, you can't build a party designed to last beyond the election-after-next on that basis. You can't attract donations, you can't attract the support of sensible and busy people on the basis of a "glimpse" from Lynn Allison's eye.
It should rely heavily on the internet - more so than any other party before it - for building a support base, and recruit high-profile and well-qualified candidates to its winnable spots.

Be suspicious of politicians who urge you to rush now, think later - especially on the basis of a "glimpse". Be suspicious of politicians who appear dazzled by new technology without allowing for its transformative and decentralising power.

Be suspicious of politicians who set criteria they themselves fail to meet. Allison set up an inquiry into greenhouse gases in 1989, so what? John Howard set up the Campbell Inquiry into the Australian financial system, a flimsy basis on which to build economic reform credentials.
There's a vast open space in Australian politics waiting to be filled by a party with a philosophy and purpose similar to the Democrats'.

Allison must bear some blame for the arid, pathless desolation of that 'vast open space', to the point where those who would stoop and build up the post-Democrats with worn-out tools must not accept any assistance from Lynn Allison above handing out how-to-votes. She has learned nothing and contributed little. She is not a positive role-model for anyone who wants anything from public life beyond a parliamentary pension.

The problem for the Australian Democrats wasn't that the public couldn't get past the tumult from 1997 (when Kernot dumped the Democrats) to 2002 (when they dumped Stott Despoja). The problem was that that the Democrats couldn't get past it - even those Democrat politicians who weren't involved in All That, like Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, were useless both at nerdy committee work as well as the triteness of media. The other problem was that this was a party that was never serious about power, and now the Emocrats have gone the way of the Peacock and Beazley governments - and taken all their supporters' hopes with them.

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