It’s symptomatic of the atrophy that the Democrats have gone through that professional grade candidates are harder and harder to find, but the party’s real failure has been in fundamentally mis-marketing itself and this dates back much further than the GST.
Founded in 1977 by the ex-Liberal Minister Don Chipp, the party was set up as a socially progressive alternative to both major parties but with a more cautious position on economics and industrial relations than Labor.
But with the Greens not yet in existence, a lot of people who were left of centre on both social and economic issues were attracted to the Democrats and eventually became its largest block of voters. For this reason it was inevitable these votes would go to the Greens once they entered Federal politics.
The Democrats’ mistake since then has been to campaign almost solely on social issues in competition with the Greens to try to win back those votes, while barely mentioning the party’s more conservative approach to economics that would appeal to the small “l” liberals that were intended from the start to be its base.
Ironically the Howard years should have been a growth period for the party. Each year that has gone by has seen more and more Liberals disgusted with Howard on human rights but unwilling to vote Labor or Greens for economic reasons.
Yet even this year, the Democrats’ economic policies are buried in their homepage, not even appearing in the main “Election 07: the Issues” section. No, you have to go trawling through a policies library and download a PDF before you’ll find any substantial policy differences between the Democrats and Greens. If there’s one thing that’s true in politics it’s that you can’t campaign on sameness.
Historically the Democrats and the Greens work well together despite the inevitable campaign spats at election time, and they can continue to do so again, with the Greens stripping progressive votes from Labor while the Democrats strip progressives from the Liberals as well.
But with just one Democrat in a State parliament (in comparison to the Greens’ 14 and sharing the balance of power in three states), and with most of the Federal Democrats set to be wiped out this election, the party’s prospects seem grim.
Yet if the Democrats change strategies and concentrate on marketing themselves to their small “l” liberal base again they can still play a role in Australian politics. After this Government loses power the current crop of Liberals will retire leaving control of the party to its creeping Christian right faction. This will leave the Liberals unelectable and maybe even lead to a split.
In such an outcome the Democrats could reap a mass defection from progressive Liberals that would reinvigorate the party and rebuild the centre in Australian politics.
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