Senator Cheryl Kernot today defected from the Australian Democrats to join the ALP.
Kernot resigned as leader of the Democrats, as a member of the party, and from the Senate.
She said she stood ready to contest a Liberal-held marginal seat for the ALP.
Transcript of Cheryl Kernot’s resignation press conference.
I have called this press conference today to inform you of my decision to resign as Leader of the Australian Democrats, and as a member of both the party and the Senate.
I fully appreciate this decision will come as a shock to members of a party I have served for 17 years. But it is a decision which, in the past 18 months, has grown unavoidable for two reasons. One, my personal and growing sense of outrage at the damage being done to Australia by the Howard Government. And two, my concern that from my position in the Senate I had a limited capacity to minimise that damage.
The change of Government in 1996 and the actions of the Howard administration since, especially the first Costello Budget, have been a defining episode for me. I have reached the conclusion that, for me, the imperative at the next Federal election lies not in battling to extract a share of the third party vote to keep balance of power in the Senate.
It is to play a more direct role in the removal of the Coalition Government. It is to stop the enormous damage the Coalition parties are doing to the fabric of this society. It is to avoid the possibility that they continue to do this damage for two terms, a whole six years – damage that may be impossible to repair. It is also vital to end the deliberate cultivation of the politics of division and intolerance. All this goes beyond balance of power in the Senate.
In the last 18 months I have watched as the Govenrment stepped up the process of dismantling the State, throwing thousands of people onto the scrapheap, abolishing job creation and training programs that are now the models for new Governments overseas. I have watched them manically cutting back programs ranging from industry R&D to family planning to dental hospital services for the poor.
Over the last 18 months I have watched this government create a crisis of confidence in the higher education sector and attack our public school system. I’ve seen them return to the development at any cost approach to the environment. And allow media coverage back into Family Law courtrooms. I have watched as a government that was so obsessed with its Budget bottom line failed to understand the effects of its own actions in creating massive insecurity in this country. This week they think nothing of getting rid of another couple of hundred public servants in DAS.
For 18 months I have watched as the Howard Government allowed an agent of division to vilify and scapegoat black Australians and migrants under the cloak of free speech. We have all seen this do enormous damage to Australia’s standing in the rest of the world.
I firmly believe the Howard Government has demonstrated itself to be a new government, shackled by old ideas. Its policy approach has been a patchwork of mediocrity and confusion. Its economic prescriptions still look to Margaret Thatcher for their inspiration. Its political response in so many areas is the cynical, time-honored conservative appeal to the lowest common denominator. Willing to exploit, in my view, the worst in people.
But, over and above all this, to me this Governnment’s key crime is not its list of incompetent minister fallen by the way, its blind eye to racism, its pettiness. It simply lacks any vision about the future direction of the country.
Australia cannot afford to flounder for six years. I believe it is now very important who wins the next election. Our destiny in the 21st century is at stake. We don’t have the luxury of a vision vacuum. For that reason I will be seeking preselection for a House of Representatives seat for the Australian Labor Party. I stand ready to contest a Liberal-held marginal seat.
Obviously, this has been a terribly hard decision to make. I have only really resolved it in the past two weeks. In making this move, the one deep regret I have is for the party I leave. Democrat members around the country, party officials, fellow MPs and my staff have nurtured me, given me the opportunity to cement the party’s place in Australian politics.
Some of those close to me know of the frustrations that have slowly overtaken me. Other party people will wonder why I take this step, joining a mainstream party, having long been a champion of a third party alternative. The answer is that I have found it increasingly difficult to stand in the middle, trying to be endlessly fair to both sides when I have grown so alarmed by the kind of politics being played out by the Coalition.
Still other people will wonder why I take this step after recent opinion polls and electoral results have been so favorable for the Democrats. The answer is that I have come to the conclusion that the Democrats, at the federal level, are permanently entrenched as a thrid party. This has always been Don Chipp’s view. It was a view put starkly at the 20th anniversary conference of the party early this year. The reality of the electoral system in this country means that the party will basically be confined to a Senate role. It will continue to play an important role there for Australian democracy.
After seven years in the Senate and four years as Democrat leader, I am pleased to, at least, be leaving the party in very good shape. At the 1996 election the Democrats succeeded in getting five long-term Senators elected. This means that barring a double dissolution election, the Democrats have party status in the Senate till 2002. The party has made inroads in State Parliament upper houses, as recently as last weekend.
Thus, not only is its viability guaranteed until the 21st century but the base for growth and development is secure. I leave the party on a professional campaign footing, with morale and unity on a high. But it is now time for me to move on and allow new blood into the leadership while the party is achieving. And while there is time before the next election.
I am well aware of the political risks in this course of action. I am prepared for the attacks that will inevitably be mounted on me by the Coalition. Those I will deal with, I am ready for that. To those who will, for example, equate me with others who have resigned their parties and stayed in Parliament, I will simply restate my view. Anyone has a right to be in the party of their choice, as long as in making a change mid-term, they leave the Parliament and represent themselves, in their new guise, for the judgement of the people. My particular concern will be about the Howard Government smearing the Democrats. Trite soundbites about how the party is just a sub-branch of the ALP, after all, will simply be another insult to the intelligence of the electorate.
For the record though, the Democrats and the voting public of Australia do deserve an explanation about how this change in direction came about for me. Over the years, approaches have been made by people on both sides of politics – Labor and Coalition – suggesting I join them. In the main, such approaches were off-the-cuff remarks in aeroplanes or at functions, usually half in jest, or at best semi-serious feelers. My reaction was to be flattered that various people thought enough of my contribution to entertain such ideas. When it was raised, I said that my job, first and foremost, was to restore the fortunes of the Australian Democrats.
But as my concern grew this year about the direction of the country, I confess I began to think about how I might be able to make a bigger contribution. Against this background, what had been off-the-cuff remarks became more considered discussions about my joining Labor. In this, Gareth Evans and John Faulkner, in particular, were very helpful. And I am grateful to have had the support and encouragement of Kim Beazley.
As you know, a major policy rethink is underway inside the ALP ahead of the National Conference early next year. I believe this re-think comes at a fortuitous moment in world politics. More and more parties around the globe are grappling with the problem of forging a new path: a synthesis that gets the best for society out of free market economics and government intervention. The Government’s Thatcherite prescriptions, the obsession with economics above all else, are out of time. It seems frozen in amber, like a Jurassic park fossil. The world is moving on. And Labor in Australia is moving with it.
I believe the ALP is working on a roadmap for the new millennium for Australia. Labor is reaching a position where it will be best placed to meet the economic challenge of the future. And, hand-in-hand with that, rebuild a sense of community, make society fairer, restore tolerance – in short, advance the great founding tradition of caring egalitarianisnm. Labor now has a precious opportunity to keep the best of its ideological changes of the 1980s but learn from the mistakes of that period. A new definition of the relationship between Governnment, the people, business and industry, the states, the regions, trade unionism and families, is coming. A new politics that will offer hope to a deeply disillusioned electorate.
Obviously, being a creature of one political culture moving into another, there are no guarantees for me. Perhaps this experiment will fail. Perhaps there will be no viable role for me within the Labor Party. Perhaps it will not be possible to re-invent Government and politics the way I believe – and I think millions of Australians sense – should happen. But I have decided to make the effort and try. I want to support Kim Beazley and play a role in the policy rethink and make whatever contribution is required strategically.
The alternative for me, quite frankly, was to leave politics, so that I did not compromise the Democrats’ continuing even-handedness. Now I have set my course to work with people like Gareth Evans and Simon Crean in a team assisting Kim Beazley rebuild not just Labor’s electoral support, but people’s faith in our political institutions. If I am to fail, then I will leave the stage. Politics for me is not about time-serving. I want to be part of building something which works. I want to restore the things that I think Australia has lost. Simple things, like confidence, trust and public service.