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History of the Australian Democrats

This history was taken from the official website of the Australian Democrats following the 1998 federal election.

In 1977, Don Chipp, a Liberal Member of the House of Representatives and former Minister, was approached by the people of the Australia Party, the New Liberal Movement and by other concerned individuals to hold a series of meetings across Australia with a view to forming a new party.

The motivating force for this was a desire for a party where ordinary people could have real say on policies and directions.

After a series of public meetings around Australia, a resolution was passed unanimously to form a new reformist party, and the ‘Australian Democrats’ was officially launched.

It won its first parliamentary seat when Robin Millhouse was elected to the State Parliament in South Australia.

At the federal level, the Australian Democrats have been represented in the Parliament for over eighteen years. The first Democrat to enter the Senate was Janine Haines, who was chosen by the Parliament of South Australia in December 1977 to succeed the Liberal Movement Senator Steele Hall after his resignation.

The Australian Democrats polled well at the December 1977 Federal election, obtaining 11.1% nationally, and electing two Australian Democrat Senators – Don Chipp in Victoria and Colin Mason in New South Wales.

In the Federal election in 1980, the Australian Democrats won three more Senate seats – in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia. This brought the party’s total Senate representation to five and gave the Australian Democrats the balance of power in the Senate.

At successive Federal elections in 1983, 1984, 1987, 1990 and 1993 the Australian Democrats gained further representation in the Senate.

On the retirement of the Party’s leader, Don Chipp, in 1986, Janine Haines was elected by the party members as Leader, the first woman in Australia’s history to lead a political party.

In the 1990 Federal Election, the Australian Democrats campaigned more strongly then ever for House of Representatives seats. This effort was led by Janine Haines’ bid for the seat of Kingston in South Australia. Despite nearly doubling the party’s vote nationally, the party failed in its bid for lower house seats. However the party easily held the important balance of power in the Senate by winning second seats in South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria. It needed eight Senate seats.

After the 1990 election, Janet Powell succeeded in winning the party’s Federal Parliamentary Leadership position. She became the second woman after Janine Haines to hold such a position in Australia’s history.

John Coulter, a renowned environmentalist and advocate of the ‘sustainable economy’ led the party into the 1993 Federal election. A second Senator, John Woodley, was elected in Queensland.

After the 1993 election, Queensland Senator, Cheryl Kernot was elected Parliamentary Leader with over 80% of members votes. Since then, the Democrats have had success in negotiations with the government over its widely unpopular 1993 Budget, Native Land Title and the Print Media Inquiry.

Upon the retirement of South Australian Senator John Coulter in November 1995, 26 year old Natasha Stott Despoja was selected as his replacement. Natasha is the youngest woman ever to take a seat in the Senate.

The March 1996 federal election saw the Democrats equal the Party’s record in terms of Senators returned, with succes in the five mainland states. For the second time in the Party’s history more than one million Australians voted Democrat in the Senate. The election saw a swing against the ALP in the Senate of more than 7%, of which three quarters went to the Democrats, and less than one seventh went to the Coalition. It also saw a a swing against the ALP in the House of Reps of more than 6%, which went roughly half (3.01%) to the Democrats and half to the Coalition (2.98%).

The federal success was repeated at the groundbreaking WA state poll in December, with two Democrats (Helen Hodgson and Norm Kelly) elected to the State Upper House – the first time the Party had ever won State representation in WA.

In October 1997 the great success of WA was bettered in South Australia with one in six South Australians voting Democrats in the State election. The Party recorded votes of up to 29% in Lower House seats, coming outright second in six (including the Premier’s seat), and within 2% of winning
Heysen and 4% of winning Waite. The 16% Statewide vote recorded in the Upper House saw two Democrats elected at a single poll for the first time. Mike Elliott and Ian Gilfillan were elected to join the continuing Sandra Kanck.

Just days after the SA poll, in mid October 1997 after four and a half years at the helm, Democrats Parliamentary Leader, Cheryl Kernot announced her resignation from the Senate and the Democrats to join the Labor Party.

After a nationwide postal ballot the Democrats elected a new leadership team, announced in December 1997 as Meg Lees and Natasha Stott Despoja, both from South Australia. The casual vacancy left by Cheryl Kernot was filled by then Queensland Divisional President, Andrew Bartlett.

The new leadership team took the Democrats to the federal election held in October 1998. This resulted in two new Democrats being elected to the Senate – Brian Greig in WA and Aden Ridgeway in NSW – giving the party a total representation of 9, the highest number since inception, and a return to the balance of power. There were also near misses in the Senate in Victoria and the ACT, as well as in the Lower House seat of Mayo.Following the election, both Meg Lees and Natasha Stott Despoja were re-elected by party members to the positions of Parliamentary Leader & Deputy Leader.

As the Party grows, and more people begin to understand the policies of the Australian Democrats, the greater becomes the opportunity for the Democrats to win lower house seats, and make the House of Representatives responsible for their actions as well.

The Australian Democrats have transformed the Senate and no longer is it merely a rubber stamp of government. Here the Australian Democrats have been able to raise issues and to make the Senate into a genuine house of review, dealing with each item of legislation on its merit. This change has been a healthy development in Australian political life.

The party looks forward to future successes.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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