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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

'keeping the bastards honest' « Previous | |Next »
August 30, 2006

Don Chipp's phrase 'Keeping the bastards honest' is a good political slogan and program isn't it. It has become a key part of political culture and shapes how we think about Canberra. I guess that a lot of the commentary around Don Chipp's death yesterday will be about whether the Australian Democrats, the political party he founded in 1977, can arrest their own slide into political oblivion as a centrist force in federal politics.

I presume the consensus judgement will be that Chipp failed in his attempt to refashion the political landscape, given the slow fading of the Australian Democrats after they lost the balance of power and so their ability to negotiate better outcomes by taking the rough edges off either party's policies, as well as force inquiries and so put their own issues on the agenda. The Canberra press gallery has written off the party as a viable, centrist political force.

Sean Leahy

What should also be remembered in our reflections on the history of our political culture is that Chipp left the Liberal Party in the 1970s because it was becoming increasingly illiberal in its turn away from the progressive or social liberal tradition. The social liberals who are left are marginalised and under threat from the conservatives. If there is any committment to liberalism, then it is to a truncated market liberalism counterbalanced by a strong and heavy handed state.

Sure there is a gap on the political spectrum for a party appealing to the educated liberal-progressive middle class and, at this stage, it looks as if the Greens may fill it. At the moment they position themselves to the left of the ALP and not self-consciously sitting in the middle between the two major parties endeavouring to "keep the bastards honest".

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 2:05 PM | | Comments (4)


The Democrats "slow fading" began long before they lost the balance of power.

Some believe the fade started the day Meg Lees rolled over on the GST. While I'm not convinced this was the defining moment, though it certainly was one of them. Kernot's defection to Labor, the Lees/Stott Despoja infighting, drunken escapades, etc all played a part.

The voters lost confidence in them and its difficult to win that back when they can't affect policies that worry voters - interest rates, IR laws, housing affordability, etc. But their not exactly helping themselves ATM, are they? When did you last hear any of their Senators arguing a case on any of these matters. Yes, I appreciate the media isn't interested in providing a platform, but there are other ways of getting attention.

I doubt voters will be wanting to give either of the majors a Senate majority again, so the opportunity is there for the Dems, but they're going to have to win it, its not going to get it handed to them on a plate!

good points.

The infighting was also about the role of the Democrats in the Senate---they were torn between negotiating with Howard and modifying the nasties in his legislation (Lees) or saying no to Howard's legislation and blocking it with the ALP (Stott-Despoja). The GST was an example of this conflict.

As Jack Waterford points out in the Canberra Times:

there were always pressures on it [Australian Democrats] to move leftwards, not least as Labor itself moved to the centre and Labor found its own critic (and partial ally) on the Left in the shape of the Nuclear Disarmament Party and then the Greens. It turned out, it seemed, that there was only limited space for any third or fourth parties, and that competing in that constituency was likely to be more fruitful than seeking to steal votes from either Labor or Liberal.

Seeking to outgreen the Greens meant sacrificing any hope of constituencies from the right or centre.

I reckon the reason for the decline of the Australian Democrats is that the political centre started to give way as the polarization in the electorate started to deepen into an unbridgeable divide. They, as a third force party, were left stranded in the disappearing middle of Deakinite (social) Liberalism.

This involved walking a tightrope:--right of centre on economic, administrative and regulatory issues, including over the size and scope of government; to the left of centre on social issues and the environment. Or appealing to the small businessman and also to the general managerial classes mixed with a strong idealism pitched for the young.

It was a hard act to keep going with a disappearing centre ground.

To be honest I thought that the Dems jumped the shark when Stott Despoja bailed. From an outsider's point of view (mine) it was like it all got too hard and so she took her bat and ball and went home.

Until that time, in my opinion, she was doing well, the Dems certainly had my support -- I even considered joining the party, since they seemed to have an honest and decent progressive agenda and the Democrats were getting lots of media airplay. Of course there was the infighting, but Lees lost all credibility with the GST debacle -- I remember wishing Lees would just shut up, because I figured that she'd brought everything upon herself. The infighting didn't seem to hurt the Democrats as much as it made Lees look stupid. When Despoja split, I felt betrayed.

Bear in mind that this is from the perspective of a total outsider. Although the reality of the situation was probably completely different, I'm sure I'm not the only one who felt this way. In fact I know people who thought that Lees was the human and Despoja was just a party apparatchic. But that's not how it seemed to me. Seeing someone my own age from my own culture as the leader of a powerful political party was extremely appealing to me.

I mean, Lees didn't keep the bastards honest. Here was a GST from a Prime Minister who had pledged that there would be no GST -- how much more dishonest could that bastard get? And yet the Democrats rolled over -- made the GST worse, in my opinion -- and the result was that the leader was deposed, and went on to bring the whole house down on top of her.

Of course, there was word from Lees, IIRC, that the internal dissent was actually a CIA plot to bring the democrats down. Who knows, it's not exactly outside their MO is it :) But the sense of betrayal by Despoja's departure was the kicker for me.

The problem today is that there is no party that I could join. Although I align strongly with the Greens, and I admire Bob Brown, I have seen the worst of The Greens supporters and it's just not my Way. The Labor party is no different from the Libs. Democrats are out, of course.

There is no strong leadership on the left any more (or even in the center), they have either been destroyed or moved to the right. Beazley can't decide what side of the fence he's on (he seems to be making himself a small target, again) and for every "at last" moment there is at least one "what is he thinking" moment. One cannot trust that bastard because he supports the war in terror. In fact he seems to think we're not doing enough.

What a freakin' bizzare landscape.

Though I personally opposed the GST when it was first announced, the GST has delivered ie., made things better. It has given the cash-strapped states an increasing revenue stream, made them better off then they would have been, and it provided them with the money to spend on health and education.They have failed to do so, preferring to run budget surpluses during the 1990s.

The ALP was always dishonest about rollback. It was strong on the negative rhetoric but has quietly accepted it. No state ALP government would give the GST back now.

Lees made the right choice for the county in the long run. You do have to separate Lees from Howard on this. Lees used the balance of power in the Senate to undertake much needed tax reform--it was a start. This reform is not being built on by the Howard government in terms of reducing personal income tax beyond bracket creep.

Over the 1990s the difference gap between the Coalition and the ALP narrowed as the elctorate moved to the right, and the Democrats were squeezed as a third force.- of social liberals and frustrated Labor. The third force is now independents in the states.