Keeping Natasha honest

Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja’s announcement today (she’s quitting parliament at the next election) has, naturally enough, been seen as another sign of the impeding end of her party, the Australian Democrats.

Predictably, Democrat party faithful have insisted that “the party is bigger than any of us as individuals,” and reckon they can carry on without their most popular and visible MP. You don’t need to be Antony Green to see that’s almost certainly not true. The Dems have been in decline for ages and they were hammered at the last election. Stott-Despoja’s stated reason for quitting parliament (spend more time with family, etc) is a standard political cliché, but we shouldn’t trouble ourselves with looking too deeply into what must have been a tough decision. Because Natasha must know better than any of us that, without her, the party is doomed.

So what can we learn from this?

The message, I think, is that a political party can only survive if it stands for something, and if its supporters, members and MPs can articulate that something in terms the wider world understands. The Democrats have, since their inception, stood only against something — and even that has been poorly defined most of the time. They have tried to be a ‘people’s party’, to stand against big government and provide a moderating voice in parliament: in some senses, they have sought to be an anti-party.

Their slogan, ‘to keep the bastards honest’ is pure genius on one level, articulating the deep-seated antipathy most people feel about party politics, but on analysis it means nothing very much. Especially when, inevitably, the party uses its political power in support of the government. The Democrats’ nadir came with supporting the introduction of the GST; their support for workplace ‘reform’ is another example which still sticks in my craw. For all the party’s soft-left posturing, backing regressive taxation and union-bashing exposes an ideological vacuum which, like any vacuum, becomes hard to sustain.

So we are witnessing the end of a grand political experiment, and a prescient one. The Democrats were founded in the 1970s as a party free of ideology and therefore devoid of meaning. They thrived for a quarter century by attracting the votes of people disaffected with politics, then inevitably squandered that political capital when it turned out they were dishonest bastards like the rest of them.

Don Chipp’s founding of the anti-party was prescient, as it anticipated the emergence of a time when ideologies (of any colour) have gone out of favour. But ‘ideology’ is just a word for ‘believing in something’ and you can only take an ideology-free politics so far: eventually it collapses, like a house of cards.

Some of today’s political parties might want to take note of that.