Liberal Democrats should spare a thought this week for Lyn Allison, Natasha Stott Despoja, Andrew Bartlett and Andrew Murray.
These four were, until Monday, the last senators for the Australian Democrats.
The Senate is elected by the single transferable vote (STV), on a state by state, territory by territory basis. Allison (the party leader) and Bartlett were defeated at last year’s general election. Murray and Stott Despoja did not stand again and the Democrats failed to hold their seats. All of their terms expired on 30 June. The only remaining Democrat parliamentarian sits in the upper house of the South Australian Parliament.
The Democrats held seats in the Senate for 30 years. Their mission was to “keep the bastards honest", a pledge coined by founding leader Don Chipp in 1980.
To hold successive governments to account, they developed a positive role for the Senate, and particularly its committee system. The Democrats were especially effective when holding the balance of power, as they did during the Hawke and Keating Labor governments (1983-96) and, with sometimes with others, under the Howard conservative government till 2004.
The Democrats used their power to improve legislation. In 1996, when the Howard government introduced new workplace legislation, then-Democrat leader Cheryl Kernot negotiated 171 amendments. Similarly in 1998, when the unpopular goods and services tax was introduced with Democrat support, they achieved a number of amendments, the most notable of which was to exclude food.
And for 30 years, the Democrats championed issues that the other parties ignored: the environment renewable energy, women's issues, immigration, refugee, indigenous rights, human rights all over the world and more. (The ex-senators’ valedictory speeches set some of them out in more detail).
These are roles that the Liberal Democrats could aspire to, in a Commons and/or another chamber elected under fair votes. No, the sky wouldn’t fall in. The Rudd government’s leader in the Senate acknowledged last week that “governments of both persuasions managed to govern effectively while the Democrats held the balance of power.”
But the fate of the Australian Democrats gives us a few things to think about too. First, their decline in support is usually traced to a voter and party backlash following their decision to back Howard’s GST. This led to faction-fighting, changes of leader, divisions, the whole bit. Fair voting systems give third parties more power but they also expose them to considerable risks.
Second, despite their strong environmental credentials, the Democrats never really came to terms with the rise of the Australians Greens, who took votes from key constituencies away from the Democrats. (Note though that most of the senate seats that were lost in the 2000s went to one or other of the major parties). A fair voting system offers a party like ours no guarantees of survival, let alone success.
Will the Australian Democrats rise again? That seems highly unlikely. But there is talk that they will join with others, including the Climate Change Coalition but not the Greens, to form a new political entity in time to fight the next general election. If so, that will be worth watching.