28th January 2012: Speech: Reclaim the Centre!

 “Reclaim the Centre”

A speech by Darren Churchill, National President of the Australian Democrats, addressing the party’s National Conference in Melbourne,28 January 2012.

Thank you to our acting Secretary Roger Howe, and welcome everyone to the 2012 Australian Democrats’ National Conference.

I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, on which we meet, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We gather here only two days after the celebrations known officially as Australia Day. However, for many Indigenous people, that day marks over two centuries of hurt and injustice. I look forward to the day when we can all share in a time of true reconciliation.

Thank you to all members and delegates who are here at our National Conference. This is our first conference for some years and the first without having Senators or other members of parliament. However, this conference marks our entry into our 35th year as a political party. So, let’s use it to re-energise, and commence the road back into the hearts and minds of the Australian voters.

I thank our Conference organiser, Young Australian Democrats President Mark Carey, for the work he has done in putting this years’ conference together. Thanks also to our Secretary and Treasurer for the assistance they have provided to him.

I also extend particular thanks and a special welcome to our speakers and presenters. It is especially wonderful to have three former parliamentary leaders in our number; former Senators Lyn Allison and Brian Greig, and former South Australian MLC, Sandra Kanck.

The next Federal election must be held by 30th November 2013. So, barring any occurrences such as an early House of Representatives election or a Double Dissolution (for which a “trigger” seems at the moment unlikely), we can expect the 2013 election to be anytime after 3rd August next year.

That means we must start preparing now.

Already, we have commenced a programme to be by-election ready. That means having in each Division, a number of potential candidates endorsed, who can slot in to any of a number of electorates for which they are prepared. So, should a by-election be called (and I expect the Labor Party has already warned it’s MPs: “Don’t resign, defect of die!”); but should one be called we can be off the blocks and racing in no time.

Whilst, we have only even come close to winning a House of Representatives seat on three occasions in our history; the idea is that if we can achieve a result that shows a significant percentage of the vote, it will be something we can use to build a profile again.

So, we need to be clear in what we are trying to say to the public, as a party. What is our corporate image? It is important that we determine how we sell ourselves to the public. So, who are we? What do we stand for? How are we of use? How do we convey that message? What are our campaigns? Who are our spokespeople?

Then….how do we market this? Branding? Colours? Logo? Website? What ideals should they portray? How do they sell our public image?

What content should be on our website? What could be done differently? Better? How?

How do our candidates and members leverage of this information to engage their communities ?

What do the Australian Democrats stand for? How do we pursue the future and be true to our history? How do we regain relevance with the Australian people?

How do we interact with the community? Campaigns? Interest groups? Membership of community organisations? (such as the parents associations of school communities, ACOSS, Vegetarian Societies, Animal groups, gay groups, women’s groups, Civil Liberties groups, foreign aid groups, peace groups, Sustainable Population groups, environmental lobbyists, unions, business groups, congregations, service groups, JayCees?). How do we become activists again?

We need strategies, plans, implementation, and real action. Using the procedures, processes and guidelines laid down in our party’s Constitution and documents, and using those democratic processes to re-engage the members, the community and the people to support us.

These are just some ideas. There is probably a lot more that could be said here. But surely that could get us started and in the right direction?

So, what steps have we taken to address these issues?

Much of our politics is about social justice and about creating a framework, whereby the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed, are provided with the opportunities to share in society’s prosperity, to participate in society. It is, as such, the role of government to ensure that there is a safety net to protect those who slip through the cracks of our economic and social structures.

In order to create a fair, democratic and liberal society, we must first write ourselves back into the picture. We can’t do much from outside the parliaments, so we need to get people elected. We need to play to our strengths.  To do that, we need to focus on the issues the other parties won’t touch; issues where we have members with the time, talents and resources. We can extend into the more mainstream areas as our size, influence and talent-pool grows (and hopefully with that our parliamentary representation).

Our National Campaign Committee has been busy with preparing campaigns on the issues the other parties seem afraid to touch. By launching our “Facing Up to Bullying” campaign, we have built on the work our party has already done, when our then leader Lyn Allison negotiated the national Safe Schools Framework,

In November, we re-launched our popular National Youth Poll, to re-engage with young people who are likely to become voters in the next few years. According to Youth Poll co-ordinator, Tim Neal, we have already had well over 5000 responses.

We understand Australia’s need to reduce our water and energy consumption – and to do so significantly. This will require a massive rethink in the way we live every aspect of our lives.

An economic system, which relies on constantly increasing production and constantly increasing consumption, will eventually get to the point where the bubble will well and truly burst.

Our Party Objectives state that we aim

“to accept the challenges of the predicament of humanity on the planet with its exponentially increasing population, disappearing finite resources and accelerating deterioration of the environment:” and our balloted Immigration Policy clearly states that we: “believe in a non-discriminatory immigration program, which gives priority to refugees and family reunion, the total number of which when included with overall population trends will not impede sustainability of the nation’s natural resources.”

With these ideals firmly in mind, in September we embarked on a bold campaign of “Towards a Sustainable Population.” This won me an interview on SBS Radio News and received extremely favourable comments from population experts, particularly for our key proposals of:

· Substantially reducing the numbers entering Australia through our business migration scheme while simultaneously training the 1.5m Australians who are unemployed or underemployed to gain the necessary skills;

· Doubling the numbers in our humanitarian intake; and

· Increasing our foreign aid budget and ensuring more money and effort is directed towards women in developing countries for sexual and reproductive health, including contraception.

There are more campaigns being currently planned. We have unfinished business with Peak Oil. So, building on the work started by Sandra Kanck’s Select Committee on the Impact of Peak Oil on South Australia, just over three years ago; we are currently preparing our campaign on Peak Oil, to be launched early in February.

Some products, had we known then of the risks we now know are associated with them, would never have been allowed onto the market. Tobacco, asbestos, uranium and alcohol are but a few. Scientific, medical and empirical evidence suggests that so-called “Energy Drinks” may be another. So a campaign to investigate the extent and warn of the dangers of such drinks is also currently under consideration.

Our work in making submissions to parliamentary committees and inquiries is also important. In 2011, we made three submissions. These were: “Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns,” “Development of a National Food Plan,” and “The Implementation of a Needle and Syringe Program in the Alexander Maconochie Centre in the ACT.” As a result of the first of those submissions, in August last year, we were invited to send a delegation to address the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. I understand this is the first time the Australian Democrats were invited to such a Committee since we had Senators. Quite an honour, considering the passion former Senator Andrew Murray had for that particular Committee.

At a policy level, the proposal to alter Clause 17 of our Energy Policy was recently balloted. I was delighted when members overwhelmingly voted to strengthen our opposition to nuclear energy including uranium mining. To even greater delight, only a week after the ballot was declared, an article by Russell Emmerson in Adelaide’s “The Advertiser” newspaper, reinforced the good sense of the decision.

We have also recently balloted our first “Alcohol and Other Drugs Law Reform Policy.” Again, a high voter turnout and strong endorsement of the proposals was encouraging. It was also encouraging and extremely refreshing to hear Sir Richard Branson tell a committee of British MPs earlier this week, that the tough, “War on Drugs” approach has failed and that a more scientific, evidence-based, and public health approach is needed. It is up to us now to continue to push for such an approach in Australia.

Other new policies will be presented for your consideration in the upcoming National Journals, including proposed policies for Oceans and Coasts, Invasive Species… and our first proposal for a Population Policy, for some years. These have already been circulated and available for discussion for some time.

We have started to revamp the National Journal. I have to say that the two editions put together by our new Journal Editor Drew Simmons and his team have been on a very high quality. I am also delighted that the December edition saw a return to a tangible, hard-copy National Journal, the first in three years; and the first in colour for some time longer. The ‘soapbox’ section entitled “What I Reckon” has proven very popular, as have the Guest Editorials from our former parliamentarians. It is my understanding that there are still more improvements to come.

Improvements to the National Journal are just part of how we improve our communication and engagement of members. National Communications Committee are currently working on ways to restart our e-Bulletins. We are also working on improvements to the website and the eventual transition to a new website which better suits our needs.

And we haven’t overlooked the 21st Century technologies of Social Networking. We now use this as one of our tools, carefully managed by our Social Media guru, Hayden Ostrom Brown.

Another thing your National Executive will be working on between now and the Federal Election, is restocking the war-chest. This will begin with soliciting donations from people and groups who support our policies and campaigns. It will also involve building new corporate partnerships with those who share our objectives.

Almost 35 years ago, the following words were said in the House of Representatives:

“… I wonder whether the ordinary voter is not becoming sick and tired of the vested interests which unduly influence present political parties and yearn for the emergence of a third political force, representing the middle of the road policies which would owe allegiance to no outside pressure group.”

The person who spoke those words was, as we all know Don Chipp, in his famous, resignation from the Liberal Party speech.

A few years later, at our first national conference, Sir Mark Oliphant described the Australian Democrats in the following way:

“a new party, dedicated to preserve what freedoms we still retain, and to increase them. A party in which dictatorship from the top was replaced by consensus. A party not ordered about by big business and the rich, or by union bosses. A party where a man could retain freedom of conscience and not thereby be faced with expulsion. A party to which the intelligent individual could belong without having to subscribe to a dogmatic creed. In other words, a democratic party.”

In the past few years we have seen exactly how vested interests do unduly influence other political parties. The heavy polluting industries; the mining lobby; the racist, xenophobic shock jocks; the tobacco companies; the live export industry; the gambling industry; the developers who urge a ‘big Australia;’ to name but a few.

New radicals, such as the Occupy movement, speak of the words “participatory democracy” and the concept of a “fair go,” as if the ideas no longer exist (or perhaps even never did). However, these are main stream ideas and are the life-blood of Australian Democrats policy, campaigning action and parliamentary change for 35 years.

So, how do we re-engage with the public? It involves getting out and involving ourselves with the type of community groups I mentioned earlier. It means interacting and talking to the person in the street, the pub, at church or mosque, in the workplace; being active in the community and practising grass-roots community politics.

On at least one, but I’m pretty sure two occasions, our British counterparts [then known as the Liberal Party (UK)] were reduced to six members in the House of Commons. They regrouped and merged with the Social Democrats (to become the Liberal Democrats) and got on with the hard work of the engaging the principles and practice of community politics. The new party now shares power in a coalition government.

We too are a party born of a merger. The fact that the Australia Party and the New LM had the foresight to realise the only way forward was to merge, enabled the Australian Democrats to enjoy 31 years in parliament and around 24 years as a significant player in Australian politics. As a party born of a merger, we must not be afraid to once again consider a merger, should a sensible and reasonable partner with similar principles present itself. Continual improvement and growth fights off stagnation and death.

Early this century, the Australian public fell out of love with us. Now, they barely know we even exist. Is the love affair over for good? Or can we reinvent ourselves in a meaningful way which makes the public say “Yes, that’s what I used to love about them. That’s what I miss!”? We need to take whatever steps we can to woo the voters back to us, and make ourselves relevant to them again. In time, as they recognise us again, they may love us again – and who knows, even vote for us.

Some years ago, singer Bob Geldof, from The Boomtown Rats, referring to their album “In the Long Grass,” named after what he claims is an old Irish saying which means ‘that you’ve been around only not really too visible.’ eg Q: “Where have you been?” A: “I’ve been lying in the long grass.”

So, I suppose, under the radar or keeping a low profile.

This has for the last few years made me think of how people ask about the Australian Democrats. “Aren’t they dead?” or “I thought they’d disappeared.” etc, etc. The truth is, we too have been lying in the long grass. The public don’t know we are around, when they don’t see us doing things.

The time has come for us to stand up, get out of the long grass and become a visible presence again. We can do it. We must do it. The current disillusionment with the other parties indicates that there is an opportunity for an alternative voice. Australians deserve better than what we are getting from the current parliamentary parties.

Labor has betrayed most of it’s left-wing and the old jokes are already resurfacing about ALP standing for Another Liberal Party. The Liberals are so ultra-conservative with their singular policy of “No, No, NO!” that even Malcolm Fraser has resigned. And the Greens just don’t get it. They seem to fail to understand the committee system and their all-or-nothing approach just doesn’t sit well with many people.

The crossbench was a better pace when we occupied it. it can be again. We know that it’s better to get 80 or 90 per cent of something than 100 per cent of nothing!

We can be the better alternative that is so desperately needed, restoring as Don Chipp described it “a balance of reason” to the crossbench. The gap is there. Its’ up to each and every one of us to convince the Australian voters that the gap is Australian Democrat shaped and that we are once again worthy of filling it and that we can Reclaim the Centre!

Thank you.

Have a wonderful conference!

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