20th april, 2012: Letter to the Editors / Article

Dear Editor,

The recent changes in leadership of the Greens have drawn considerable comment from many sources and the endless comparisons with the Australian Democrats and its founder Don Chipp. Whilst I am pleased to see the Australian Democrats being mentioned extensively in the media, a number of these comparisons are of particular concern.

Firstly, the media failed to contact any of the current members of the Australian Democrats for comment on such comparisons. Instead, they chose to seek the views of two former members (one of whom is now a member of the Greens), hardly good research I would say. Secondly, the failure to recognise that the Australian Democrats enjoyed considerable support for more than 15 years after Don Chipp relinquished the leadership of the party and produced some extremely high quality Senators and leaders.

Don Chipp had been leader for only nine years when he resigned and Janine Haines was elected leader. The party had other high profile members around the country besides Chipp and Haines, including John Siddons, Heather Southcott, Lis Kirkby, Jack Evans, Norm Sanders and Ian Gilfillan. Contrast that with the Greens who have almost singularly revolved around Bob Brown for almost 30 years, 16 of these years as their federal leader.

As the Australian Democrats did for many years, the Greens have transitioned their leadership relatively smoothly. However, unlike the Australian Democrats the Greens party room decides the leader, not the members.

Similar to Janine Haines, Christine Milne is a strong woman, succeeding a popular and influential man as leader. It is true that the Australian Democrats achieved a record high vote in 1990, but it must be remembered that Janine Haines also made history by resigning her Senate seat to contest the House of Representatives seat of Kingston in that election. Whilst it cannot be ruled out, it is unlikely that Milne will follow a similar path as the Greens deputy leader is already a member of the lower house.

The role that the big parties played should also be noted. Despite the attention given to Janine Haines’ Kingston bid (and the resulting high vote), she was unsuccessful. This was due in no small part to the now much gloated efforts of the (then) Liberal campaign director Nick Minchin thus ensuring Haines’ defeat. Contrast that with the Liberal preferences, which in 2010 saw the election of Adam Bandt in the seat of Melbourne. Clearly, the Greens in 2010 were not seen as so much of a threat to the Liberals as the Australian Democrats were in 1990.

The Australian Democrats went on to produce a series of quality leaders after Janine Haines . The 1998 election saw the Australian Democrats having the same number of Senators as the Greens currently enjoy; with the Democrats’ candidate for the seat of Mayo only narrowly failing to unseat Alexander Downer at that election.

Leadership turmoil within the Australian Democrats between 2001 and 2004 saw five different leaders in four years. Lyn Allison was ultimately able to stabilise the party but the damage had been done. Constant changes in leadership are costly for any party. Witness for example the federal Coalition between 1967 and 1972; or NSW Labor between 2008 and 2011. In our case, it ultimately cost the Australian Democrats its parliamentary representation. This has led to the myth that we have ceased to exist. I assure you, we are still here.

Whether the Greens fall prey to similar difficulties cannot be predicted. Much of it depends on how they handle their parliamentary responsibilities (including whether or not they learn to negotiate) and how they manage any leadership tensions, including the ambitions of a young Sarah Hanson-Young who appeared clearly not to be as happy as some of her Greens colleagues during the television coverage of last Friday’s events.

Whilst the contribution of Senator Brown and his party to Australian politics has been notable, there has been a distinctive difference in the way the Greens operate to that of the Australian Democrats. It is clear that many people miss the common sense and outcomes approach that we offer, over the ideology-based approach of other parties. Whilst we are perhaps not perceived as strongly as we once were, I believe there is hope. Our nadir has passed. It is time to stand up and show the media and nay-sayers that “We Are Still Here! If you miss us, vote for us.”


Darren Churchill

Darren Churchill

National President, Australian Democrats


0412 196 473

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