February 22, 1990

Article at Reuters

Australia’s Democrats aim to turn back the tide

The Democrats' Janine Haines, the first female leader of an Australian political party

By Wilson da Silva

SYDNEY – Waiting on the sidelines in the March 24 election battle between Australia’s two main political parties are the Democrats, a small leftist party that may yet deny the main contenders a parliamentary majority.

Analysts say the Democrats, led by former teacher Janine Haines, could ride a wave of voter dissatisfaction with the major parties and snatch the balance of power in the House of Representatives, the lower house.

“There has never been such a disenchantment with the major parties as there is today,” said Melbourne University Professor Victor Prescott.

“Haines is a woman of remarkable talent. Who knows, she may give the government a fright,” he said.

The Democrats, who stand on an interventionist and environmentalist platform, already hold the balance of power in the country’s upper house, the Senate.

Since Haines became leader in 1986, the Democrats have frequently won concessions from the Labor government to ensure the passage of legislation.

Haines, who has earned the party greater popularity, gave up a Senate seat in an attempt to win the Democrats’ first seat in the House of Representatives on March 24 when she will contest the Kingston constituency in Adelaide.

This is the chamber with real power, which is seldom penetrated by any but politicians from the Labor Party or the conservative Liberal-National Party coalition.

“The ground is shifting in politics,” Haines told Reuters. “The electorate is much more volatile than I’ve ever seen it before. The other parties are becoming more and more similar ... people don’t feel they are being properly governed.”

Opinion polls suggest a close outcome in the election and the four or five seats some political commentators predict the Democrats could win would be crucial.

In a February 10 national poll, 44 per cent of voters said they would vote for the ruling Labor Party against 41 per cent for the conservative coalition and 10 per cent for the Democrats.

The Democrats plan to field candidates in all 148 House of Representative constituencies. Opinion polls show Haines slightly ahead of the incumbent Labor member in Kingston.

Should a minority government be forced to rely on the Democrats for support, Haines said her party would reverse the tide of deregulation introduced by Labor since coming to power in 1983.

“Deregulation has failed,” she said. “If there really were free markets (in Australia), there wouldn’t be the plethora of tax incentives and tax concessions that exist. How much worse can the economy get than it has in the last five years?”

The Democrat agenda includes import quotas, price controls on consumer goods, taxing companies which produce toxic waste, protection of selected industries, government control of the Australian dollar and ceilings on interest rates.

Political sentiment may be going the Democrats’ way. A newspaper poll published on February 19 found 33 per cent of voters were dissatisfied with either Labor or Liberal-National alternatives.

A national poll published on February 22 found 59 per cent of voters satisfied with Haines’s performance as Democrat leader, higher than the 43 per cent achieved by Prime Minister Bob Hawke as Labor leader.

Voter dissatisfaction was evident on February 3 when Labor suffered a 24 per cent swing to the Democrats in a Melbourne by-election. Labor held the seat, but the Democrats ran second, underlining their threat on March 24.

Buoyed by the polls and the Thomastown by-election, Haines believes the Democrats may “finally smash through the negative, dead hand of the old two-party system”.

Analysts say voters are unhappy with the state of the Australian economy but dislike the austerity offered by both major parties.

Home mortgage rates have risen to around 17 per cent, the country’s current-account trade deficit is forecast at A$18.5 billion (US$13.9 billion) in the year to June, 1990, and Australia is running an external debt of A$110 billion (US$82.5 billion).