Australian Democrats burst onto the Australian political arena in 1977 and secured the balance of power in 1980. Since then, the Party has made a mark on Australian history. In 1980 Australian Democrats secured the balance of power for the first time. This was an impressive achievement by any measure, enabling them to 'keep the bastards honest' just three years in existence.
In 1977 Jack Evans, the Western Australian president of the New Liberal Movement, saw the need for a centrist party obligated to neither big business (Liberal) nor trade unions (Labor). Under Evans's urging, the New Liberal Movement merged with the Australian Party (an offshoot of the Liberal Reform Group) to become the Australian Democrats. Donald Chipp, an independent backbencher formerly of the Liberal Party, became the new party's leader.
The Australian Democrats' broad aim was to achieve a balance of power in one or more parliaments and exercise it responsibly in line with policies determined by its members. The party demonstrated real democracy by giving power to its rank-and-file members through a secret postal ballot to determine policies. Autonomy was given to parliamentary members by way of conscience votes.
Janine Haines became the Democrats' first Federal parliamentarian when she replaced Steele Hall of the New Liberal Movement in South Australia. At their first test, the Federal election on 10 December 1977, the Democrats polled 9.38 per cent of the total Lower House and 11.13 per cent of the Senate vote, securing seats for Don Chipp in Victoria and Colin Mason in New South Wales. In the lead-up to the 1980 Federal election, Don Chipp described the party's aim as "To keep the bastards honest". This phrase became the Democrats' trademark and served them well as they headed into the election. They secured balance of power in 1980 and maintained this for many years.
The Australian Democrats' first major achievement came in the form of the 1980/81 Budget. While Chipp had committed to not block the budget, other voices prevailed because it was so unpopular. John Howard, the treasurer at the time, had proposed a budget which included an increase of 2.5 per cent in the sales tax. The Democrats blocked this measure, along with other proposals unpopular with the public, such as the re-introduction of high education fees and the denial of dole payments to the spouses of strikers.
By 1982 Australian Democrats was considered the first environment party. Colin Mason prevented the destruction of World Heritage Areas, specifically the Franklin River. His World Heritage Properties Protection Bill 1982 wrote international conventions into the laws of the land. In 1986, Don Chipp retired from parliament and stepped down as Australian Democrats leader. He was replaced by Janine Haines, the first woman to lead a political party in Australia. Janet Powell explained the rise of women in the Democrats as a result of its democratic ethos. By 1986 almost half of our members were women.
In 1986, Chipp retired from parliament and was replaced as leader by Haines, the first woman to lead a political party in Australia. The Australian Democrats has been regularly led by women at a Federal level and has a strong history of powerful and prominent female leaders: Janet Powell, Cheryl Kernot, Meg Lees, Natasha Stott Despoja and Lyn Allison. Janine Haines led the Australian Democrats into their second decade on the Australian political scene. Under Haines' leadership the Party continued to fight for the environment and saved the Daintree Forest. It also protected the civil liberties of Australians by blocking the introduction of the Australia card. Haines stepped down in 1990 in order to pursue a seat in the House of Representatives. The Party experienced frequent leadership changes over the next two decades.
Throughout the Party's second two decades it held the balance of power and made a name for itself in the fight for for peace, human rights, our environment, industrial relations, health, equality and women's rights. On the peace front, the Party was the only party to oppose the first Gulf War. Party parliamentarians recalled the Senate, and ultimately the entire parliament, to debate Australia's involvement in it. Australian Democrats were at the forefront of the movement against joint American military bases in Australia. It also called for a 'Pacific Zone of Peace' from which all nuclear warships and weapons should be excluded. Lyn Allison introduced a bill to prohibit the Australian Defence Force from using cluster bombs which indiscriminately kill and maim innocent civilians in war zones.
Human rights have always been at the forefront of the Party's policies. It fought for the rights of people in Tibet and East Timor and have always opposed mandatory detention of refugees. The Australian Democrats were the first party to realise the negative health impacts of smoking. We refused donations from the tobacco industry and banned print tobacco advertising. An industrial relations system of choice was implemented in 1996 under the Democrats' watchful eye. John Howard's WorkChoices would have been realised much sooner had we not stepped in and evened the scales. Howard's highly unpopular industrial relations reforms were only possible once we no longer held balance of power.
Australian Democrats stood up for women. The RU486 debate that led to a landmark conscience vote on a woman's right to reproductive choice was led by our then leader, Lyn Allison. Natasha Stott Despoja regulated pregnancy counselling services to ensure women would have access to information detailing the type of advice they would receive prior to calling. And the Party submitted a bill funding paid maternity leave for all working women, a bill which has been of great discussion since Rudd's rise to power in 2007. Australian Democrats strengthened the Sexual Discriminations Bill in the early 80s to prevent discrimination against women in clubs. We called for an end to discrimination on the basis of sexuality and prohibited discrimination in non-public service superannuation against same-sex couples.
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