History of the Australian Democrats
This history is taken from the official website of the Australian Democrats
In 1977, Don Chipp, a Liberal
Member of the House of Representatives and former
Minister, was approached by the people of the Australia
Party, the New Liberal Movement and by other concerned
individuals to hold a series of meetings across Australia
with a view to forming a new party.
The motivating force for this was a desire for a party
where ordinary people could have real say on policies and
After a series of public meetings around Australia, a
resolution was passed unanimously to form a new reformist
party, and the 'Australian Democrats' was officially
It won its first parliamentary seat when Robin
Millhouse was elected to the State Parliament in South
At the federal level, the Australian Democrats have
been represented in the Parliament for over eighteen
years. The first Democrat to enter the Senate was Janine
Haines, who was chosen by the Parliament of South
Australia in December 1977 to succeed the Liberal
Movement Senator Steele Hall after his resignation.
The Australian Democrats polled well at the December
1977 Federal election, obtaining 11.1% nationally, and
electing two Australian Democrat Senators - Don Chipp in
Victoria and Colin Mason in New South Wales.
In the Federal election in 1980, the Australian
Democrats won three more Senate seats - in Victoria,
Queensland and South Australia. This brought the party's
total Senate representation to five and gave the
Australian Democrats the balance of power in the
At successive Federal elections in 1983, 1984, 1987,
1990 and 1993 the Australian Democrats gained further
representation in the Senate.
On the retirement of the Party's leader, Don Chipp, in
1986, Janine Haines was elected by the party members as
Leader, the first woman in Australia's history to lead a
In the 1990 Federal Election, the Australian Democrats
campaigned more strongly then ever for House of
Representatives seats. This effort was led by Janine
Haines' bid for the seat of Kingston in South Australia.
Despite nearly doubling the party's vote nationally, the
party failed in its bid for lower house seats. However
the party easily held the important balance of power in
the Senate by winning second seats in South Australia,
New South Wales and Victoria. It needed eight Senate
After the 1990 election, Janet Powell succeeded in
winning the party's Federal Parliamentary Leadership
position. She became the second woman after Janine Haines
to hold such a position in Australia's history.
John Coulter, a renowned environmentalist and advocate
of the 'sustainable economy' led the party into the 1993
Federal election. A second Senator, John Woodley, was
elected in Queensland.
After the 1993 election, Queensland Senator, Cheryl
Kernot was elected Parliamentary Leader with over 80% of
members votes. Since then, the Democrats have had success
in negotiations with the government over its widely
unpopular 1993 Budget, Native Land Title and the Print
Upon the retirement of South Australian Senator John Coulter in November
1995, 26 year old Natasha Stott Despoja was selected as his replacement.
Natasha is the youngest woman ever to take a seat in the Senate.
The March 1996 federal election saw the Democrats equal the Party’s
record in terms of Senators returned, with succes in the five mainland
states. For the second time in the Party’s history more than one million
Australians voted Democrat in the Senate. The election saw a swing against
the ALP in the Senate of more than 7%, of which three quarters went
to the Democrats, and less than one seventh went to the Coalition. It
also saw a a swing against the ALP in the House of Reps of more than
6%, which went roughly half (3.01%) to the Democrats and half to the
The federal success was repeated at the groundbreaking WA state poll
in December, with two Democrats (Helen Hodgson and Norm Kelly) elected
to the State Upper House - the first time the Party had ever won State
representation in WA.
In October 1997 the great success of WA was bettered in South Australia
with one in six South Australians voting Democrats in the State election.
The Party recorded votes of up to 29% in Lower House seats, coming outright
second in six (including the Premier’s seat), and within 2% of winning
Heysen and 4% of winning Waite. The 16% Statewide vote recorded in the
Upper House saw two Democrats elected at a single poll for the first
time. Mike Elliott and Ian Gilfillan were elected to join the continuing
Just days after the SA poll, in mid October 1997 after four and a
half years at the helm, Democrats Parliamentary Leader, Cheryl Kernot
announced her resignation from the Senate and the Democrats to join
the Labor Party.
After a nationwide postal ballot the Democrats elected a new leadership
team, announced in December 1997 as Meg Lees and Natasha Stott Despoja,
both from South Australia. The casual vacancy left by Cheryl Kernot
was filled by then Queensland Divisional President, Andrew Bartlett.
The new leadership team took the Democrats to the federal election
held in October 1998. This resulted in two new Democrats being elected
to the Senate - Brian Greig in WA and Aden Ridgeway in NSW - giving
the party a total representation of 9, the highest number since inception,
and a return to the balance of power. There were also near misses in
the Senate in Victoria and the ACT, as well as in the Lower House seat
of Mayo.Following the election, both Meg Lees and Natasha Stott Despoja
were re-elected by party members to the positions of Parliamentary Leader
& Deputy Leader.
As the Party grows, and more people begin to understand the policies
of the Australian Democrats, the greater becomes the opportunity for
the Democrats to win lower house seats, and make the House of Representatives
responsible for their actions as well.
The Australian Democrats have transformed the Senate and no longer
is it merely a rubber stamp of government. Here the Australian Democrats
have been able to raise issues and to make the Senate into a genuine
house of review, dealing with each item of legislation on its merit.
This change has been a healthy development in Australian political life.
The party looks forward to future successes.