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Pro-Gay Aussie
Democrats Phased Out of Senate

Pro-Gay Aussie
Democrats Phased Out of Senate

The party formed to "keep the bastards honest" ends its three-decade era as a third force in Australia's politics Thursday, after milestones including a string of women leaders and the election of Aboriginal and openly gay senators.

The party formed to "keep the bastards honest" ends its three-decade era as a third force in Australia's politics Thursday, after milestones including a string of women leaders and the election of Aboriginal and openly gay senators.

The terms of the final four senators from the Australian Democrats are set to expire Thursday.

Leader Sen. Lyn Allison said her party's demise leaves middle Australia without a centrist alternative to the two major parties, the leftist Labor and conservative Liberal.

"I'm profoundly sad," Allison told the Associated Press Wednesday. "It's not just the demise of the Democrats; it's the domination of the two-party system, and that was the impetus for us starting."

The Democrats were founded in 1977 by disgruntled former Liberal minister Don Chipp, whose slogan was "keep the bastards honest."

The catchphrase resonated with many Australians who had come to view politicians as cynical manipulators of power. The Democrats also were among the first political parties to champion socially progressive issues such as women's rights and protecting the environment -- topics that have become more mainstream in the years since.

For years, the Democrats secured enough votes to deny the major parties a clear majority in the upper house Senate and used its balance of power status to force the government -- formed in the lower house -- to negotiate to get bills passed.

"Because of the degree of cynicism within the community about politics generally, the Democrats often get a sympathy vote," said Rob Chalmers, the longest-serving member of Canberra's press gallery who joined in 1951.

At the height of the Democrats' power, they held 12 of the 78 Senate seats. Governments would accept their amendments rather than negotiate with the opposition.

The Democrats played a leading role in a publicly popular campaign that scuttled plans to dam a wild river in Tasmania state in the 1980s and helped secure legislation to protect rain forests from logging.

The party also repeatedly thwarted the attempts of Liberal-dominated governments to pass labor laws it deemed too pro-business. Observers also credit the Democrats with making government processes more transparent and accountable.

The tide of support began to turn after the Democrats decided in 1999 to support a Liberal coalition government's deeply unpopular consumption tax legislation.

A period of leadership bickering and turmoil followed, along with the perception that the party was becoming less relevant. The Greens party increasingly dominated the environment and climate change issues, cutting into a traditional support base for the Democrats, Chalmers said.

Most of the party leaders over the decades have been women, including Natasha Stott Despoja, who at 26 in 1995 also became the youngest woman elected to Parliament. Its senators have included the second Aborigine ever elected to the Parliament and a gay rights activist.

Both the Aborigine, Aden Ridgeway, and Brian Greig, who built a public profile on his campaign for gay law reform in his home state, lost their seats in 2005 after each had served a single six-year term.

Neither of the two major parties has ever had a woman leader federally, and openly gay lawmakers are rare in Australia.

The Australian Democrats are affiliated with Britain's Liberal Democrats but has no connection with the U.S. Democratic Party.

Allison said the party outgrew its legendary slogan, which suited the times three decades ago. "Although some didn't like us swearing, others said, 'Yep, that captures our message,' " she said of the party's slogan to keep government honest. "To some extent, that's an impossible task, though we try."

The Democrats were wiped out in the election last November, which swept Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his Labor government to power. Two of the Democrats' four senators had planned to retire, while Allison and her deputy lost their seats.

While the changes to the lower house took effect immediately after the election, the changes to the Senate do not officially take place until July 1. After that, Rudd's 32 senators will need the support of five Greens senators plus both independents in the Senate to pass any legislation opposed by the opposition.

The Sunday Age newspaper editorial this week described the politicians who will hold the balance of power in the new Senate as "a diverse and unpredictable mix of conservatives, radicals and campaigners known more for their single-issue advocacy than any coherent policy framework."

"It starkly contrasts with the political order of decades past when the Australian Democrats tended to hold the balance of power in the Senate," it said.

Allison expects the social values of the Democrats to resurface, but that name is dead.

"I think a new entity will form because there is a need for one. There is no other party that will fill our shoes," she said. (AP)

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