30 years of Australian Democrats in the Senate

We burst onto the Australian political arena in 1977 and secured the balance of power in 1980. Since then, we’ve made our mark on Australian history and improved life for all Australians.

This was an impressive achievement by any measure, enabling us to ‘keep the bastards honest’ just three years into our existence.

Our first major achievement came in the form of the 1980/81 Budget. While Don 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 percent 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 we were 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. Much later we collaborated with the Government in passing the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act that included over 500 amendments by us to strengthen the legislation.

In 1986, Don Chipp retired from parliament and stepped down as our 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.

The Democrats is a perfect party for me. I don’t like extremism and I won’t be told by any group that their ideas are 100% right and everybody else’s are 100% wrong, because that is patently not true

Janine Haines, An inspirational woman, Leader of the Democrats 1986-90

Janine Haines lead us into our second decade on the Australian political scene. Under Haines’ leadership, we continued our fight for the environment and saved the Daintree Forest. We also protected the civil liberties of all 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 but narrowly lost. Here were our leaders over the next two decades:

Michael Macklin (1990 interim) | Janet Powell (1990-1991) | John Coulter (1991-1993) | Cheryl Kernot (1993-1997) | Meg Lees (1997-2001) | Natasha Stott Despoja (2001-2002) |Brian Grieg (2002 interim) | Andrew Bartlett (2002-2004) | Lyn Allison (2004-2008)

Throughout our second two decades we held the balance of power and made a name for ourselves in our fight for a better world. We fought relentlessly for peace, human rights, our environment, industrial relations, health, equality and women’s rights.

I think it can be said of the Democrats, frankly, that they have been, if you assess their record over the years, very responsible in the exercise of that great influence … They have generally taken their balance of power role very seriously and have practised to great effect one of the great arts of politics: the art of compromise, which is required of us all …

Senator Nick Minchin, Government Leader in the Senate, 25 Jun 2008

On the peace front, we were the only party to oppose the first Gulf War. Our parliamentarians recalled the Senate, and ultimately the entire parliament, to debate Australia’s involvement in it. We were at the forefront of the movement against joint American military bases in Australia. We also called for a ‘Pacific Zone of Peace’ from which all nuclear warships and weapons should be excluded. We introduced a bill to prohibit the Australian Defence Force from using cluster bombs which indiscriminately kill and maim innocent civilians in war zones. Australia finally signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Dec 2008. We ran big campaigns against Australia’s involvement in attacking Iraq, on nuclear disarmament and to compensate Australians damaged by UK nuclear bomb tests in Australia.

Human rights have always been at the forefront of our policies. We 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 initiated the legislation that banned print tobacco advertising and our bill introduced in 2004 to ban all remaining tobacco advertising was finally passed in 2010.

An industrial relations system 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 IR reforms were passed only when it held a majority in the Senate.

We always stood up for women. Lyn Allison introduced a bill to remove the Health Minister’s veto over RU486 – the medical alternative to surgical abortion – which led to a collaboration by four female Senators from across the political spectrum. The bill passed the Senate with 93% support from women.

Our fight for equality has been an energetic and ongoing battle. We 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 forced the prohibition of discrimination in superannuation against same-sex couples.

The above is just a taste of the Democrats effectiveness in the Senate – the list of achievements is very long over these 30 years.

We were successful in having hundreds of amendments to legislation passed, initiated many major Senate inquiries, sat on most Senate committees, put up many private bills, asked questions in Parliament, put up countless motions and established parliamentary processes to strengthen the role of the Senate as a house of review that would hold the executive government of the day to account.


The Australian Democrats have now reformed, merged with the Country Minded Party in late 2018 and are again registered as a Federal political party with the Australian Electoral Commission, 2019, and looking forward to re-entering the parliaments of Australia.


Australian Democrats Senators

Janine Haines, SAPaul McLean, NSW 1987-91Meg Lees, SA 1993-2002
Don Chipp, Vic 1977-86Jean Jenkins, WA 1987-90Natasha Stott Despoja, SA 1995-2008
Colin Mason, NSW 1978-83Vicki Bourne, NSW 1990-2002Lyn Allison, Vic 1996-2008
Michael Macklin, Qld 1981-90Sid Spindle,r Vic 1990-96Andrew Murray, WA 1996-2008
John Siddons, Vic 1981-83, 1985-86Cheryl Kernot, Qld 1990-97Andrew Bartlett, Qld 2001-08
Jack Evans, WA 1983-85John Coulter, SA 1990-95Aden Ridgeway, NSW 1999-2005
David Vigor, SA 1985-87Robert Bell, Tas 1990-96Brian Greig, WA 1999-2005
Norm Sanders, Tas 1980-82Karin Sowada, NSW 1991-93John Cherry, Qld 2001-2005
Janet Powell Vic 1986-92John Woodley Qld 1993-2001

Australian Democrats Members of Parliament (state)

The Australian Democrats have also been elected to upper houses of parliament in South Australia, New South Wales, Western Australia and the ACT.

Robin Millhouse, SA 1977-82Ian Gilfillan, SA 1982-93, 1997-2006Norm Kelly, WA 1996-2001
Lance Milne, SA 1979-85Heather Southcott, SA 1982Helen Hodgson, WA 1996-2001
Gordon Walsh, ACT 1979-85Michael Elliott, SA 1985-2003Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, NSW 1998-2007
Ivor Vivian, ACT 1979-85Richard Jones, NSW 1988-96Roslyn Dundas, ACT 2001-04
Elisabeth Kirkby, NSW 1981-98Sandra Kanck, SA 1993-2009Kate Reynolds, SA 2003-06

What people said about us

I was enthralled by the new party’s impacts and achievements. Many of its too many leaders became friends – and on a good day, and the party had many good days, the Democrats were great for democracy. Without them, Australian politics would have been even more mendacious and mediocre, more sleazy and cynical. That’s why I’d like the Dems to rise again, refreshed from their sabbatical. You’ll never keep the bastards honest – that’s an impossible task – but you can dramatise their deceits and duplicities.

Phillip Adams, Journalist

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Democrats since their foundation. They provided a real alternative to the two major parties during periods when there was a danger that the position of the individual would be subsumed by machine-like politics. The Democrats have also been instrumental in calling public attention to human rights issues, which the present government in particular has not only ignored but effectively abandoned in so many areas. During my term as Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia, it was my practice to brief major parties on family law issues and through I found the Democrats to be the most receptive to discussion on these important matters. It is to be hoped that they will continue to play their important role in the future.

Retired Family Court Judge, Alastair Nicholson

The Australian Democrats have made a unique contribution to Australian political life over the past 30 years. Among the many contributions, five stand out for me:

The first is longevity. No minor party has made such a parliamentary contribution over 30 years. The Democrats have now surpassed the Democratic Labor Party in this regard.

The second is balance of power. There is no equivalent to the role the Democrats have played in the Senate for more than 25 years balancing the two major parties and improving their legislation by moving it away from the extremes.

The third is the Democrats’ substantial contributions to many policy areas, including the environment, equal opportunity, education, war and peace, and government honesty and transparency.

The fourth is internal party democracy. No other party has done more to empower its members through participatory democracy in policy development and leadership selection.

The fifth is through giving party leadership positions to many women. The record is remarkable in an environment in which men dominate the leadership positions in the major parties.

Professor John Warhurst, ANU

Further reading:

Australian Parliament House Library: Australian Democrats: the passing of an era

AustralianPolitics.com – History of the Australian Democrats

Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate – The Democrats to 1993

Library of South Australia: Vote 1 for Janine Haines