For those who don't know, I am a registered member of the Australian Democrats. After a brief flirtation with the Greens (and then learning what they're really like post-2010 Federal election), I found myself in somewhat of a political vacuum. After showing some interest in Katter's Australian Party (and yes, that was a potentially fatal mistake), I settled with the Democrats due to their strong social justice platform and practical (as opposed to the Greens' idealistic) grounding in policy.
Last weekend was the Australian Democrats' National Conference - the first in quite a few years. Whilst unfortunately I wasn't able to either attend nor follow it (the conference fell in the middle of nearly two weeks without internet due to a phone line in need of replacing), I have been keen on getting my hands on what went on at that conference. I am a very politically minded individual, and am very interested in what the Democrats are doing to get back in the game.
The first such piece of information coming from the Conference was Darren Churchill's (the Democrats National President's) keynote speech. It set the scene for the next 18 months to come, where the Democrats will replenish their armory and prepare themselves for war come the 2013 election. Whilst the speech in itself seems to serve only as the first bite of a ten course banquet, as a run-of-the-mill member it has provided me with a lot of food for thought. I want the Democrats to return to the political stage, and badly.
Which has led me to this blog post. There are a lot of questions that were asked and a lot of ideas thrown in the air during Churchill's speech, all of which add up to a tapestry of Democrat ideals, strategies and structure woven into a clear vision for all to behold. It is a lot for a person to wrap their head around, especially when most things are still shifting for the party. For me, trying to sort everything out in my head has proven thus far as useful as trying to find a second edge on a Mobius strip. Therefore, I'm going to put my thoughts down on here. If one of my politically minded friends/acquaintances/etc. wants to help unravel things or start debating ideas, at least I won't have to explain everything to them first.
I'll be exploring ideas in a Q&A format, as that I feel is how to best approach the threads that I have in my metaphorical little hand.
Who am I and what experience will contribute to how I view this information?
I'm a 22 year old Brisbanite. I'm a writer (which forms a significant part of my personal identity), trained teacher (for all intents and purposes), and hobby programmer (albeit a very mediocre one). I'm also the Coverage and Website Content Director for an independent hobby gaming website.
How will I be looking at Darren Churchill's speech?
As a registered member of the Australian Democrats, my biggest concern is how to reverse the image of stagnation within the party. I want to see clear direction from the leadership on the restoration of the party, and a plan on tackling the Big Three.
As a writer, I will be considering in particular how communication plays into the questions and ideas raised in the speech. This is crucial for the Democrats, as they will never get anywhere without being able to effectively develop a network of communication between the party, the public, and the organisations that have the resources and expertise needed to drive policy.
Where do I stand politically?
I've always considered myself as sitting somewhere between the centre and centre-left. I am overwhelmingly socially progressive, and believe in a mixed economy with government ownership of essential services economically. I believe in practicality over ideals when considering the policies of political parties, and prefer a measured approach when considering policies that have a large impact.
Who are the Australian Democrats to me?
The Australian Democrats to me are the People's Party. They have always sat as the attempted balancing force in politics, and most (if not all) of their policies are influenced by social justice and equality. The Democrats represent the only bastion of sanity in the current political landscape, and the challenge put to them is to make themselves relevant to the broader Australian public.
How do I feel about Darren Churchill's speech overall?
Churchill's speech came across as very uncertain. On one hand, he managed to carry the clear message that the Democrats find strength in Don Chipp very well. In a way, it feels like it is the 70s-era Democrats that the leadership seem to wish to return to (and I am in no way certain this is the case).
However, the myriad of questions asked add up to a picture that likens the Democrats to a blank canvas. Despite having a strong platform of social justice, the Democrats seem to have lost all sense of identity (even though they haven't lost their identity) in the years since they left the political landscape. This uncertainty makes me feel less confident about the Democrats (despite my desire for the Democrats to once again become a political force).
What are the Democrats' strengths?
The Democrats by and large remain an independent party - they have no vested interests influencing policy. The ability to develop policy on merit alone is the strongest drawcard the Democrats currently have. The ideal of intensively engaging with the broader community can also be a strength if it is developed correctly.
How does social media play into what the Democrats want to achieve?
With political memberships having declined constantly for who knows how long, online communication becomes a key tool in lieu of face-to-face communication for querying the public, providing visibility to the public, and engaging the public in the course of developing superior policy. Ease of access is a big thing towards engaging the wider community, and social media is one area that no major party has taken advantage of thus far (mostly because they're too old).
How to go about developing funding for the Democrats?
As a writer, what concerned me the most about this point in the speech was that it implies that the door to being influenced by donors is thrown wide open. Whilst donations of course are a wonderful thing to have, attempting to solicit them more or less blindly (even from donors who agree with the policies of the Democrats) is a recipe for disaster.
The more prudent course of action here would be to develop a network of communication between the Democrats and the mentioned groups that agree with what the Democrats stand for. With that, the Democrats potentially gain additional voices in the community, as well as potentially the expertise of donors that can be used to strengthen policy. Once those bonds have been developed, the chances of stable funding will be much higher (it is far easier to say 'no' to someone you don't know than to someone you do).
And to follow on to that point...
How can the Democrats re-engage with the public?
This will touch on the previous couple of questions. Social media is possibly the strongest method of networking a support base, whilst engaging both the member base and the broader community. In terms of funding, something as simple as a Bunnings bbq (although it wouldn't be a great source of funding) would give the Democrats an opportunity to reacquaint themselves with the public. It wouldn't even need to be a pitch about policy - just getting people familiar with what the Democrats stand for (sans rhetoric sil vous plait) can be enough to engage some members of the community if structured correctly.
One other method of engaging with the public involves taking advantage of online platforms to collaborate with the public when developing policy. This has the added bonus of potentially drawing in people with expertise in areas the Democrats are currently developing policy in, which in turn would improve the quality of Democrat policies greatly.
How do the Democrats sell themselves to the public?
Do not say that Australia needs the Democrats.
Now for the better answer (although the above answer is also correct):
I strongly disagree with Lyn Allison's assertion (which was mentioned somewhere on the Twitterverse if memory serves me right) that the party should campaign on one platform (in particular, climate change). There is no one platform the Democrats have strong enough to appeal to a broad voter base. Climate change would be a disaster because it paints the Democrats as similar to the Greens, and painting the Democrats as a balancing force in parliament would not be prudent for the same reason.
I think the best course of action here would be to emphasise the Democrats' sense of social justice and promote it in policy. This gives the Democrats an image of being the People's Party (which it seems very much to be), but gives it the flexibility to appeal to a broad audience through its strength in policy.
How do the Democrats convey the messages they need to convey?
The solution to this is similar to effective writing and successful teaching. It would be some combination of:
- Engaging the audience. This may be as simple as being visible to the wider community, but could very well require a lot more.
- Clear, concise, and direct communication. Whilst publishing policy is great for the politically minded, the political climate in recent years has been such that people have negative feelings about politics. To succeed in reaching them, it is important to be able to convey a simple message that they can digest. Then, if they wish to explore the message further the Democrats can provide them with increasing levels of information.
- Take advantage of online media. I've mentioned this in an answer to a previous question, but social networking sites and online forums are but two ways to easily engage with the public. The key is to offer an open door without forcing things on the audience.
Who should speak for the Democrats?
Overwhelmingly, there needs to be an active and visible leadership - both at state and federal level.
Whilst the party has an Executive working hard at bringing the Democrats back into political relevance, it isn't visible to the general public. Even as a member today I have difficulty understanding the party structure. A strong, charismatic leader would do wonders for the Democrats (Jack Layton took the New Democrats in Canada from minor party to Official Opposition in last year's election).
A visible leader would be able to act as a voice for the democrats, provide an image of leadership and act as a rallying point for people who agree with what the Democrats stand for.
How should the Democrats structure their website to make the best use out of online media?
This an issue that can be viewed from many angles. As a member, I want to see the Democrats page as an active example of what the Democrats stand for - actively campaigning on issues important to the Democrats, engaging the community on a range of topics, and mobilizing the member base to work collectively towards preparing the Democrats for re-entry into parliament.
Offhand (again, it's late :P), there are a few ideas to contribute towards this however:
- Online forums would be an excellent tool for integrating the member base into the development of the Democrats. It would also serve as an excellent platform to debate and develop online policy (coordinated by working groups I would assume)
- A section dedicated to Keeping the Bastards Honest would both provide resonance within the community, and give the Democrats more information about the major parties to work with. It would require some investment in manpower however.
- Online polling is more of a minor point, but would help increase the level of involvement from the member base through ease of access.
This is the big one, and depends entirely on what the Executive wants the Democrats to be. Focusing solely on where the Democrats would potentially sit in the political landscape, it is reasonable to assume the following:
1. The Democrats cannot aim to become a 'balance of power'.
With the Greens replacing the Democrats in parliament on this front, trying to campaign on this or aim for this is not going to be effective no matter how strong individual policies are. Whilst being a balance of power will of course be a great boon to the Democrats and to Australia as a whole, being painted into this position will cause the Democrats to be seen as 'another Greens party'. Thus, their appeal becomes narrowed significantly. Which leads me to the next point:
2. The Democrats need to act like a party ready to assume Government.
If the Democrats cannot aim for the balance of power, they need to aim for the whole hog. This includes comprehensive policies on all issues relevant to the operation of this country, not just the ones nobody else will touch. A press conference to announce a party leader and a return to politics, press releases in response to government and opposition announcements, a visible pool of representatives that want to be elected to represent their fellow man.
If the Democrats act like a major party, eventually the media and wider public will see them as a major party - and thus will be more willing to consider them as people who want to vote for. If I recall correctly, the Democrats always suffered from a very narrow base in support. Broadening this will be a huge boon, which leads to:
3. The Democrats need to tackle policies in all areas
I depart strongly from Churchill's speech where he believes that major policy areas should only be developed once a broader member base and talent pool is resourced. The problem with that is without those policies the Democrats have very little political substance - they can easily be seen as nothing more than an activist party and thus be grouped by the public into the same camp as the Greens.
The better strategy in this respect is to carve into broad appeal by developing policy in major areas to gain visibility (education, economy, employment, immigration), whilst continuing to branch out and fight the issues that no other party touches. With enough of these issues, the Democrats can draw in enough minority groups to develop a unique member base from which it can begin to attack the considered 'mainstream' community.
Looking back on this information, it seems that what the Democrats need above all else is clear party leadership and clear paths to contributing to the building of the Democrats machine. The passion is there, the political opportunity is there, the dedication is there. All it takes now is the ability to organise the resources and information available to the Democrats.
What will I do with this information? I want to see what the rest of the National Conference has brought with it. When I have a clearer picture of the direction the Democrats will be taking, I'll figure out how best to help the Democrats succeed (which is something I very much want to do).
In hindsight, I have probably been a lot less coherent than I would like to be. No doubt I will get grilled on this by one of my writer and/or politico friends ;).