Policy-making in the Democrats: Time for a change?

Zareh Ghazarian, Monash University

Commentators have prophesied the demise of the Australian Democrats since the party was established nearly 30 years ago. A collapsing vote and the loss of three senators in the 2004 election has certainly reduced the party’s power. Yet the Democrats continue to be represented in the Senate and renewed claims of their ‘imminent death’ are premature. Moreover, the government’s majority in the new Senate has reduced the bargaining power of all minor parties, including the Australian Greens.

Ongoing leadership struggles have not helped the Democrats. Most recently, and in response to the poor election results, Andrew Bartlett has been replaced as leader by long time Senator Lyn Allison. But although the leader is its public face, it is the party’s internal organisation that continues to hinder the Democrats, especially in devising policy. Although its policy processes have successfully served the party, the Democrats need to modernise these processes so the party can be more responsive in the current political climate.

The Democrats remain unique in allowing all rank and file members direct influence in policy making.

Convoluted processes for policy formulation in the Democrats unnecessarily handicap the party. However, it is in the party’s best interest to examine alternative methods of policy formulation to streamline the process and to re-invigorate the party membership. I offer an alternative method for the Democrats to investigate. I believe this method would enable the speedy formulation of policy while still maintaining the party’s fundamental participatory principles.

How the Democrats make policy

The Australian Democrats prides themselves on being a political party in which ordinary people can have a real say on policy and can shape the direction of the party. Although processes for internal decision-making on policy need reforming, the Democrats remain unique in allowing all rank and file members direct influence in shaping policy and in candidate pre-selection. This is surprising. According to the ‘law of oligarchy’ hypothesised by French political scientist Robert Michels (1959 p. 3), as a party grows, the direct participation of its members tends to decrease. The Democrats have successfully avoided the erosion of internal democracy with a continuing commitment to actively seeking the direct participation of rank and file members. The party’s ethos is based on consensus, participation, and non-confrontation. Policies can be initiated by members, policy committees, or the national executive. The policy committee then conducts research into the policy by checking consistency with current policy and by facilitating internal discussion and consultation outside of the party.

The draft policies that emerge from this process are published in the National Journal distributed to all members. Letters and comments on the draft policy appear in the subsequent edition of the National Journal and are discussed on the member’s forum on the Internet. Members voting on the, if required re-drafted, policy. Once the results of the ballot are declared, the policy comes into effect, and is published in final form in the Journal. These balloted policies form the ‘basis for more specific documents for the Party’, such as issue sheets, platform, position and background papers (Australian Democrats 2004a).

This method of policy formation is inclusive and demonstrates the Democrat’s commitment to pluralism within its membership. However, it is also time consuming, expensive, and can disadvantage the Democrats in the political process. As Sugita (1995 p. 70) has pointed out, even if an original policy draft is coherent, it can be transformed into a haphazard document because every comment and proposal on the draft must be put to the ballot. Thus, after a long time and considerable expense, some policies can become incoherent, contradictory, or generally untenable in the electorate.

It seems the ethos of participatory and consensual politics is disadvantaging the Democrats.

Another problem is how long it takes from the initiation to the adoption of a policy, especially in an electorate with limited patience for politics. This can leave the Democrats responding to politically ‘hot’ issues well after public and media debate has subsided, and can limit their ability to spread their message to voters. When the Democrats have attempted to make accelerated political decisions, the cohesion and rigidity of the Party have been tested and strained, the most recent example being the party’s dealings with the Government over the proposed Goods and Services Tax in 1999. Thus, it seems, the ethos of participatory and consensual politics is disadvantaging the Democrats.

Policy-making in the Australian Greens

The Democrats’ competition, the Australian Greens, also emphasise member participation in policy formulation. However, the Greens’ procedure differs markedly from the Democrats’. The Greens have a peak body of members (known as the National Council) comprised of nominated delegates and empowered with the task of co-ordinating policy at a national level. Policies are adopted as official national policy only by the consensus of a National Conference.

Rank and file Greens members are entitled to participate in discussion, but the existence of a national body to oversee policy allows the Greens to employ a more organisationally ‘tight’ mechanism for policy development and adoption. The parties differ in the way rank and file members participate in policy formulation. Where the Greens allow delegates to decide on policy, the Democrats allow all rank and file members to directly influence the proposed policy. The Democrats’ system can be slower than the Greens’ because of the Democrats’ ethos of participatory politics. The Greens system gives greater power to select members (usually delegates) and detaches some rank and file members from having a direct role in policy formulation. However, the Greens’ method of delegation is incompatible with the ethos of the Democrats.

The reality of participation in Democrat policy-making

I have argued that participation is an essential element of the Democrats’ ethos, and that one alternative method of policy-making that might avoid the problems of their current model is incompatible with this ethos. Yet how much do rank and file members of the Democrats actually participate? The current Constitution states that a policy ballot ‘shall be determined by a simple majority of those voting in such ballot’ (Australian Democrats 2004, p. 8). Before this amendment to the Constitution any party policy needed to have been voted on by at least ten per cent of the general membership of the Party. However, on many occasions the party ballot did not get near the ten per cent threshold, suggesting that not all members wanted to be part of the decision-making process. This ‘ten per cent threshold’ was dismantled in 1991 after the Democrats realised it would prove difficult for ten per cent of the membership to consistently vote on policy matters.

Low participation rates suggest that not all members want to take part in decision-making.

We find further examples of low participation rates in state Divisions. Although the party does not advertise participation rates, evidence suggests that only a small proportion of members actively participate in decision-making. In South Australia, for example, Tilby Stock (2002, p. 229) found that participation rates were at their highest (usually between 30 to 40 per cent) in pre-selection and leadership ballots. Participation rates of only six to ten per cent were common on policy ballots.

These low participation rates cast doubt over whether the Democrats need to handicap themselves by consulting the entire membership on policy, especially when the evidence suggests the membership is not very active in the process. Yet allowing members direct involvement is the cornerstone of the party, so it would be difficult for the Democrats to limit rank and file members’ participation.

A proposal for reform

I propose that instead of holding the entire membership responsible for its entire range of policies, the Democrats should create Specific Policy Units (SPUs). Each SPU would make policy for one area, such as health, or environment, and so on. Each state division would have their own SPU on each major policy area. Rank and file members would have the option of joining one or more SPU in the field of their interest or expertise. This model has two benefits. First, it automatically directs the most motivated and knowledgeable members into the policy-making process. Second, unlike the Greens’ system of delegates, this model still reflects the Democrats’ ethos of participatory politics because membership of an SPU is open to all rank and file members, not just those elected to such positions.

SPUs in each state would need to meet at least every three months to discuss and formulate policy. Members unable to attend a meeting could send a proxy. All SPUs on the same policy would meet on the same date. For example SPUs on health in all states would meet on the same date. Each SPU on the same policy area would also be able to meet with their counterparts in other states, although this would not be necessary. Policies must be adopted by consensus in the SPUs, or if a vote is taken, at least two-thirds majority of the members of that SPU must agree. After a SPU has adopted a policy, the policy is sent to the state division for approval to ensure the policy complies with the goals of the party. The state division then forwards the policy to the national executive for ratification.

The ratification process ensures that policies are not in conflict with one another and also gives the national executive a direct view over policy. The national executive can reject policies, but must explain in detail why it has done so. The ratification and acceptance or rejection of policy must occur no later than five days after receipt of the policy. Rejected policy can be reworked and resubmitted. However, if rejected twice, a policy could not be resubmitted for another six months. Unscheduled, or ‘emergency’ SPU meetings could be convened when issues requiring a speedy policy response arise. In such cases, the executive needs to ratify the policy within three days.

Instead of holding the entire membership responsible for policy-making, the Democrats should create Specific Policy Units.

Because SPUs are comprised of the rank and file membership of the party, this system does not create a ‘delegate class’ within the membership with extra voting privileges. Indeed, these units uphold the ethos of the Democrats, make the policy formulation process ‘tighter’, and would equip the party to make policies much faster. SPUs would also be responsible for conducting research and consultation and would check policies for consistency with the party’s charter and constitution. Thus, SPUs would replace the policy committee that carries out these tasks under the current system. Overall, if the Democrats introduced this system of SPUs, the party would be better able to make timely policy decisions while remaining true to its ethos of participatory, consensual and non-confrontational politics.


Following the recent poor election results the Democrats, as a political organisation, need to be re-invigorated. The current policy formulation process is antiquated and needs to be overhauled. A new process akin to the one I have outlined is worth the party’s consideration. This process would not only speed up the policy process but could also re-invigorate the party’s membership. Above all, the SPU system upholds the Democrats’ noble ethos of participatory and consensual politics that has been the cornerstone of the party’s political existence, and serves as a solid foundation for the party’s future.


Australian Democrats 2004a, ‘Policies of the Australian Democrats’, [Online], Available: http://www.democrats.org.au/policies/?request=policy+formation+process# [2004, Nov 8].

Australian Democrats 2004b, National Constitution and Regulations, effective as at 22 November, 2003.

Michels, R. 1959, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, trans. E. & C. Paul, Dover Publications, New York.

Sugita, H. 1995, Challenging Twopartism: the Contribution of the Australian Democrats to the Australian Party System, PhD Thesis, Flinders University, Bedford Park.

Tilby Stock, J. 2002, ‘The Australian Democrats and Minor Parties’, in Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia, eds J. Summers, D. Woodward & A. Parkin, Longman, Frenchs Forest.

Zareh Ghazarian is a postgraduate research student in Australian politics at Monash University. His research focuses on political organisations in the Australian political system. The author would like thank Dr Lyn Carson of the University of Sydney for her insights on the internal operation of democratic organisations.

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