Monday, October 23, 2006

The slow death of the Democrats

The Australian Democrats moved another step closer to politician oblivion with the announcement today of the resignation of high profile former leader Natasha Stott Despoja. Although the 37 year old senator’s resignation does not take effect until 2008, her decision not to recontest her seat is a massive blow to the party. She is the longest serving of the party’s four remaining senators. All four including party leader Lyn Allison are up for re-election in 2008. With the party losing support badly to the Greens, Stott Despoja was expected to the only one with a chance of retaining her seat. It is the second major blow for the party this year coming on the heels of the death of party founder who died in August.

Don Chipp founded the Australian Democrats in 1977. Chipp had already enjoyed a distinguished career. He served in the Royal Australian Air Force in World War II. After the war he worked as an accountant and had success in sport playing Australian Rules at the highest level as well as being a finalist in Australia’s richest short distance foot race, the Stawell Gift. He managed the organising committee of the Melbourne Olympics before entering council in 1958. He entered federal politics in 1960 as the Liberal member for Higginbotham before moving to the seat of Hotham. Harold Holt made him a government minister in 1967. He became famous as Minister for Customs and Excise two years later when he abolished censorship of books and other written material.

Though this action was popular, it alienated him within the highly conservative Liberal Party. Malcolm Fraser became opposition Liberal leader in 1975 and he and Chipp did not get along well together. Despite being a shadow minister, Chipp was left out of Fraser’s ministry after the Liberals won power in December. He stewed as a backbencher for a year before finally quitting the party in 1977. He founded the Australian Democrats with the memorable mantra to “keep the bastards honest”. He was elected to the Senate along with two fellow members. He led the party until 1986. Under Chipp’s leadership the party grew to become the balance of power in the senate.

Natasha Stott Despoja arrived in parliament 10 years after Chipp left. She was born in Adelaide in 1969. She cut her teeth in student politics at the University of Adelaide where she was president of the students union and was also prominent in women’s rights issues. She graduated with a BA. On leaving college she worked as a political adviser for the then South Australian Democrat Senators John Coulter and Cheryl Kernot. Coulter resigned in 1995 and Stott Despoja was nominated to fill the casual vacancy. At the age of 26, she was the youngest federal senator ever. She arrived in parliament in trademark Doc Martens. Youth was her marketing edge. It was a carefully cultivated appeal to Generation X. She faced the electorate a year later and held onto her seat. Barely 12 months later, she was elected deputy leader under Meg Lees after its ex-leader Cheryl Kernot defected to Labor.

Under Lees, the Democrats started their downward spiral in its support base of the wealthy inner suburban areas of the state capitals. John Howard won the 1998 election despite his promise to introduce an unpopular Goods and Services Tax (GST). However he lacked outright support in the senate for the tax. Lees campaigned in the election that the Democrats would not support the tax unless food was exempt. The government initially refused this exemption but eventually reached a compromise with Lees. The bill was passed with Democrat support in 1999. Lees claimed the dilution of the bill as a success but the cost was high with two of her senators voting against the bill. These two were Andrew Bartlett and Natasha Stott Despoja. As a result of the infighting, the Democrats support fell rapidly. They lost three senators and eventually lost the Senate balance of power in 2004.

Amid the fallout, Stott Despoja launched a challenge to Lees’ leadership and became party leader on 6 April 2001. Lees immediately left the party. Stott Despoja’s left-wing politics were popular with the party faithful however her leadership style caused problems in parliament. After 16 months in the job, she decided she couldn't heal the rifts which divided her seven-member party room. She resigned in August 2002 after an ultimatum by four members.

In 2004 she took maternity leave from the senate when she gave birth to her son Conrad. She subsequently returned and has again taken a prominent stance on education, women and family issues. She has been strongly associated with a stem cell research bill and wants to stay in parliament until it is carried through. However health is now an issue for Stott Despoja. She was rushed to hospital earlier this month for emergency surgery due to an ectopic pregnancy. She says she now wants to spend more quality time with her son. Yesterday, she ruled out a bid to enter South Australian politics but wouldn't discount a return to Canberra. "I might be so outraged that I might have to throw my hat back in the ring," she said.

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