Thursday, November 22, 2007

An Interview with Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett

This evening Woolly Days met with Andrew Bartlett at his electoral office in The Valley. Bartlett has been a Senator for Queensland since 1997 filling the casual vacancy left by Cheryl Kernot’s defection to Labor. He was re-elected in 2001. A former party leader, Bartlett is now probably the highest profile Democrat standing and the one with the best chance of retaining his seat. However this election is Bartlett’s greatest challenge and the latest Galaxy Senate poll released today gives him an “outside chance” of being re-elected.

Andrew Bartlett himself remains optimistic about his chances with barely two days left in the campaign. He is heartened by the fact that historically Queensland is the Democrats second most successful state. Bartlett is holding up well after a long and tiring six week campaign. He said it has been a long election year. He didn’t think it would be called this late in the year and compared the campaign to a marathon. With election now in sight, Bartlett admitted he was looking forward to Sunday. He said that at times the campaign bordered on “delirium”. “I’m doing all I can to get every last Senate vote,” he said. “But the Senate [result] is hard to predict.”

He admitted the gruelling campaign made family life difficult especially for his six year old daughter Lillith. Bartlett said he was able to stay at home because he mostly campaigned in South East Queensland. However he said that in some respects that was harder than being away on parliamentary business in Canberra. “I leave home in the morning before my daughter gets up, and she’s asleep by the time I get home,” he said.

Andrew Bartlett could never imagine what lay ahead when joined the Democrats in 1989. He said he was inspired by then leader Janine Haines. Bartlett said he liked that Haines "said what she thought rather than play it safe". He was also attracted to Democrat ideals such as the conscience vote, its strong pro-environment stance, and its sense of social justice. At the time, he didn’t conscientiously seek political office but he said, “I joined lots of organisations and got involved in lots of issues I found useful or interesting”.

In 1990, Bartlett joined the staff of Senator Cheryl Kernot as a fill-in. However the person he temporarily replaced never came back and Bartlett kept the role. He described the situation as ‘serendipitous’. Bartlett said Kernot was "a fascinating mix". He praised her contribution to parliament saying she played a pivotal role in the landmark changes to superannuation laws during the Labor Government era. “She had charisma, charm, and was highly articulate and focussed,” he said. “She was also a control freak and very hard to work for”. Bartlett and Kernot eventually fell out and he went to work for Senator John Woodley until 1997.

Bartlett’s life change dramatically after Kernot’s shock defection to Labor that year. He was chosen to fill the casual vacancy. Bartlett said no-one had an inkling that Kernot was about to leave the party. He decided to take on the role in an effort to “keep things together”. “It was an extraordinary situation,” he said. “It was a monumental crisis for the party, particularly in Queensland”.

Once elected, Bartlett quickly got across the various policy areas and got onto inquiries and committees. He said that one of the best things about being a Democrat senator is the chance to get across several portfolios. He compared that with the single-minded silo mentality of the major parties. “You cover so much, you can never get into things in the detail you’d like,” he said. But by looking after several portfolios, “you can see how different things connect.”

By 2001 the Democrats were in internal crisis with the party split over the fallout over the GST which was supported by former leader Meg Lees. The presidential campaign of new leader Natasha Stott Despoja was criticised by the Lees faction within the party. However Alison Rogers, Stott Despoja's press secretary, says she (Stott Despoja) saved the party from annihilation that election. Bartlett agrees. “Natasha kept us in a job,” he said. Bartlett was one of 4 Democrats who kept his seat at that election despite many predictions he would lose. Bartlett was a close supporter of Stott Despoja and inherited her job as leader after she was forced out in 2002 when the internal conflicts grew too great.

Bartlett was never comfortable as leader. He didn’t see himself as charismatic. “The ten second sound byte was never my forte,” he admitted candidly. Party founder Don Chipp said of Bartlett that he was “unbelievably self-effacing” and said his shy nature was not a great quality for a party leader. Bartlett said his role as leader was a “necessity of circumstance”. He said he would “hopefully hand it back to her [Stott Despoja] but of course, that didn’t happen”.

Bartlett resigned the leadership after the 2004 election when the Democrats lost three seats including one in Queensland. “I was brought in to stop the destabilisation, but it never translated into electoral success,” he said. Since then Bartlett has thrown himself back into his policy work and expanded into the social media with his thought-provoking blog at The Bartlett Diaries. He said the blog was just another avenue of communication and a way of de-mystifying politics. He said he didn’t want it to turn into an insider's diary and said it was “less exciting than it could have been”.

Bartlett said indigenous affairs was by far the most important policy area that was being ignored by the mainstream media. He described the plight of Aboriginal Australia as the country's “biggest unresolved problem”. Bartlett wants to push for action on delivering restitution for Stolen Wages and compensation for the Stolen Generation. He doubted if a new government would repeal the new NT intervention legislation though they may not act on the “massive powers” the minister now has.

Bartlett said he has found his time in the senate “fascinating”. When pressed to name the legislation he was most proud of, he nominated the 1999 environment protection and biodiversity conservation act. He said that at the time, the act was criticised by the Greens because it did not go far enough but he said this was “very significant legislation” and could be used, in time, to stop the Traveston Dam. He said environmental groups have not properly used the legislation. Bartlett said that a weakness of the Democrats was that they were “hopeless at promoting their own legacy”. He said they needed a better balance of self-promotion and hard work. There is no doubt that Andrew Bartlett demonstrates plenty of the latter quality, it is up to the Queensland voters on Saturday to see whether he has got the balance right with the self-promotion.

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