At just 38 years of age, Natasha Stott Despoja has retired from politics. She did not contest her South Australian Senate seat in the election and her twelve year term in parliament expires on 30 June 2008. When she leaves, so will all the last four remaining Democrat Senators. The party has been annihilated barely 30 years after it was founded. The fact remains that the Democrats have not won a seat since Stott Despoja won four, including her own, as leader in 2001.
Stott Despoja made her decision to resign in 2006 so she could spend more time with her then 21 month old son. She said it was a matter of “personal choice values”. But she also said the system was not perfect. She said women work and have families all the time. “We've still got issues like parental leave, child care being accessible and affordable, flexibility of work hours, the opportunity to return to work part-time,” she said. “All of these issues should be forefront on the top of the agenda."
But Stott Despoja will no longer be in parliament to push this agenda. This will be a disappointment for the supporters of the woman who was once more popular than either the Prime Minister or the Opposition Leader. At 26, she was the youngest woman ever in parliament, at 28 she was deputy leader and then at 31 she was the youngest ever party leader in Australia. But although she won the Democrats their last ever seats in the 2001 election, she was ousted less than a year later by a power struggle within the party. She took maternity leave in 2004 and while her profile dipped, the fortunes of her party nosedived.
The story of Stott Despoja’s brief and traumatic leadership of the Democrats is told in a fascinating insider’s profile in “The Natasha Factor: Politics, Media and Betrayal” by Alison Rogers. Rogers was Stott Despoja’s chief media adviser during the leadership and was therefore very close to the centre of the action. In 1998 Rogers was an ABC Radio presenter in Adelaide when she met Natasha. They liked each and Natasha offered her a job. It wasn’t until two years later when Rogers, bored with the ABC, decided to take her up on the offer.
Stott Despoja was then deputy leader and had been re-nominated as the party’s lead candidate in the election that was due the following year. Despite Stott Despoja’s magnetism and popularity this was not straightforward due to major divisions within the party. In 1998, leader Meg Lees had stunned the party when she went back on an election promise and negotiated with PM John Howard to pass a GST bill through parliament. Stott Despoja led the branch of the party opposed to Lees’ action.
The party mood was gloomy ahead of the 2001 election. This was the first vote since the GST split. A WA election in February saw the last two Democrats lose their seats in that state’s Upper House. The clamour to replace the low profile Lees with the more gifted communicator Stott Despoja was growing. While Natasha wanted to wait until after the election, she was worried there may not be a party to lead after the election. After a gruelling six week campaign (the entire two thousand strong Democrat party takes part in the vote), Stott Despoja won a resounding victory in every state and territory. Lees’ supporter Aden Ridgeway was elected her deputy.
Stott Despoja had always been a media dream. Young, attractive and full of ready quotes, she was hot public property from the moment she set foot in Canberra and the leadership increased the tempo further. Now there was conflict afoot as media were keen to explore the party divisions while Stott Despoja wanted to move onto the next phase. Laurie Oakes of Channel Nine immediately went on the attack in his first interview with her as leader asking “how does it feel to have blood on your hands?”
Meanwhile the women’s magazines were desperate to get up close and personal with the Democrat’s young leader. She agreed to talk to Australian Women’s Weekly because they said they would ask policy questions. However the price of giving her views on the GST, same-sex parenting and euthanasia, were questions such as who she thought was the sexiest man alive and what was her favourite flower. The magazine also breached an off-the-record component of the interview set-up with Alison Rogers herself featuring in the profile. Elsewhere in the media, the buzz words were Natasha’s “first test” as leader, whether it was the budget, the Victorian by-election, or the federal election that followed.
In mid 2001, the Democrats were polling a healthy 8 to 9 percent reflecting public acceptance of the new leader. Then came Tampa. Along with Labor, Stott Despoja bravely opposed Howard’s emergency legislation despite huge public support for action against the boatpeople. The mood of fear in the electorate intensified after 9/11. The personal element for Natasha was strong. Andrew Knox, a close personal friend, died in the twin towers. With the effect of Tampa dragging on, Labor backflipped on the legislation, leaving the Democrats isolated in opposition. John Howard called the election in October, with Australian troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
Democrat polling showed that Natasha was the party’s best weapon for success. So they ran a presidential style campaign with Natasha featuring prominently on all ads and literature. The government ran strongly on asylum seekers leaving the Democrats with a difficult task to retain their five seats in the election. The media was tough on Stott Despoja and she blundered on Afghanistan’s maternity leave scheme giving the impression the Taliban’s regime treated women better than Australia. A former mentor and senator, John Coulter resigned from the party one week out from the election saying it had not done enough to purge pro-GST elements.
In the election itself, the Howard Government was re-elected in a landslide win. In the Senate, the Democrats vote dropped since 1998 but they held on to four of their five seats, losing only NSW. In an otherwise boring election, the media painted it as a defeat for the Democrats at the hands of the Greens. Though it was highly unlikely, they would have done any better, the Lees faction began an open rebellion against Stott Despoja. Deputy Ridgeway was reported as being “unhappy” with the presidential style of the election. In her personal life, she split with long-time boyfriend Hugh Rimington of Channel Nine and began seeing lobbyist Ian Smith.
The results were no better for the Democrats in her home state election in February 2002. They took 7.3 per cent of the South Australian vote, a huge swing against them since their record 16 percent of the previous election. Commentators were quick to pin the blame on the leader who was away in New York for much of the election. Afterwards the only coverage the Democrats could get was about the party split. Meg Lees was making antagonistic statements and casting doubts on Stott Despoja’s ability as leader. The pair differed over the impending privatisation of Telstra. The personal bitterness between the pair grew as the year progressed.
The party room was split down the middle. Lees had the support of Ridgeway, Lyn Allison and Andrew Murray. Stott Despoja relied on the council of Andrew Bartlett, Brian Grieg and John Cherry. When Andrew Murray did an interview that clearly showed his sympathies for Lees, Bartlett retaliated by calling Murray “politically inept or deliberately treacherous”. After a long stand-off in which Murray refused to back down and threatened to stand as an independent, he was accepted back into the party without the apology Stott Despoja needed. Her authority was fatally compromised.
Matters worsened when Meg Lees resigned from the Democrats but refused to resign her seat. Lees blamed an intolerant party machine for her departure. An independent Lees was exactly the lifeline PM Howard needed to get his Telstra sale through the Senate. Stott Despoja was grilled by the media and blamed for the Democrat troubles. Andrew Murray continued to snipe at her leadership. Though accepted back into the party, he had given no ground. Without her approval, the party put out a ten-point plan that reduced her power and gave in to Murray’s demands. The plan was approved 4-3. Natasha had lost the balance of power.
Stott Despoja resigned on 21 August saying “it is hard to define your role as leader of a political party without the full support of the party room”. The party had no real plan other than to remove her. None of her opponents would volunteer for the top job. The battle to be her successor was fought by two of her supporters and Andrew Bartlett won it from Brian Grieg. But Bartlett did not have Stott Despoja’s charisma and he lost three seats in 2004. Lynn Allison has now lost the remaining four in 2007. No-one has effectively replaced Natasha Stott Despoja. As Rogers prophetically said in the end of her book in 2004: “the damage that the infighting, public displays of disunity and bickering has caused to the Democrats is yet to be counted.”