Reality finally bites Democrats' leaderby News WeeklyNews Weekly
, February 23, 2002
During the course of the federal election campaign there were two striking newspaper pictures of Natasha Stott Despoja.
The first one, which she stage-managed herself, showed the 32-year-old leader strolling casually along a beach in long shorts looking appropriately bright and fresh with a hint of sexiness to boot. The picture was obviously designed to portray her as the young politician who "dares to be different".
The other, equally revealing but definitely unstaged picture, showed Natasha awkwardly holding a baby and screwing up her face in horror at the same time.
The snap suggested a woman to whom motherhood and family were last on a list of career options. Not surprisingly, Stott Despoja was not happy with the picture.
For Australia’s best "media performing" politician there seems to be a big chasm between image and reality. Obviously, Stott Despoja is a good media performer - presentable, articulate, and particularly at ease on television and radio. However, the closer you look at Stott Despoja is the fact that, far from being the voice of youth and "the new" in politics, she is the torch bearer of "old feminism" with a young face.
Stott Despoja is a regurgitator of most of the tired old ideologies of feminism and environmentalism from the 1970s she uncritically picked up at while doing an Arts Degree at Adelaide University and playing student politics.
And now she is suddenly becoming aware of the political realities of hard work and policy development that her party needs to stay a viable force.
Stott Despoja’s tenure as leader of the Australian Democrats is suddenly looking shaky - less than a year after snatching the job from Senator Meg Lees.
The recent South Australian election result was nothing short of disastrous for the Democrats, but this comes on top of a series of gaffes by the 32-year-old leader, and a similarly poor result at the Western Australian and Federal elections.
South Australia is Australian Democrats’ heartland - the home state of former leader Meg Lees and Stott Despoja - and the party had held hopes that it could pick up three or four lower house seats in the SA poll.
Instead, the Democrats’ vote slumped spectacularly from 16 per cent to just 7 per cent. Stott Despoja was blamed for being out of the country for most of the campaign (she was in the United States to pick up an award and visit New York), but there are clearly deeper problems than neglected campaigns.
At the Federal election, the Democrats lost one of their nine Senators, Vicki Bourne from New South Wales, and were very lucky not to lose two more.
For some time, the Democrats have been going through an identity crisis and are now clearly losing the battle for the far left constituency of Australian politics to the Bob Brown-led Greens.
Senator Stott Despoja came to the leadership last April with high hopes of rebuilding the party into a genuine third force in Australian politics after the demise of One Nation, including holding the elusive seats in the House of Representatives.
She had the blessing of party founder Don Chipp, who took the unprecedented step of intervening on her behalf in the leadership ballot, and the backing of the Australian media who had given her the most sustained favourable run of any politician in living memory.
However, doing Good News Week
and other light variety shows on television was no substitute for real policy work. Stott Despoja’s lack of ideas and direction was revealed during the Federal election when the Democrats made an absurd list of policy promises which, on government estimates, would cost more than $100 billion over four years.
The $100 billion was a conservative costing because some Democrats policies were simply too vague to put a dollar figure on - a sign that the party is at least re-establishing its former credentials as the "fairies at the bottom of the garden party" of Australian politics.
The Democrats pride themselves on being the only truly democratic party in Australian politics with the grassroots membership able to elect the parliamentary leader.
Serious problems arise though when a parliamentary leader loses the confidence of her parliamentary colleagues, and in Natasha’s case she has never enjoyed the full confidence of her fellow Senators since her ascension.
Most of the current Democrat Senators did not think she should be leader, and her performance since then has not changed their opinion.
Those who work closely with her do not believe Stott Despoja has the experience, ability or ideas to lead the party. The Democrats leader is calling for a six-month "strategic review" of the party to assess the party’s membership and philosophy.
The review will look at an alliance with like-minded overseas parties and whether to break into local government to use that as a power base for state and federal politics.
The review should have taken place as soon as she became leader and is only being done to take the heat of herself. The reality is that the only thing going for Stott Despoja is the absence of a suitable alternative leader.