Meg Lees Under Attack By Democrats; Senate Numbers At Stake

Senator Meg LeesThe former leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator Meg Lees, is embroiled in a bitter dispute over the leadership of Natasha Stott Despoja that threatens to split the party and hand the Howard Government the chance of passing its contentious privatisation of Telstra legislation.

At a meeting of the Australian Democrats’ National Management Committee on June 5, a motion was carried requesting Lees attend a meeting of the National Executive on June 22-23 to “address issues of her comments on the sale of Telstra and perceptions of disunity in the Party”. Another motion described “perceptions of disunity and unreliability” in relation to comments Lees made about Telstra.

A letter sent to Lees by the Party’s Acting National President, Liz Oss-Emer, on June 10, said that Lees’ comments had caused “consternation” and “are widely perceived to be an indication that you are not fully supportive of the leadership of the Party”. The letter asks Lees: “Can you commit to fully supporting the elected leadership of the Party?”

Lees, dumped as leader in a members’ ballot in April last year, did not attend the National Executive meeting, instead sending a letter that has been leaked, with other documents, to crikey.com.au.

Lees appears to have dug in as the conflict between her supporters and those of neophyte leader, Natasha Stott Despoja, escalates into the public arena. Lees could be expelled by the party or lose her pre-selection. Her current term ends on June 30, 2005. Were Lees to be expelled from the party, or resign to sit as an Independent, it would introduce another variable into the balance of power in the Senate. The government has 35 senators and needs the support of 4 more senators to pass legislation. From July 1, there will be 8 Democrats, 2 Greens, 1 One Nation, Senator Harradine, and ex-ALP Senator Shayne Murphy. The ALP will have 28 Senators.

Maintaining that she has remained silent for over a year and has rebuffed media coverage, Lees’ letter launches a wide-ranging attack on Stott Despoja, accusing her of “unliateralism and autocratic behaviour” and “poor personnel management”. Lees says “the surging Greens” have got “the jump on us time and time again”, citing Stott Despoja’s failure to seize the initiative on the Tampa issue and asylum-seekers. She says “this failure to manage issues or deal with significant problems has plagued the parliamentary division for more than a year”.

The Democrats’ internal bickering has been largely conducted within the party’s forums, but the bitterness surrounding the leadership change, exacerbated by the party’s loss of support in last year’s election, including one senatorial position, has been festering. The youthful glitz that surrounded the elevation of Stott Despoja has been met with allegations that she is a lightweight who has been more concerned with promoting a celebrity image than with developing a serious political persona. Lees, on the other hand, is still blamed for her GST deal with the Howard government in 1999, although she apparently commands the support of a majority of the party’s senatorial team.

In her letter to the National Executive, Lees says: “Frankly, it would be much easier for all Senators to accept a Leadership change if it had delivered real electoral benefits. Instead, despite rhetoric and spin, we can only look back on a poor performance and a loss of a Senator since the leadership change.”

An interesting feature of the turmoil in the Australian Democrats is that it has been played out to a large extent on the crikey.com.au website. The leaked documents appeared on the site on Monday morning (June 24). An amusing analysis of who prepared the documents, including suggestions that Senator Andrew Murray assisted in the preparation of Lees’ letter, has been published today by the website.

Crikey has also been instrumental in the public airing of factional infighting in the ALP over the past couple of weeks. In his latest email to subscribers, Crikey’s Stephen Mayne has this to say about media coverage:

“If anything, it just illustrates the irrelevance of much of the mainstream media. All the political professionals have been watching the fight unfold on Crikey with a mixture of shock and anger. Delia Delegate has now published no less than 10 detailed accounts of the battle and various Feeney-Shorten supporters have fired off four responses. The journalists have all been reading it too, but none of them have seen fit to actually report what is going on.

“And this is not the usual “don’t give a competitor a leg up” scenario because none of it has been our material. The whole lot has been a series of huge leaks and arguments from Labor insiders, yet because they appear anonymously on Crikey, some strange cone of silence comes over them.”

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