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Natasha Stott Despoja and the Future of the Australian Democrats

April 11, 2001

Stott Despoja in Rolling Stone In the aftermath of poor electoral performances in the Western Australian and Queensland state elections, and being beaten by the Greens in the Ryan by-election, the Australian Democrats is now being promoted in some parts of the media as the resurgent party of Generation-X.

With 5 of its 9 Senators up for election at this year's poll, and few of those rated electoral certainties, the nation's most successful third force faces a critical moment in its history.

The party has senators facing re-election in all mainland states this year. The party's new leader, South Australia's Natasha Stott Despoja, is rated as the only sure winner amongst the five.

In Queensland, Andrew Bartlett is unlikely to survive a resurgent ALP in the State where One Nation is strongest.

In New South Wales, Vicki Bourne is likely to be squeezed by the ALP which has only 2 senators facing re-election and is likely to win a third. Victoria's Lyn Allison is in the same position.

In Western Australia, Andrew Murray also will compete against a resurgent ALP and strong support for the Greens.

The Democrats are unlikely to make inroads in Tasmania where Greens Senator Bob Brown faces re-election.

Terms of Democrats' Senators
No Name State Terms Ends
1
Vicki Bourne
NSW
30 June 2002
2
Lyn Allison
Vic
30 June 2002
3
Andrew Bartlett
Qld
30 June 2002
4
Andrew Murray
WA
30 June 2002
5
Natasha Stott Despoja
SA
30 June 2002
6
Aden Ridgeway
NSW
30 June 2005
7
John Woodley
Qld
30 June 2005
8
Brian Greig
WA
30 June 2005
9
Meg Lees
SA
30 June 2005

Notwithstanding the difficulties the party faces, the Democrats are likely to have at least 5 senators following the election and will retain the balance of power in the upper house.

But the party will probably struggle to retain the vote it recorded at the 1998 election. This is partly because the ALP appears to be significantly lifting its primary vote, thereby squeezing the Democrats. Most opinion polls have the ALP's primary vote around the mid-40s, a significant improvement on its 1998 result.

One Nation and a host of independents will compete for the non-major party vote, further complicating the electoral arithmetic for the Democrats.

Australian Democrats Vote 1998
State % Primary Vote
House of Reps
% Primary Vote
Senate
New South Wales
4.16
7.35
Victoria
6.02
9.84
Queensland
4.01
7.81
Western Australia
3.97
6.40
South Australia
10.14
12.42
Tasmania
3.26
3.93
A.C.T.
7.39
16.66
N.T.
5.12
5.50
National
5.13
8.45

Opinion polls, notably the Morgan Poll, suggest that the party's support is holding firm, although it has to be doubted whether this is in fact the case, particularly in the light of the W.A., Queensland and Ryan elections this year. There seems to be general agreement that the Democrats have suffered as a result of the deal with the Howard government over the G.S.T.

It is in this context that the leadership change needs to be seen as a drastic political move to prevent an electoral calamity later this year.

The claim by the party's new deputy leader, Senator Aden Ridgeway, that he and Stott Despoja amount to a "millennium dream team" is only one of the more extravagant claims made in recent days.

Political observers with longer memories will recall the frenzy that accompanied the putative Liberal leadership challenge of Bronwyn Bishop in 1993-94. The Alexander Downer-Peter Costello "dream team" of 1994 lasted all of eight months until Downer self-destructed. Kerry Chikarovski was touted as the great hope of the NSW Liberal Party in 1998, but led her party to one of its worst defeats ever. An attempt by the Victorian Liberal Party to re-elect "Jeff.com" in 1999 ended in tears.

Cheryl Kernot, ALP Member for Dickson In this light, the comments by ALP frontbencher, and former Democrats leader, Cheryl Kernot, this week are only part of a broader media view that Stott Despoja is the latest political saviour to grace Australia with her presence.

Writing in The Australian on April 9, Kernot argued that "celebrity has equal billing with policy."

Kernot started her political life as a Democrat, rising to the position of leader in 1993. Following the election of the Howard government in 1996, Kernot was instrumental in negotiating legislation such as Peter Reith's radical industrial reforms through the Senate.

She defected to the Labor Party in 1997 and narrowly won election to the Queensland seat of Dickson in 1998. Since then she has had a chequered shadow ministerial career.

This week, Kernot wrote:

Both the major parties have failed to react to the longer-term positioning of the Democrats and the Greens as the political voice of the next generation of voters.

These are people who, have been weaned on Sesame Street and graduated to Good News Week and Ally McBeal, now prefer celebrity and humour to boring suits arguing about old politics.

These are the voter who identify vicariously with political celebrities, because they have been utterly turned off by the way politics is currently conducted and by its failure to engage them on the issues of the day.

While we engage daily in ritual stag fights and scalp hunting over predominantly economic issues, they want us to focus more on the environment, reconciliation and a republican future.

Polling suggests young Australians are economically conservative and socially progressive. This opens up a great opportunity for an almost exclusively Democrat niche marketing campaign.

The Greens may take a stand on similar issues, but they don't have the young celebrity leadership.

Imagine the contrast in the coming federal campaign: John Howard and Peter Costello (or John Anderson), Kim Beazley and Simon Crean, Bob Brown alongside Stott Despoja and ridgeway.

Talk about the dream team for the symbolism of a generation and jaded older idealists: power-sharing by women (and young ones at that), reconciliation, post-school education, the environment, animal welfare and the challenges of new technology such as gene technology and the consequences of that for 21st century ethics.

Where are the rest of us on these issues? Still talking about tax reform!

Kernot went on to criticise what she sees as the major party system of "respectful apprenticeships", naming a number of junior ALP members of the House of Representatives as proof of the failure of the major parties "to communicate more idealistic concerns to young Australians".

Kernot concluded:

But if the traditional political parties are not able to respond quickly and intelligently outside the usual hierarchies and obstacles, we will have failed to prepare for the evolution of our parties as relevant for the next generation and beyond - and we will forever be looking to bargaining for the preferences of others.
Whilst it is true that there is disillusionment with the major political parties - as evidenced by the fall in their support from 90% to around 80% or less in recent elections - Kernot's comments are odd coming from a shadow minister whose party is facing what looks like a landslide election victory in the next seven or eight months.

Not only does Kernot overlook the increased primary vote support for the ALP, but she gives credence to a simplistic view of politics as based around "celebrity".

She is correct when she says:

An analysis of the polls shows the Democrats have always done better with strong female media-savvy leaders. Those influential older males in the party who supported Stott despoja know this.

But Kernot overlooks another basic feature of Australian electoral history: that when the swing is on the minor parties get squeezed.

Peter Beattie proved this in Queensland in February. It was also shown in the federal election of 1993 when the Democrats national vote dropped by 7.50% to 3.75%. Admittedly, the party was then led by the hapless John Coulter (one of Stott Despoja's strongest backers), but the primary reason for the drop in support was the polarising campaign around the coalition's GST and Fightback! package.

Mark Latham, ALP Member for Werriwa The hoop-la surrounding the Stott Despoja leadership victory has also been challenged by the ALP backbencher, Mark Latham, the member for Werriwa, Gough Whitlam's old electorate.

Latham exiled himself to Labor's backbench after the 1998 election, following disagreements with Kim Beazley and Beazley's staff over the party's education policy. Latham has been a prolific polemicist since then, writing two books and numerous newspaper articles. He has been a critic of the ALP's approach to policy development.

Writing in the Financial Review on April 11, Latham said:

Natasha Stott Despoja may be the youngest person yet to lead an Australian political party. But when it comes to economic policy, she has very old ideas. Throughout her parliamentary career she has embraced old-fashioned notions of industry protection and government intervention. In terms of public policy, she is a child of McEwenism rather than the Information Age.

Stott Despoja is actually quite unrepresentative of the views and values of young Australians, the so-called Generation X. People under the age of 30 have only ever known economic openness. Their understanding of economic policy is based on the trade liberalisation and market deregulation of the Hawke and Keating years.

While these reforms have been unsettling for older age groups, they have delivered a new generation of skilled and stimulating work for younger Australians. In an era of new technological horizons and opportunities, the Xers, the best-educated group in our nation's history, have the world at their feet. Economic closure is abhorrent to their instincts and aspirations.

Stott Despoja, by contrast, has no experience with the knowledge economy. Her views were forged on the anvil of university politics, re-fighting the lost ideological battles of the 1960s. While Meg Lees tried to give the Democrats a sense of economic reality, Stott Despoja will take them back to the bottom of the garden, reliving the fairytale of fortress Australia.

In this policy environment, the Democrats are likely to recapture their core constituency of inner-city interest groups. They will once more become a boutique party, specialising in abstract left-wing issues.

Given her disconnection from the new economy, Stott Despoja is unlikely to attract a significant proportion of the youth vote. For such a young person, she practices a very old form of politics: appealing to niche interests and creating a coalition of sectional support.

This is, in fact, the type of politics that young Australians have grown to hate. While the new generation of entrepreneurs in the business and social sectors are working within open networks of information access and creativity, politics remains trapped within old systems of hierarchy and information control.

This is the sickness of representative democracy. Our best and brightest generation is also the most disengaged from the political system. The only way to regain its support and confidence is to give it more power.

Generation Xers have a far higher rate of connection and access to the internet than any other age group. This is an outstanding opportunity for the Federal Government to create a new kind of democratic dialogue.

All young Australians should be asked to submit their e-mail addresses and then participate in policy ballots online. Under a system of direct democracy, every youth policy issue before the Federal Cabinet would be accompanied by the views and involvement of young people.

The challenge for representative democracy is to let go of power and to allow an increasingly self-reliant electorate to make more of its own decisions. The new politics involves the by-passing of old hierarchies and centres of authority. It's not a matter of whether politicians are young or old, male or female; it's a question of whether they are willing to give power away.

As one of the leading centralists and power junkies of Australian politics, Stott Despoja is unlikely to lead this devolutionary movement. Young people see her as part of the Canberra establishment, more interested in celebrity politics than policy substance.

In my electorate in south-west Sydney, Stott Despoja is better known as a socialite than a socialist. She is more likely to appear in the social pages and at opening nights than in suburban shopping centres and public housing estates.

Unhappily, she has gone out of her way to cultivate this type of imagery. The Senator's parliamentary web page is linked to a site described as "The Ultimate Natasha". Its "Picture Gallery" carries the following introduction: "For those who haven't seen Natasha before, prepare your eyes to be dazzled by the beauty of the most attractive politician ever to grace the halls of Parliament House." Readers are then treated to a series of girlie photos and news about the NSD Fan Club.

Never before has Australian public life encountered egoism and self-promotion of this kind. An American wag once described politics as "show biz for ugly people". The new Democrats leader obviously sees it as show biz for beautiful people.

If this is the dream leader of Australian politics, then please, someone ring the alarm bell.

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