Senator Natasha Stott Despoja has been elected as the new leader of the Australian Democrats.
The 31-year-old Senator becomes the youngest person ever to lead a major political grouping in Australia.
Stott Despoja defeated Senator Meg Lees who has led the party since 1997, after the former leader, Cheryl Kernot, defected to the Labor Party.
Senator Aden Ridgeway has been elected as the new deputy leader.
In a ballot of Australian Democrats’ members, Stott Despoja polled a majority of the vote. The Australian Democrats is unique because it allows ordinary party members to elect the parliamentary leadership. Approximately 3000 members of the party were eligible to vote. It is believed that about 2500 members cast a vote.
Senator Stott Despoja becomes the seventh person to lead the Australian Democrats since its formation in 1977. She is the fourth leader from South Australia.
The new leader first entered the Senate when she was chosen by the Parliament of South Australia on November 29, 1995 to replace the retiring Senator John Coulter, himself a former leader of the party. At 26, she was the youngest woman ever chosen to sit in the Senate.
Under Section 15 of the Constitution, casual vacancies in the Senate are filled by the relevant State parliament. A constitutional amendment carried in a referendum in 1977 ensures that a member of the same political party as the departed senator is appointed for the remainder of the term.
Stott Despoja was subsequently elected to the Senate in the 1996 election. She faces re-election in this year’s general election.
The election of Stott Despoja can be directly attributed to the deal Senator Lees negotiated with the government in May 1999 over the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax. Stott Despoja voted against the deal.
Since then, it has been argued by supporters of a leadership change that the party has been damaged by the perception that it is too close to the Howard government and too quick to compromise on legislation.