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Meg Lees’ Letter To Democrats National President

This is the text of a letter from Senator Meg Lees, former leader of the Australian Democrats, to the National President of the party, Liz Oss-Emer.

It is in response to a demand that she appear before the National Executive. The letter was first published on

Ms Liz Oss-Emer
National President
Australian Democrats

Dear Liz

First, let me formally congratulate you on your election as National President and I wish you well. There is much to be done because National Executive is critical to the development and expansion of our party.

In response to your letter of the 10th June 2002, thank you for inviting me to attend National Executive. However, I cannot as I have several long-standing engagements. I therefore accept your invitation to respond in writing and ask that you table the material I have provided for all members of National Executive.

I also have concerns about this “Telstra Sale” episode, not least of which are the motions passed by the NMC at its June 5 meeting. The second motion, in effect, finds me guilty, without trial, of breaches of Australian Democrat policy and of disunity. I strongly reject both suggestions.

Your letter alleges (and I quote): “As you’re aware, your public comments regarding the Democrats’ position on the further sale of Telstra…seem to have contravened policy.” No I am not aware. What public (or even private) comments do you have to justify this allegation? How have I contravened policy?

I will again quote from your second paragraph: “As you’re aware, your public comments regarding the Democrats’ position on the further sale of Telstra .. are widely perceived to be an indication that you are not fully supportive of the leadership of the Party.” No, I am not aware. As a result of the “Telstra Sale” episode, you assert this is widely perceived?! By whom? What possible connection is there between any of my public comments on Telstra and the leadership of the Party?

I understand the real and justified fears that National Executive has about the prospects for the Australian Democrats at the next NSW State election and the next Federal election.

While I do question National Executive’s approach to this issue you have gone to the heart of the trouble confronting the Parliamentary division. It is courageous and to many of us, long overdue. Personally, I am pleased that we have a new President with the courage to probe such issues.

Your letter really raises these questions:

  • Are the Leader’s management and judgement sound?
  • How well do the Leader’s office and the Senators coordinate media lines?
  • How does the Parliamentary Party ensure their cross-portfolio efforts interact smoothly?

This goes directly to the heart of the Leader’s managerial ability and capacity to recruit, manage and retain appropriate staff. Coordination of lines is a primary function of the Leader’s Office. If a story blows up that is important to us, Leader’s staff should immediately get in touch with all senators and media advisers to ensure that lines are developed, agreed to, and co-ordinated. This was practice under former leaders. Unilateralism and autocratic behaviour in dealing with issues will bring the parliamentary division undone.

For example, if I had been warned that the “Telstra Sale” issue was running and had other Senators and media advisers been consulted in the development of lines, the parliamentary division would have had a co-ordinated response. Had we been consulted, I would have argued very strongly for my course of action; that is, try to stop Bob Brown running off again presenting himself as the only person in Parliament who is prepared to make significant commitments to the environment and to make it clear we could not sell as the “public benefit” test could not be met.

Sadly, we have let the Greens get the jump on us time and time again. The situation is so bad that they are outpolling us in Newspoll on a regular basis in all States but SA. Here in SA, according to the latest Advertiser poll, the Greens are ‘level pegging’ at Federal level. Given Green ability to negotiate “micro party” preferences and the fact we have lost most of our “senate bonus” of 3-4% (in particular we have lost our “Liberal Leaning” Senate voters) even the SA Senate seat is not safe.

Prior to your letter, I have not been able to discuss my concerns regarding administration, strategy and management in any forum outside the Party Room. I have always understood that such a discussion would not be in the best interests of the Party if they became public.

You should know that Senators have tried to raise concerns or discuss key problems in the Party Room. These issues include the availability of staff, nominally employed on the leader’s staff, but previously available to work with other Senators. Generally, our concerns are either ignored and/or we are accused of disloyalty to the current Leader.

This failure to manage issues or deal with significant problems has plagued the parliamentary division for more than a year. The Campaign Director’s Report attempted to address the very real management problems and lack of skill and experience identified during the election.

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.

The surging Greens is one of the more disturbing results of this situation.

Media coverage of the Australian Democrats has often been non-existent or poor or dismissive. There are many reports from the Press Gallery saying we have lost traction and credibility there. Media coverage of key issues since the election, with the exception of current coverage of the Federal Budget response, will bear this out. We hold the balance of power in the Senate but we are often not in the story.

After the leadership change, most of the then Leader’s key staff were lost, got rid of or forced out. Poor personnel management left the Leader’s Office without experienced, talented people to help and advise the Leader during the election. New, key staff had to try to learn their new roles, learn corporate history and come to terms with a whole new environment in the most difficult of climates – an election year. One fell swoop wiped out most of the Australian Democrats’ staff experience, talent and knowledge base.

Compounding this loss was the fact that Senators’ advice was also ignored. John Cherry, a former senior strategist on my staff, who had declared his loyalty to the new leader, was not listened to.

In the Party Room, Senators voiced their concerns – in particular, advising the Leader to speak out on the Tampa issue and asylum seekers generally. We all agreed this would be done, but it was not. Bob Brown surged off to take this issue as his.

In the Leader’s Office, there is an autocratic, unilateral style. I am sure the election Campaign Director can give further clear insights to this. I was largely excluded from the last Federal Election campaign, along with virtually anyone who had ever worked with me. I got the impression the National Campaign Manager was far too often excluded.

In any election campaign the Leader must be a key player and has a significant role in campaign strategy, so I accept my exclusion, however, to be excluded and ignored and then accused subsequently of not co-operating with the Leader and being responsible for the party’s poor electoral performance (“It was all the GST”) is both unacceptable and untrue.

I am not going to re-run the GST debate here except to say three things. Firstly the decision by the majority of Senators, and the two Senators elect, was in line with Party Policy. Secondly, it was in the best interests of Australia, and in particular those on low incomes and our environment. Finally, further details can be found in the supplementary paper “the New Tax System and the GST”.

I have held my thoughts to myself until now. I have consistently and openly supported the new Leader. However, you have now asked me for my opinion regarding our Leader’s abilities. I have worked too long and too hard for this party over many years to take any pleasure at all from telling you this. Basically I am fed up with the ongoing attacks on me, I deliberately avoided media and kept a low profile for 12 months – both inside and outside the party. I did not criticise or in any way openly disagree with anything the new Leader did unless attacked, but the undermining of me and several other Senators goes on and on and ultimately it is the Party that is going to suffer.

With apologies again for not being able to attend.

Yours sincerely

Meg Lees, Democrat Senator for SA

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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