Today marked the end of an era in Australian politics. For the first time in 30 years, there will be no sitting Senators who are members of the Australian Democrats.
Formed in 1977 by Senator Don Chipp, the Democrats formed an effective third party in Federal Parliament. Their half-joking motto, ‘Keep the bastards honest’, summed up the attitude towards the two major parties. They have never regarded themselves as a single- or narrow-issue party; rather, they have always been committed to promoting a solid legislative agenda and using their third-party status to protect the rights and interests of Australian people.
There is no inner party room in the Democrats. All major decisions, including leadership, are conducted by postal ballot of all members. It is a true participatory democratic structure, committed to principles of egalitarianism and honesty.
The one I’m going to miss most is Senator Natasha Stott Despoja. Born and educated in Adelaide, she started her career in politics young, becoming State Women’s Officer for South Australia in the National Union of Students. She joined the Australian Democrats as a student, serving as an adviser for two leaders – Senators John Coulter and Cheryl Kernot.
In 1995 she was appointed to fill a casual Senate vacancy in South Australia, after the resignation of Senator Coulter. Re-elected in 1996, she held her seat comfortably from that time. She was deputy leader under Senator Meg Lees, and later became leader herself for a short period in 2001-2002. Her seat was finally lost to the Australian Labor Party in the 2007 election. Her Senate term expires at the end of June 2008.
Senator Stott Despoja has been an outspoken advocate for causes such as free and accessible education, responsible environmental and research guidelines, welfare for students and disadvantaged people, paid maternity leave for all Australian women and an Australian republic.
She both introduced and amended legislation on scholarships, textbook subsidies, genetic privacy and transparent advertising for pregnancy counselling services. Famously, she defied her own leader and voted against the introduction of a Goods and Services Tax in 1999, despite Senator Lees’ having brokered a deal for the Democrat vote with then Prime Minister John Howard in violation of the Democrats’ stated policy agenda.
She was famous for turning up to Parliament sitting days in Doc Marten boots. Outspoken and cheeky with the media, she was a constant favourite with them. There were no questions she wouldn’t answer.
Senator Stott Despoja was a consistent champion of ordinary Australians, true to her word and one of the few politicians I could confidently say always acted with integrity. Even her resignation as leader was conducted with grace – rather than a leadership vote, she said she preferred not to set the party against itself and risk undermining the Democrats’ strength in politics – rather, she would rather step aside in favour of another candidate.
While there are still Democrats in State politics, the loss of Senators will be keenly felt. The balance of power in Federal Parliament is now extremely precarious. The vote of one Senator could pass or block critical legislation. This Senator may well be Senator Steve Fielding of the Family First Party, whose opposition to same-sex unions, availability of pregnancy termination services and religious intolerance is infamous. Otherwise, it could be one of the Greens, or independent Senator Nick Xenophon, both of whom – despite a passionate commitment to some issues – still pursue a relatively narrow agenda.
This is reading something like a eulogy, I’m aware. I’d like to hope it isn’t the death of the Democrats in Australian Federal Politics, and next election, they will be revitalised and once again become an effective force – what Senator Stott Despoja called ‘third party insurance’ in her valedictory speech to the Senate. Stott Despoja herself hinted at a possible future comeback, but wasn’t committing herself to anything but a rejection of the two major parties. Nonetheless, the loss of the Democrats is a blow, both generally and for me personally.
Natasha, you will be missed. Don’t let this be the end of your political career – you are someone people can believe in.