The oddest thing to emerge from the Australian Democrats circus of the past few weeks or so is that Senator Natasha Stott Despoja was not such a bad leader after all. Certainly she had her faults. The South Australian wunderkind had a fatal attraction to television cameras of any kind. This, coupled with the media’s love affair with her photogenic qualities, made her easy prey to claims that she was more of a show pony than a serious politician.
And Stott Despoja’s thinking on social issues was land-locked in 1970s-style feminism – indeed she was more a retro-thinker than a true progressive. Democrats Senators also claim that, despite her ability to articulate in front of a microphone, she was a hopeless communicator and an autocratic leader.
Nevertheless, Stott Despoja’s consistency on issues such as the GST, relative common sense for a Democrat, and her dignified exit have made her look truly statesmanlike compared with her fractious colleagues.
Several firsts have been established in Australian politics by the Democrats recently, including having three leaders in one week and the creation of a new party status – that of being a party member “in exile”.
Supporters of Senator Meg Lees, who does not even have “in exile” status, made the absurd demand in their 10-point reform plan that Stott Despoja keep her informed of party room discussions despite Lees’ decision to walk from the party and sit in the Senate as an independent.
This and other demands on Stott Despoja, which even stretched the boundaries of Democrat-style “inclusiveness”, made her position intolerable.
All this despite the 70 per cent support of the Democrats membership. And everything coinciding beautifully with the 25th anniversary celebrations of the party founded by the 77-year-old Don Chipp, who incidentally, went under the surgeon’s scalpel the same week the party was haemorrhaging in Canberra.
For months, perhaps ever since she toppled Meg Lees 16 months ago, Stott Despoja’s enemies in the Senate have been undermining her leadership.
According to members of the “gang of four” who brought her down, the experiment with the young MP had never worked.
But again, in defence of Stott Despoja, the last election was a relatively respectable result with the loss of one Senator to the Greens in New South Wales.
Not an insignificant number of Democrats voters are small business people, and their antipathy for the GST and the BAS statement, would have resulted in carnage had Lees still been the leader.
But having finally got what they wanted – Stott Despoja’s resignation, all that has been achieved is chaos.
There have been as many as five aspirants to the throne including Senators Brian Greig and Andrew Bartlett who were sympathetic to Stott Despoja, and Senators John Cherry, Andrew Murray and Aden Ridgeway, who were not.
Lees would also still love the job, but is enough of a realist to accept that this is now impossible.
This means that there must be serious question marks about Victorian Senator Lyn Allison – she is the only Democrat who doesn’t appear to have a field marshall’s baton in her knapsack!
At the time of publication it was likely that Greig and Bartlett would emerge as the leadership contenders.
Bartlett, though a Stott Despoja ally, was someone who the gang of four (Ridgeway, Allison, Murray and Cherry) could live with. But the party is tearing itself apart on two levels.
Superficially there is the usual personality conflicts and disputes over policy in a small party, which is magnified in the public arena by Democrat infighting.
But overlaying that is a deeper rift between the parliamentary wing and the organisational wing which has traditionally had fundamental control over policy and leadership.
Until this central problem is resolved – who exactly runs the party – any leadership change is going to be superficial. While media attention has been focussed on the leadership shennanigins, curiously there has been little analysis of how the Democrats problems will impact electorally.
What so far has been assumed is that disillusioned Democrats voters will simply switch to the Greens who are already counting the extra seats they expect to pick up at the next election.
There are several reasons why this will not necessarily be the case. Firstly, while a complete split is quite possible, the Democrats are just as likely to survive in some form.
Despite the current difficulties as the next election approaches self-interest will demand that the Senators unite behind whichever leader emerges from the pack.
Secondly, pundits seem to forget that the Australian Democrats party is the illegitimate child of the Liberal Party. Although it leans to the left, its supporters comprise of an ageing middle class.
To be a Democrat, in Don Chipp’s words, is to follow a party whose ideals are “honesty, tolerance and compassion”.
In other words they have no real philosophy, but are simply morally superior to the other craven politicians.
And despite their occasional barmy ideas, it is about “feel good” ideas and markedly different to the hard-line zealotry of the Greens.
In short, the major political parties, particularly the Liberal Party, are just as likely to be the beneficiaries of any fallout from the Democrats’ problems as the Greens.