The Walkley Awards are coming up on November 28 and this is the entry that Crikey has submitted in the online category.
In June 2002, Crikey.com.au received three leaked items from the Australian Democrats a letter from the National Executive to Senator Meg Lees demanding an explanation to her comments on a possible sale of the remainder of Telstra, her unapologetic response plus a document (presumably produced in her office) offering a scathing critique of the party’s parliamentary performance.
They sparked off a dramatic chain of events that is still to fully unfold. Since they were published, Lees has left the party, leader Natasha Stott-Despoja has resigned, a leadership ballot has been launched and the possibility of a dramatic split with a majority of Senators leaving the party still looms.
This series of events was sparked by the original Crikey item and three subsequent pieces based on information received. These showed how the original draft of Lees’ letter may well have been produced by her fellow Senator and dissident Andrew Murray; that rather than acting as a peacemaker and rather than confronting Lees direct Stott-Despoja demanded that the Democrat National Executive act against her and then how, at her request, a similar message was given to rank and file party members through an online Democrat discussion site.
Exclusive: Mystic Meg unloads on Natasha
First published Sunday, June 23, 2002
By Hillary Bray
Crikey’s National Affairs Correspondent (ahem)
More Democrat documents have fallen of the back of the solar-powered bicycle and found there way into Hillary’s grubby hands
Poor old Mystic Meg Lees. First she gets dumped as leader then 12 months later she finds the inquisition’s on her tail and that she’s accused of heresy.
Readers will recall until his national exec made the interesting decision that they were more committed to ideology than the environment, Greens leader Bob Brown suggested that the complete sale of Telstra should go ahead if the proceeds were spent on environmental time bombs such as salinity.
Mystic Meg who, as an Adelaide resident, probably wants to have a water supply in 20 years agreed.
Crikey readers might not be aware that Albania ended its state monopoly on telecommunications in 1995 and that Fidel privatised 49 per cent of his socialist paradise’s telco carrier eight years ago this month. Labor, the Dems and the Greens are even more backward. Not only are they refusing to free up capital that could be invested in some of their pet causes they are also insisting that the taxpayer carry this majority of risk in one of the most competitive industry sectors.
Mystic Meg got a horrified reaction from the Dem national executive as the minutes show:
Click Here To See Full Size
Which prompted them to send this letter:
Click Here To See Full Size
And here’s the text of her response:
June 20th 2002
Ms Liz Oss-Emer
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 Telstraseem 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 Telstraare 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.
Meg Lees, Democrat Senator for SA
Ouch! All three documents have received a broad and swift circulation from dissident Dems, along with this note:
“Senate Sitting June 17 – 20th of June.
“In the interests of letting people know what went on behind the scenes recently, and in the lead up to this weekend’s National Executive, I thought I would attach three items and give you some background.
“The story revolves around Vicki leaving, and Natasha wanting Andrew Bartlett to get the Whip’s job. Meg was approached a couple of months ago by colleagues and asked to stand, and Natasha (plus Andrew B) discovered this.
“The knives came out and attacks built up. The only point of conflict possible to drag Meg through the hoops on was the fact she answered questions on Telstra in an interview that was supposed to be on the PBS (see letter for further detail). But they were not able to rally the troops, and our office only had 2 e-mails and 4 phone calls on this – curiously some happened to mention the whip’s position and how unsuitable Meg would be.
“But Meg didn’t stand in the Party Room ballot yesterday morning. Lyn Allison did and won the whip’s position! So now the knives are out for Lyn.
“Natasha stripped her of the Environment portfolio yesterday afternoon and also stripped her of the environment Committee Chair – without any Party Room discussion, giving them both to Andrew Bartlett. (Lyn was to assume responsibility for the environment portfolio on July 1, as part of our strategy to counter Bob Brown, who seems to have claimed the environment for himself alone in recent months.)
“Meanwhile, the National Management Committee has been organising for Meg to appear before National Executive – see attached the various documents that are involved.
“Your comments on all this are most welcome. Meg has been under more siege than ever this past few weeks. A health article on the PBS appeared in “The Australian” (under Natasha’s name but written by the new health researcher) without Meg ever seeing it. The new health researcher is told to ignore Meg and work in Natasha’s office. Material to Branches, and letters, on health, has been going out without Meg ever seeing them…
“At a time when the Greens are outpolling us in all states beside SA and in SA it is 5 all – we can do without all this.
“Where to now?”
It looks as if the Dems’ thought police will need to work overtime.
Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]
Did Meg Lees have a helper?
Published June 25, 2002
by Hillary Bray
National Affairs Correspondent (ahem)
Natasha and Mystic Meg are publicly at each other’s throats again now that this fascinating exchange of correspondence has been made public through Crikey and then ventilated widely through the national media. But did Mystic Meg have a helper?
Our yarn on Mystic Meg’s letter to the Democrat national exec has become big, big news and re-opened all the party’s internal rows but was it all her own work? There is a tantalising clue that another Senator could have been involved but first, some background.
Crikey has always put the blowtorch to Natasha Stott-Despoja with no apologies. We assert that before she became the Democrat’s leader she was not subjected to the same level of scrutiny as other equally prominent political figures and that she actively avoided scrutiny under the guise of avoiding “old” media.
We have been constantly mystified by the peculiar, thin-skinned attitude she has adopted towards coverage no different from that received by other parliamentarians. Stott-Despoja seems to take it as victimisation and personal criticism and then fall back on her mother and a dwindling band of faithful followers ready to bang out letters to the editor. We believe this behaviour has scared journalists off and further diminished scrutiny of her suitability and stamina for the job.
This, combined with Crikey’s unique status as the “outside” insiders of Australian politics and media, made us a natural destination for leaks during last year’s Democrat leadership spill and they have kept coming in ever since as the party has seen its vote continue to collapse and a Senate spot fall to the Greens.
Democrat material comes into Crikey from a wide range of sources. It’s not unusual to receive multiple copies from several different people and that’s what happened here.
There are four documents involved the letter from the Democrat national executive to Meg Lees, the response, the national executive minutes and the item headed “Senate Sitting June 17-20th of June”.
The national exec letter and minutes are both JPEGs, presumably scanned from originals in Lee’s office. The “Senate Sitting” item is part of a forwarded e-mail message. Meg Lees’ letter is a Microsoft Word file and the most interesting document of them all.
Circulating Word documents isn’t the wisest thing for anyone who wants to remain anonymous. Why? Because of the “Properties” command. All anyone using Windows needs to do is go to the “File” menu and click on “Properties” and a whole lot of fascinating material is revealed.
The Word document containing Meg Lees’ response is called “NEreply”. Properties tells us that it was produced using Microsoft Word 9.0 licensed to the Parliament of Australia the standard version of Word available to MPs” offices on 21 June of this year and last saved and printed on that same date.
The “Author” of the item, thought, is given as “MURRAY”. Does that refer to Senator Andrew Murray? We just don’t have enough information to say but here’s how the Author function works: If Hillary Bray writes an item using a copy of Word licensed to Hillary Bray as, say “BRAY”, and e-mails it to the Mayne Man who opens it and has a play before saving it to his hard drive using his copy of Word, the Properties function will show “Author: Bray” and “Last saved by: Stephen Mayne”.
The Properties function for NEreply shows that Crikey has received “Revision number: 4”, “Last saved by: daviesp”. Meg Lees has a staffer called Peter Davies.
We can safely mention Davies and Murray in this context as neither was the source of the material so we are definitely not blowing the cover of an anonymous contributor. We are as mystified as anyone as to who helped Mystic Meg craft this material and we might just have some early clues.
There are no useful details available under Properties for the two JPEG files but we already have a timebomb here: Was a second Senator involved in the preparation of the letter from Meg Lees that has sparked this row, “NEreply”?
Andrew Murray is no supporter of Natasha Stott-Despoja. He represents a whole different stream of Democrat thought.
Party insiders are telling us tonight that the national executive is inclined towards expelling the one-time leader. If Murray is also involved, will they expel him too?
The party has split before sitting Senators were purged just in time for the 1987 election and another former leader, Jeanette Powell, resigned under sensational circumstances in the early nineties and is now an active campaigner for the Greens.
Stand by for an even more spectacular show.
Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]
Telstra bombshell: just how involved was Natasha
Crikey sealed section July 16, 2002
Hillary Bray writes:
Crikey has obtained a copy of what purports to be an e-mail Natasha Stott Despoja sent to members of the Australian Democrats national executive on Meg Lees’ response to Bob Brown’s comments on Telstra on May 30.
The Meg Lees’ letter THAT letter was written in response to the “please explain” the Dems executive shot off in her direction. All the Democrat Senators now seem to feel that the national executive overreacted when it sent its bombshell out let alone when Lees’ response was made public.
If this e-mail is accurate, then it suggests they weren’t the only ones. It means that Stott-Despoja overreacted, too and while not directly telling the executive to get Lees, certainly steered them off in that direction. Judge for yourself:
“Dear National Executive —
“I have seen some of the NE comments regarding Telstra and I make the following assessment:
“This morning was our best chance since the election — I believe — to demonstrate our strength; our commitment to maintaining our election promises; and, our unwillingness to cross trade (particularly on the environment or issues relating to social and public infrastructure).
“The Gallery was openly sceptical about Bob Brown’s comments and quite scathing in some interviews and reports about his motives and timing.
“My press conference today was well received and journalists openly and perhaps a little contritely suggested we were clearly the solid ones on this issue while Bob Brown — who went through the campaign suggesting it would be the Democrats who would fold on Telstra while he pledged to “NEVER EVER” sell telstra — was after a headline and prepared to put a For Sale sign on public assets.
“All that changed by the time I boarded an aeroplane this afternoon. I heard Fran Kelly on Richard Glover discussing the issue of Telstra but then proclaiming the real news was not Bob Brown but that Meg Lees was at odds with the Leader of the Democrats on this issue and that the Dems were divided etc etc.
“Yes, one person’s comments managed to change a good news story for us into a negative.
“But believing this was a mis quote — hey, I was on a plane surrounded by Liberal politicians after the Gorton memorial (but that’s another story!)
“I tried spinning that it must be wrong/out of context etc. Having heard the news on the hour I know there was no misquote nor any misrepresentation. I heard the comments verbatim.
“As far I am concerned, all Senators signed pledges on this issue at the campaign. Our position is clear. It is non negotiable. The Democrat position is that Telstra is NOT FOR SALE. Any different positions are not Democrat positions.
“Today has hurt us. We were all set to capitalise on Bob’s back flip.
“One person changed that.
“We can not afford for this to happen again.
“We are going up in the polls. Our budget performance has been strong.
“Division and disunity must be a thing of the past.
“I hope Nat Exec recognises our obligations to the membership and the electorate.
“We promised NOT TO SELL TELSTRA.
“I hope NE will reinforce this position.”
The final exclusive leak – how Natasha fired up the members
Sealed section July 25 2002
Hillary Bray writes:
Last week Crikey revealed how THAT letter from the Democrat National Executive that lead to THAT letter from Meg Lees was sparked off by an angry e-mail from Natasha Stott Despoja on May 31, the day Lees made her Telstra comments, sicking the Exec onto the former leader.
We all know the size of the conflagration that resulted. It’s still burning brightly.
Now, Crikey has learned that Tash splashed more petrol round – just in case. A version of the e-mail was also posted on the ADnet two days later, on June 2.
Once again, it demonstrates that Stott Despoja has not just been an innocent bystander in the events of the past few weeks.
The ADnet is not an official party listing, but anyone who is a member of the party is invited to participate. Democrat insiders say it is the online hangout of the Natasha fan club.
That makes it even more significant that Stott Despoja sent the e-mail to the group – given that she and her office would have been well aware that the listees are some of the key agitators in the party against Meg Lees.
Here’s the message that was posted as Natasha poured on the petrol:
“2 Jun 2002 04:23:11 -0000 To: ‘AusDemocrats’
“I am posting this at the request of Jo Pride from Natasha’s office:
“The Democrats oppose the privatisation of Telstra for well-founded economic, strategic and social reasons. Our strong stance is enshrined in the pledge, personally signed by all Democrats’ Senators during the 2001 Federal Election. Information and communications technology will be critical in shaping and defining Australia well into the foreseeable future.
“This means Telstra is a very significant strategic asset that is not comparable to a standard commercial enterprise. Selling off Telstra means the loss of billions of dollars in dividends. This will result in either future tax increases or, more likely, further cuts to health, community services, and employment schemes. Thus, full privatisation of Telstra has very serious social equity implications. Lindsay Tanner’s various proposals to break up Telstra will not ensure ongoing investment in information and communications technologies.
“Unfortunately, it seems the Opposition shares the same lack of strategic foresight as the Government, as now, do the Greens. Until today, Senator Brown has staunchly opposed privatisation of Telstra. He has passionately argued that selling Telstra is ‘a very dangerous move on financial and democratic grounds to be giving up this great Australian institution and placing it in the hands of the Stock Exchange’. He has stated ‘It is an enormous loss to public ownership and public control of a wonderful and basic utility which give benefit to the lives of every Australian. This move will see the losses going on for decade and lifetimes’.
“I agree. However, this opportunistic and nave back flip, ransoms the hopes of the environment movement and most Australians on the sale of Telstra. This is an inappropriate sell-out with no sense of proportion or social equity. Today, we attempted to capitalise on his backflip and were going strong. That changed as a consequence of Meg’s comments.
“Today has hurt us. We were all set to capitalise on Bob’s back flip. All Senators signed pledges on this issue at the campaign. Our position is clear. It is non-negotiable. The Democrat position is that Telstra is NOT FOR SALE. Any different positions are not Democrat positions.
The message was posted by one Collin Mullane, with an address at wa.democrats.org.au. Bet he and his fellow Sandgroper Andrew Murray are just great mates.
Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]