Crikey’s Democrat watcher and balance of power expert, Barney Balance, reckons Natasha was never the right solution for the Democrats.

Be it fair or not, the previous two leaders, Kernot and Lees, had one thing in common; they both saw Stott Despoja as a manipulative interloper who had no place in the Party’s leadership. Ironically, both in leaving the Democrats, collectively destroyed Stott Despoja. Kernot was impregnable as leader and Lees in style and manner was vulnerable to the nubile upstart from Lees home town. Lees replacement of Kernot was ultimately Stott Despoja’s destruction.

Neither Kernot or Lees wanted Stott Despoja in the parliamentary party from day one. Presumably so as not to be painted as vindictive and sour, Kernot was remarkably restrained in what she said of Stott Despoja in her recent autobiography. Kernot believed from the outset that Stott Despoja had used very sharp practices to obtain her South Australian preselection and both she and Lees were dismayed to see Stott Despoja win the preselection and then the South Australian Senate position.

While recent events leave the public with the impression that Stott Despoja had first stalked Lees and then struck her down when most vulnerable, the popular media has been reticent or incompetent in their reporting of the rough ride Stott Despoja received from Lees during Lees period as Leader.

Not only did Lees gag the Democrats’ Party room during the goods and services tax debate, she went out of her way to humiliate Stott Despoja. In spite of the fact that Stott Despoja was opposed in principle to the application of a goods and services tax, as spokeswoman for education she asked as a last bid crumb, that books be exempt.

So as to totally humiliate and crush her, Lees refused this insignificant but symbolic gesture.

As is invariably the case with small political parties, however altruistic may be the intentions of the members, the game is soon reduced to that of personality politics, with personal alliances dominating decision making.

That being said, the two members of the Democrats primarily driven by policy principles rather than quirky impetuous and poorly considered policies, are Lees and Murray; the more so in the case of Murray. Lees was more concerned to play the Democrats into the game by negotiation and concession whereas Murray is more inclined to seek to achieve his own policy agenda. Lees and Murray are similar in age, temperament and political outlook.

Murray has never particularly liked Stott Despoja nor ever felt comfortable with her as either a colleague or his leader. His private view of Stott Despoja as leader became increasingly black during the 2001 campaign when he believed that Stott Despoja had in particular, made a mess of the border protection issue.

Murray understood immediately at the commencement of the campaign, the implications of the Tampa affair on the Democrats vote and his own political future in particular. It was an issue felt more intensely in Western Australia than any other State, primarily because of geographic circumstances and because of the conservative nature of many Western Australian voters on such issues. Murray also had a private constituency of South African and Zimbabwe expatriates who had immigrated to Western Australia and who overwhelmingly supported Howard’s position on border protection.

Murray realised that it was quite impossible for the Democrats to draw votes from the Greens on the issue and to attempt to do so left the Democrats in a cleft stick. The Greens had so completely embraced the issue in opposition to the government’s border protection policy, that the Greens had become the official opposition.

This left the Democrats with no credible position on the issue which would favourably contrast with that of the Greens. In many respects, the Democrats were left by Stott Despoja in a conundrum not a great deal different to that of the Labor Party. The Democrats position was a pale imitation of that of the Greens, however they had left the more conservative position to the Liberal Party.

Equally, to have more strongly opposed the government’s position on the Tampa and border protection generally would in all likelihood have not drawn votes from the Greens while prejudicing Democrat voters who took a conservative view on border protection.

Most people simply did not understand where the Democrats stood on border protection because of their muted message. With their leader flaunting her midriff in a bikini on the shores of Australia, more concerned with image than immigrants, they were unlikely to be immediately enlightened.

Murray very wisely avoided the issue in his own electorate of Western Australia, making no significant statements on the subject. Murray also saw that which was so apparent to the rest of the community. The climate of the 2001 election with both the Tampa affair and more particularly the World Trade Center disaster, placed a pall upon the electorate which searched immediately for safety and security. It was an election made for Lees and one for which Stott Despoja could not have been more inappropriate.

To put it in the vernacular, it was a campaign for the bulldog and not the poodle.

These events only compounded Murray’s view of Stott Despoja as a politician and as a leader. Murray by his own admission is economically conservative and socially progressive. As a leader he had never wanted Stott Despoja, had never agreed with her and never respected her. The contrast in temperament, age, social and economic values and background, promised an impossible close working relationship. Until and including polling day, Murray was very pessimistic about his prospects of retaining his Western Australian seat.

Murray’s concerns about Stott Despoja’s campaigning skills were reinforced during the election in other respects. Other than giving all the appearances of a giddy adolescent, Stott Despoja could not even explain how or why the Democrats had “done” a preference swap with the Labor Party. In fact in disbelief, Australian voters were told it were not so.

When Lees resigned, Stott Despoja was politically dead. Murray was never going to stand by and see his soul mate in Lees, at first pushed to the edge of the boat, then jump over the railing, without him extracting his revenge. Murray knew that losing Lees was near fatal for Stott Despoja and if he followed Lees, Stott Despoja may yet just survive. That was not his intention.

Murray choose a simple yet wise course. He would not resign from the Democrats in sympathy or in outrage at the treatment of Lees. Stott Despoja could not survive his mayhem if he chose to stay and sway. He chose the latter course. Stott Despoja could not afford to lose Murray yet she was powerless to control his irascible behaviour as a member of the Party. Murray was never going to resign. He was going to destroy Stott Despoja.

A further element in the warfare which is not so apparent in the major parties but yet which lurks at various levels within the sewers of domestic internecine conflict, is that of the role of the staff. The staff of the Democrats leadership has always had an unnatural and inordinate influence. Kernot used her staff to her personal advantage within the party. Lees did the same and Stott Despoja followed suit.

It is in a sense perverse that Senator Cherry was an architect of the resolutions about such matters which brought down Stott Despoja. Both he and Stott Despoja have been influential staff members in their previous incarnations and both influenced policy and the politics of the organisation, well beyond that which would be acceptable in any other political party.

Stott Despoja again showed her immaturity and lack of political guile by allowing her staff to participate overtly and apparently, unfettered, not only in policy formation but more particularly in the internal political conflicts which were raging between the individual Senators, their offices and the organisational wing.

Ironically, it was naivete51 and inexperience which cost Stott Despoja her leadership. Lees while superficially giving the appearance of remaining a loyal member of the team had been fuming since the day the “dolly bird” rolled her. Having remarried and settled into a more relaxed roll in the Senate, Lees attitude towards her leader began to change.

While still firm in her politics, she no longer felt her previous unswerving loyal obligation to the Democrats. It may be fair to say that she had been to some degree, infected by Prime Minister Howard’s earlier claim to a more relaxed and comfortable Australia. Lees no longer had the passion for the Democrats.

Meg Lees demonstrated an inclination to venture into policy areas which were not in complete keeping with those of the Democrats and she deliberately flirted with notions which could be seen as undermining Stott Despoja. Lees flirtation with the idea of having a position on how the proceeds of Telstra should be applied in the event the complete privatisation was to come to pass, was one such morsel of bait.

A more experienced and mature Leader would have seen Lees titillation for what it was and let it flow past as political flotsam. Stott Despoja should have realised that as long as both Lees and she were in the party, each would have to tolerate the other, or at the very least, until one self immolated. A more mature Stott Despoja would have publicly put such soliloquisng by Lees down to the inclinations of a previous leader, yet to come to terms with her new circumstances. In other words, Lees should have been ignored or condescendingly patronised.

Stott Despoja foolishly failing to realise that she was attempting to bag an elephant without an elephant gun, incited the Democrat organisation into commencing disciplinary action against Lees. From that point, Stott Despoja’s troubles were terminal. Lees was never going to accept disciplinary treatment from Stott Despoja and she had no intention of retreating. Eventually one was going to have to go. Whatever Stott Despoja thought Murray would do in the circumstances, is imponderable. Presumably she had not considered the matter.

If there was any reluctance by Murray to further damage his own party in his quest to settle the score, it quickly evaporated when he witnessed what he saw as the manner in which Stott Despoja gloated at the apparent demise of Lees. Critically, Stott Despoja had not realised that to lose Lees was going to be fatal to her own future leadership.

The truth of the matter is, Stott Despoja was not experienced, mature or wise enough to lead a party which by its nature is made up of people with views which extend from the eccentric to the absurd. It is the very party that requires a mature leader with remarkably good people skills.

Be that as it may, Murray knew of the very considerable disquiet within the parliamentary party even amongst those who had outwardly supported Stott Despoja and the motions which confronted Stott Despoja were never intended to be carried. They were in effect a litany of motions of no confidence in Stott Despoja. The result was inevitable.

Peter Fray

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