Amid all the bile and abuse that constitutes the Democrats spat, here is a reasonably level-headed assessment of the current leadership ballot between Senators Andrew Bartlett and Brian Greig.
Andrew Bartlett is a rather plain parliamentary performer, strong on all the standard fairies at the bottom of the garden stuff. His party record is long and impressive (for a democrat), he has held many positions including National Campaign director for the reasonably successful 1998 election. He was once editor of the national journal, and was also a long time staffer for Cheryl Kernot, whose Senate vacancy he filled after her defection in 1997. His extensive and long party experience is one of the key themes for his election bid. He has also been the most active Democrat in the Senate, making more speeches and asking more questions than any other Democrat Senator over the last few years. Several members have submitted questions to Andrew Bartlett regarding his obsession with the colour purple, he is almost never seen without a purple shirt or tie, and a recent email delivered to party members was themed all in purple, as is his personal website: AndrewBartlett.com. No answers have been forthcoming. Perhaps he believes purple gives him strange sexual powers? More likely it has something to do with his former bizarre goth lifestyle, of which disturbing rumours frequently surface.
Until recently Brian Greig was about as well known in the Democrats as he was amongst the wider public. His portfolio responsibilities have not seen him have much opportunity to enter the spotlight. His involvement in the party prior to being elected Senator is practically non-existent, and how he actually managed to get pre-selected is a question most people within the party have difficulty answering. Most of what little fame he had was due to his status as being openly gay, and his long fight for equal gay rights in areas such as superannuation. His reputation amongst the gay community as an activist is very good, his campaign last year asking supporters of equal age of consent for gay couples in WA to send envelopes stuffed full of toilet paper to the reply paid PO box address of a right wing “pro-family” group is legendary. The group got stuck with an enormous bill which they could not afford, landing them in trouble with Australia Post. Most political watchers have been impressed with his very capable media skills and quick wit. He has been going to great lengths to try and avoid being pigeon-holed as a one issue politician, with his supporters recently distributing Hansard evidence to the members of his record on areas unrelated to gay rights.
The campaign so far has been a relatively low-key affair, the main method of self promotion for the candidates has been through “meet the candidates” meetings attended by members in each state division. These have been reasonably well attended, with short speeches and a series of questions put to the candidates by the members. There has not really been a “winner” from these evenings, both candidates just repeat their strengths, and refuse to attack each other directly. Quite boring really.
One interesting feature of the meetings is that members from all states report that almost no known Gang of Four supporting members have been in attendance. It is rumoured that known supporters of the G4 senators have been contacted by staff members of the senators and told to boycott the entire ballot. Although it is no secret that the G4 would prefer Andrew Bartlett to Brian Greig, they have apparently decided not to vote for him. Their logic is that if there is a low voter turn out, then the new leader will lack legitimacy. Voter turnout for leadership ballots is generally less than fifty percent anyway, so it will be interesting to see how many people vote. With the similarity of the two candidates, and the G4 boycott, the new leader could be the recipient of a record low number of votes. I doubt it would take long for the G4 to spread the word to the press gallery.
In Democrats leadership battles, one of the most important determining factors is which state the candidates are from. By far the two largest branches are South Australia and New South Wales, giving candidates from those states an enormous advantage. Andrew Bartlett gives this as an excuse for why he lost the deputy leadership to Aden Ridgeway last year. Although there are no candidates from the two super branches, Bartlett’s home branch of Queensland is far bigger and far more united behind him than Brian Greig’s branch of Western Australia. The Western Australian branch has been an absolute mess for more than a decade, reliable estimates put the number of members at less than 200. Less than 60 people actually vote in most ballots. And of those 60 people who vote, judging by the make up of the state executive and the recent pre-selection of Andrew Murray, most of them are not going to be voting, and even if they do vote it certainly will not be for Brian. There is no sense of comradery in the WA branch, it has been open civil war for the past 6 months. Bartlett on the other hand is very popular in Queensland, having held numerous positions in the branch including state president.
If we leave the “Gang of four” supporters out of the equation and assume they will not be voting for either candidate, then we must try to get inside the head of the average Natasha supporter to determine who will win the ballot. If we look at all the issues that Britney fans love: gay rights, environmentalism, support of Britney, anti-war, pro-refugee, anti-economic progress, aboriginal rights, free education. Both candidates have similar positions on basically all the issues. Except one – a little remembered fact is that Brian Greig supported the GST. Most Britney fans still get a little misty eyed when they remember the heroic campaign staged by Britney and Andrew Bartlett (not many remember that he was with her – she does like all the attention for herself) against Meg Lees and the GST deal. Although these days Britney fans think Brian Greig is “one of the good ones”, back then they spoke about him in the same breath as Andrew Murray and Meg Lees herself. When questioned about his GST support, Brian has claimed that he was a very new and naive Senator (he only took up his seat in July 1999) and thus would not have felt comfortable going against the leader at that stage. Perhaps members will accept his excuse, but in a contest when there is little separating the two ideologically, it could make all the difference. People outside the party need to understand that even 3 years on, the GST is till a huge issue inside the Democrats.
Although many political pundits believe this leadership contest to be close, my years of Democrats experience has led me to predict that Andrew Bartlett will win the ballot, and win it comfortably. His greater experience in both the party and the parliament, as well as his solid Queensland support base, and cleanskin record on the GST will see him preferred by both hardcore Britney fans and the more moderate ones. His endorsement as the Gang of four’s preferred “healing candidate” should help him, those viewing an endorsement from the G4 as a negative will be in the minority. With experience, geography, and parliamentary record going against him, the only hope Brian Greig has is that he does possess something of an incumbency factor – even though he is only interim leader. He will be hoping that his media performance and public support for the party and Natasha will see the Dems members not feel it right to throw him out of office, but unfortunately for him Democrats members seem set to choose a substance over style candidate in the form of Andrew Bartlett.
Although usually I would applaud a candidate being elected for reasons of substance i.e experience and parliamentary record, in the case of the Democrats the leader needs to have style, it helps when the leader has both style and substance, as past great leaders of the Democrats have, but if a minor party leader has only one or the other, it is always better to be style than substance. Andrew Bartlett has no chance of getting the public profile and media coverage that is necessary to keep the Democrats relevant, particularly with the competition from the Greens. Andrew Bartlett is a good person, intelligent, hard working and dedicated to the Democrats and their principles, but to be frank he is as boring as bat shit. Unfortunately the polls will not pick up under Bartlett, and if the polls don’t pick up then G4 senators up for election like Aden Ridgeway and John Cherry will get nervous, and chances are the Democrats will no longer be a parliamentary party by the middle of next year.