Former Democrats Senator John Cherry and ex staffer Vivienne Wynter were on the money with this obituary about the Democrats in Crikey shortly before the last Federal election.

The comments section at the bottom of their piece included a few terse jibes about Cherry’s part in the “gang of four” rolling Natasha Stott Despoja back in 2002.

The demise of the Democrats remains Crikey’s biggest contribution to Australian politics and it is worth reflecting on how it happened.

Christian Kerr and Natasha were old Adelaide buddies who spent part of the 1996 federal campaign partying in Melbourne, but then drifted apart.

Christian developed a view that Natasha was more interested in social climbing and mass media exposure than serious reform, a point that Meg Lees raised in her AM interview last Thursday when she attributed the party’s demise to “people who were in politics for things other than the political outcome.”

Christian’s early Hillary Bray columns in Crikey ripped into Natasha, labelling her “the impossible princess”, “Ah Satan” (Natasha backwards) and then, after legal noises over that one, “Britney”.

This in turn attracted the disaffected Meg Lees supporters like moths to a light and we had this self-perpetuating torrent of largely accurate but usually bilious anti-Natasha material flowing into Crikey.

This all stayed below the radar until the spectacular developments in mid-2002.

Australianpolitics.com has a good summary of what happened with Meg Lees getting summonsed to the national executive meeting on the weekend of June 22-23, 2002, to explain some comments she made about Telstra and whether she would support Natasha as leader.

Lees didn’t turn up and instead sent her explosive letter which was first published on Crikey on June 24.

Cheryl Kernot is getting blamed by some for killing the Democrats but it should be remembered that her affair with Gareth Evans became public two weeks later on July 3.

This should have been a windfall for the Democrats but the infighting was so intense that by August 21, 2002, she was on her feet in the Senate resigning.

Natasha would have best served her party by actually resigning from Parliament at that point.

Lees also told AM last week that the Democrats were finished once the party blocked Aden Ridgeway from replacing Natasha as leader, instead first installing the lamentable Brian Greig and then later the utterly colourless Natasha loyalist Andrew Bartlett, whose drunken Senate performance in December 2003 was the final nail in the coffin for the party.

It is not too big a stretch to imagine Senator Ridgeway as Democrats leader playing a prominent role in Kevin Rudd’s apology. Instead, he lost his seat in 2004.

I reckon the Democrats would still be represented today if the 26-year-old Natasha hadn’t duchessed her former boss, Senator John Coulter, to fill the casual vacancy created by his departure in 1995.

Unfortunately, it was all about Natasha, who used her maiden speech to declare herself the youngest ever Senator and her farewell speech to trumpet herself as the longest-serving Democrat senator.

Of course, Meg Lees spent 15 years in the Senate, but the last two were with the Progressive Alliance.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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