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Former Democrats Leader comments on why she resigned from the party.

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Friday 26 July 2002

Former Democrats Leader comments on why she resigned from the party.


COMPERE: More from Louise shortly, on the implications of today's decision, but first, what was the final straw for Meg Lees, herself? Was it personal friction with her successor? Was it a problem accepting the policy dictated by the party's rank and file? Was it the action taken against her by the group she dubbed the party's "thought police"? 


On the line from Alice Springs this afternoon, the newly independent senator told me what had driven her out. 


MEG LEES: I think it's in the best interests of the Democrats that I move on, and hopefully everything will now settle down. The national executive will now look at some of the key issues, the key problems within the party, and get things sorted out. 


For me, I will move on as a senator for South Australia working on the issues I care about, and I'll still prioritise health and the environment in particular, but also indigenous affairs. 


COMPERE: Will you move on on your own, or will others such as Andrew Murray be coming with you? 


MEG LEES: For now I'm moving on on my own. I'm not sure what other senators are going to do. I know that a number of my colleagues are very disappointed in this decision I've finally made today, but I really, I had enough, I can't see any way out. 


COMPERE: Have you spoken to Andrew Murray? 


MEG LEES: No, not today. Obviously, all my colleagues have known of my thought processes, I guess. At the time I left at the beginning of the week I thought things were actually settling down and would get better. I came back into range to find that, in fact, things had got worse. 


COMPERE: If the party can't hold you, can it hold people like Andrew Murray and Aden Ridgeway? 


MEG LEES: Well, the party now, hopefully, will have a shake-up. Hopefully the party, now, particularly at national executive level, will look at everything from processes and structures to the relationship between the federal party room and the executive itself. That's probably going to take three to six months, but I think it has a much greater chance of success if I'm out of the picture. 


COMPERE: Has this been a clash of personalities, in other words, as some have reported it, is it about you and Natasha Stott-Despoja, or is it about you and the party, you and the membership? 


MEG LEES: I think it's a mixture of a whole lot of things, but certainly, my relationship with the national executive has got steadily worse. For them to bring charges against me in the first place was something that, I felt, was unnecessary. It was inflammatory, and it was way out of even the vaguest realms of being and issue. 


There was nothing I had done, and they still have not detailed for me how the wad of material I got, the supposed evidence, actually relates to any of the charges against me. I mean, press clippings about my comments relating to the sale of Medibank Private were directly in line with what the party room decision was. 


My decision to vote with Senator Woodley and Senator Allison on the internet gaming legislation was something that I am entitled to do as a Democrat senator, to have a conscience vote, and how that was either acting against the leader, the party or policies, or anything, I don't know. They never detailed all of that, and were still, as of the decision they made this week refusing to. 


COMPERE: Do you think the whole structure of the party is basically untenable now, where you've got senators who want to think for themselves and have some hand in making policy, but in your case, seem to be unable to because the membership insists on imposing its policy on that of the senators? 


MEG LEES: There is no problem with the party determining policy. I was not working against policy, I was simply talking about a debate. At the time of my original Telstra comments, I acknowledged Bob Brown had a point about environment funding.  


I did not say either we should sell, or that I wanted to sell. In fact, I made it clear that it doesn't pass the community interest test. All I wanted to do was engage in debate, and that is what I find so sad -  


COMPERE: But then, surely, that is about policy. What you're saying is that party policy is now, to stifle debate. 


MEG LEES: Well, yes, and this is the censorship issue that I mentioned in the statement today, that I find it very difficult now, that we have constantly watching over our shoulders a national executive that is going to be sifting through senators' press statements, and picking out ones that they think might, in some way, infringe some, or cause a problem for someone on the national executive. I think that particular role is not something that national executive should have ever got itself into. 


COMPERE: Of course, some people see this as a straight ideological split; that you and Andrew Murray, and to some extent, Aden Ridgeway, are more conservative in your politics than others. Are we about to have, like some European countries, a liberal democrat party and a social democrat party? 


MEG LEES: Well, I reject the idea that I'm left, right. I have great difficulty with that idea. I see myself as socially progressive, I see myself as a committed environmentalist, someone really trying to do the best thing for this country. And one of the things a senator has to do, whether they're on the backbench, in one of the major parties or as an independent, is to weigh up, issue by issue, what the government's doing and be able to explain why they either support or reject it.  


And I simply want to be able to engage with that level in policy, but I have never, ever voted against democrat policy, and I can't see myself doping that now that I'm not a democrat. My principles are staying the same. 


COMPERE: Is John Howard one step closer now, to being able to fully privatise Telstra, because you'll be there as an independent, and he can negotiate with you individually? 


MEG LEES: No. I don't think he's a step closer at all. In fact, I think we're a long, long way to go before we even should consider it. 


COMPERE: So you won't negotiate with him any more now than you would have a week ago, a month ago, a year ago? 


MEG LEES: Well, there may be some other negotiations. I don't know what my role as an independent senator will pan out to be. I am simply prepared to discuss and debate every issue, and if the answer is eventually no, government can't be supported, then it's up to me to outline why. 


COMPERE: But, do you agree with the assessment that John Howard and the coalition are the main winners out of what has happened, in the last few weeks, to the Democrats? 


MEG LEES: Look, I think what's happened in the last few weeks to the Democrats, is - it has been devastating. It's very sad for me, and I think the best thing I can do to help solve that is to move on. Now, who has ultimately benefited, hopefully, no, it won't be the government or anyone else.  


The Democrats will now, without me there, have a clear slate, and have a far easier chance of sorting through the issues; of sorting out the role of National Executive, of sorting out their relationship with the party room and the various members of parliament including my state colleagues here in South Australia, and getting on with the job. 


COMPERE: Do the Democrats have a future? They do seem much more likely now, to be reduced to a rump. You've gone, Andrew Murray's likely to go, others may go. To what extent is there a future for the Australian Democrats? 


MEG LEES: I hope there is a future. I put 25 years of my life into that party, particularly over the last 20 years very actively, and I do believe strongly in a third force in Australian politics. I actually believe my going will strengthen them and their opportunities to sort through the issues that are confronting them, to put a stop to all this conflict. 


Hopefully, we'll have no more members coming out making comments about me or about wanting me to go. Now, they will obviously be pleased. I apologise to those members who are disappointed. I had a few members ring me up and ask me not to go - 


COMPERE: Do you want others to come with you? 


MEG LEES: No, I do not want other people to come with me. I don't want to have to take any responsibility for that. I leave it up to my colleagues what they're going to do. I think there'll be a process now, of regrouping and hopefully, some really hard thinking on the part of national executive.  


COMPERE: When the DLP was the age that the Democrats are now, it was already declining into a rump, and its own death as a party. Some people are saying that's going to happen to the Democrats now. 


MEG LEES: I don't think so. I think their best chance is for me to have moved on, so I don't distract from what is quite a difficult task, yes, for national executive, but I don't distract from the task in hand of sorting things through. 


COMPERE: Meg Lees, thanks very much for joining us. 


MEG LEES: Thank you.