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Democrats and the goods & services tax.



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PETER THOMPSON: Let’s go to Canberra. There’s a new political alliance in town and it’s destined to last well beyond the tax deal done the other night, too. Meg Lees is determined the Democrats be counted as a serious political party, and that’s likely to mean further negotiations with the Howard government. Of course, any move by the Democrats to claim a bigger slice of the political middle ground will put pressure on Labor to remain relevant.

 

With this in mind, Fran Kelly’s been examining the realignment of power in Canberra’s corridors, and she’s back with us now. Fran, is this current cartel, if you like, likely to be as dramatic and lasting as some would us believe?

 

FRAN KELLY: Well, Peter, who knows how long it will last. Maybe it depends on how smoothly they can translate this deal into law. If that goes well, then trust between the Democrats and the coalition government will be enhanced, that’s for sure. Right now, at least, the signs are that Meg Lees is happy working with the Howard government because she wants to make a difference. She wants to be at the table to do that, not simply standing on the sidelines threatening with her votes in the Senate to block and defeat. Mind you, they did try that, of course, under Cheryl Kernot, with the IR bill, and lived to rue the day, so as I say, it depends on how the implementation of this deal goes. That’s the challenge for Meg Lees and Peter Costello, but there are signs that Meg Lees thinks she can do business with John Howard. On Friday night she said: ‘We have gained more of our policies on social justice, the environment and renewable energies in 13 days of talking with this government, than in 13 years of talks with the previous one.’

 

Now Peter, that’s quite a statement, and a senior Democrat office holder told me that it does signal that the Democrats think they will have a more productive relationship with the Howard government than they did with Labor because Meg Lees and John Howard are similar in their style. Both are practical people, he said, and the mutual respect forged during these negotiations looks like carrying on to future policy work.

 

Now, that could mean the Democrats start shifting back towards the centre in policy terms, the place where their founder, Don Chipp, had them when he quit the Liberal Party to establish the Australian Democrats in the first place, and that would be a pretty dramatic realignment in the political landscape. For years, the coalition dubbed the Democrats the left wing of the Labor Party. It now looks as though Labor could have the left flank all to themselves, which is not necessarily the easiest position to be in electorally.

 

Another legacy of Don Chipp, of course, was the right of all Democrats to vote according to their conscience, and current deputy, Natasha Stott Despoja, is set to exercise that right now and vote against elements of this tax deal. Such a move is likely to cause tensions within the Democrats party room especially, I think, if it leaves the young deputy aligned with the noisy elements of the party and the environment movement who are now threatening to agitate against this deal. Environmentalists have labelled the green wins claimed by Meg Lees as Mickey Mouse, saying she traded $8 billion of extra pollution for $1 billion to try and clean it up. If these groups maintain their rage, it will damage the Democrats electorally.

 

Yet still, Peter, another election is nearly three years away. That might be plenty of time to reassure people that the sky won’t fall in and reward them with their tax cuts, or it might be just enough time to make everyone unhappy about a new 10 per cent tax on things they’ve never paid tax on before in their lives. Historically, people take tax cuts as their right and quickly forget about them, whereas nothing upsets voters more than paying more taxes.

 

To discuss her future plans and the implication of all this, we’re joined now by Democrats Deputy, Natasha Stott Despoja. Senator Stott Despoja, good morning.

 

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Good morning, Fran.

 

FRAN KELLY: Natasha Stott Despoja, did Meg Lees do the right thing or the wrong thing with this deal with the coalition government on tax?

 

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: I think that Meg has achieved some incredibly significant gains for the party and in policy terms, and this is not about division in our party or whether it’s right or wrong for a political party such as ours, a third force, to negotiate with the government of the day. It’s just that I have a philosophical objection to a goods and services tax, and may I say that the good and the bad and the right and the wrong is determined by our membership, and provided we are operating within our party ballots and our party philosophy and our party policy, then Meg’s done the right thing in those terms.

 

FRAN KELLY: Well, let me ask you that. Are you operating within your party policy? It’s not the same policy you took to the election. It doesn’t have a GST off books; it doesn’t have a GST off inbound tourism; and it doesn’t even really have a GST off food - just off basic foods. Is that what the party membership signed off on?

 

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Our party policy, understandably, is not as specific as that for obvious reasons. We have plebiscites; we take policy ballots to every single member - that’s the beauty of our party. Everyone has an equal vote. And my understanding is that Meg is operating within policy in relation to allowing for a change in the taxation mix. I certainly was one of these Democrats who went to the polls both in 1993 and 1996 and, at that stage, I personally had a philosophical and political objection to a goods and services tax. That’s not news for my party; it’s not news for my party room who’ve known that for a long time. So I support Meg. She hasn’t lost my support as deputy, as some papers suggest today. It’s really not that big deal, and this is what people have to get used to. Democrats are different from the old parties. We’re not part of binding caucuses and if someone would like to exercise their conscience vote, well I defend their right to do so just as I hope they support mine.

 

FRAN KELLY: And will you exercise your right in a conscience vote, and where will you do that in terms of this package?

 

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: I think, at the final stage of this bill, I will support my party as much as I can in relation to the moving of amendments. My party knows that one bottom line for me is no tax on books, and I gave that commitment to the various sectors, publishing sectors, authors and, of course, to the education sector, but personally I cannot vote for a tax on books, and my party always knew that would be a very clear bottom line for me, apart from my philosophical objections. But certainly, I will analyse the package, endeavour to support my party in terms of alleviating, as Meg has done so well, the worst aspects of this package. She ....

 

FRAN KELLY: What about the environment elements of this? The environment movement has declared this deal a disaster for the environment. Will you vote for the measures allowing cheaper diesel and cheaper petrol?

 

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: I think what Meg has done is achieve significant environmental gains. I don’t actually have major concerns about that aspect of the package, but like fellow senators and my party and other members of the community and lobby groups, I will wait, too, to see a lot of the independent modelling and work that’s done. But I think, in relation to a lot of the gains that Senator Lees and Senator Murray have secured, I think we should be very proud of what we’ve achieved. As I say, I think alleviating the worst aspects of this package in terms of fairness and the fact that it was unfair to begin with, that it was unsustainable to begin with, Meg’s done a great deal to do that. So this is not a great concern with the package or a critique of the package, although there is a bottom line that is unacceptable to me and one that was not achieved, and that was books.

 

FRAN KELLY: All right. What about talk over the weekend papers of you considering quitting politics? Is that true?

 

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: I’ve said ever since I was first elected that I would consider, towards the end of my term, whether or not I would recontest, and no, I’m not worn out and I’m not tired, as some people have suggested. There are aspects of politics I’m tired of.

 

FRAN KELLY: Does it have anything to do with this tax deal?

 

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: No, it’s not particularly related to the tax deal. I’d like to see more support for my right to exercise my conscience vote. I’ve been a little surprised that people have portrayed it as divisive or as some kind of sort of ambitious move or a leadership challenge. It’s ....

 

FRAN KELLY: More support within your party for that position?

 

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: I’m sorry?

 

FRAN KELLY: Are you talking about you’d like to see more support from within your party and from within your leadership for that position

 

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Oh, I think it’s important that both my colleagues and party members show that support, and I believe a lot of them have done, but it’s also up to the media, too, to understand how our party works - that basically, using derogatory references like ‘the ambitious deputy leader’ or ‘princess Natasha’, doesn’t do anything to further the debate, and it’s quite irresponsible for me and party members to suggest that I have mounted any kind of leadership challenge. That’s wrong.

 

FRAN KELLY: If you got out of politics, what would you do?

 

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Oh, I’ve got no idea. I’m not into crystal ball gazing at this stage, Fran, but I’ve always said that I would review my term when it was due to end and see if I had made a difference; and one important thing to me is not only to stand by my principles, keep my promises - that’s including to the publishing sector - and not only that. I’d like to see a lot more young people interested and active in the political arena. If I can look back at the end of six years and having achieved that, then I’ll consider whether or not to continue.

 

FRAN KELLY: Very briefly, do you have any leadership ambitions in the short term? If the dissidents in the party tried to draft you for a leadership challenge, would you be there?

 

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: No, and as I say, media and party members know that I’m not challenging the leadership. Any suggestion to the contrary is irresponsible and no, Meg has not lost my support as leader, as some people have suggested in pieces in the papers today.

 

FRAN KELLY: Natasha Stott Despoja, thank you very much.

 

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Thank you, Fran.

 

PETER THOMPSON: And Senator Natasha Stott Despoja is the Democrats Deputy Leader.