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Wednesday, 21 August 2002
Page: 3448

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (1:14 PM) —Today I was due to speak on the issue of Erskineville School but unfolding events mean that I must turn my attention instead to the Australian Democrats. I am proud to belong to a member driven and democratic party. I owe a huge debt to the membership. My mantra has always been: trust the members. In fact, I heard that acknowledged in first speeches on both sides yesterday. In the Australian Democrats it is the members, not the party room, that determine the leadership. In fact, I have served under different leaders—as a staff member, as an adviser and indeed as a senator—supporting whomever the members chose, because I know that a party cannot function without supporting its leader.

The democratic membership of our party determines our leader and the senators owe loyalty to that leader. I am not suggesting blind loyalty; obviously, if there are issues with the leader they should be considered through the parliamentary and party channels that we have at our disposal. If there is outright dissent, however, then declared opponents should challenge through the ballot. Four of my Senate colleagues today have made some demands. I do not think demands have ever been a part of the previous leader's role and responsibilities in the Australian Democrats but unfortunately I cannot, in all good conscience, accept the demands that have been placed on me today.

It is hard to define your role as leader of a political party without the full support of your party room. Of course there will be occasional differences of opinion. Our party, I think more so than others, can accommodate those differences but continual public criticism and continual commentary in the media and elsewhere can only seek to destabilise the leadership and ultimately, with it, the party. On every occasion that the Australian Democrats have had policy wins under my leadership or have risen in the polls, internal criticisms have been released to the media and overridden our success in the public mind. This torpedo effect I have seen many times. It was evident through the by-election in Aston, after the federal election, when we had our successful MLA Roslyn Dundas elected to the ACT legislature, and even after our effective response to the budget. It has been evident again in the last 24 hours, after we had some success not only in the polls going up a little bit but also in the way that we responded to the idea of a potential first strike against Iraq.

Much has been made of poll slumps with the Australian Democrats recently. Senator Murray called it `flat lining'. He did not use that terminology when we were on three per cent 14 times under the previous leader. He did not talk about it when we were on two per cent under the previous leader. I am disappointed that a colleague, Senator Cherry, went before the television cameras this morning and gave the worst possible assessment of the polls under my leadership and then said, `I want to be re-elected.' When, under my leadership, the Newspoll hit a seven-year high of nine per cent—before the events of Tampa and September 11—the critics did not talk about polls. Nor did they talk about them yesterday, when we should have been capitalising on an increase in the polls for the Australian Democrats.

While I preferred not to take on the leadership prior to the last election, the Democrats' national executive and our general membership made something very clear, as is their right: that they would be generating a ballot on the issue. I was proud to offer myself as a candidate and proud to represent my party and enjoy the overwhelming support in two elections of the rank and file Democrat members. In fact, I am very pleased to see the 80 per cent increase in membership of my party when I became leader.

It was probably too much to ask, though, that a change in leadership would entirely restore our party, particularly after the GST debacle—its pitiful and sometimes undelivered gains and breach of promise. We have been fighting a perception since 1999 that the Australian Democrats do not keep promises. We went into the last election knowing that there would be a strong backlash. Key commentators—some of the same ones who have called for me to resign—acknowledged early last year that we would probably have difficulty holding all Senate seats. In fact, they predicted that only my seat in South Australia would be returned. But we went to the election and against the odds—the backdrop of September 11, Tampa and a backlash against the Democrats' role in the GST deal—we got four Senate seats back: the same result as 1998 and an increase in our lower house vote nationally.

I did not support the preference deal that was perceived to support the Australian Labor Party but I do recognise that our preference review group in the Australian Democrats is entitled to make such decisions. But I also note that some of those preference deals in some states that got my colleagues across the line could not have occurred under the previous leader, because key minor parties would not have dealt with us. I hope that one day history reflects the realities—both the challenges and the achievements—of that election campaign under my leadership.

We are a small party. We have always struggled for our share of media attention— perhaps not in recent weeks—for our legislative achievements, for our policy work and for an understanding of our unique participatory and democratic nature. The Australian Democrats cannot afford to expose our conflicts or flaunt our disunity, and again and again our recent wins have been overshadowed. I have kept the discussion of internal party matters in the party room. I have kept them in members' meetings where they belong. As people in this place know so well— because this is not new to my party—these things happen and it is how you and your colleagues choose to deal with them that really measures you as a party. The senators and the members have been in no doubt— they have never been in any doubt—that I was willing to listen to their views and take on board their concerns. They know my willingness to debate these issues and open the party's processes to debate and discussion. That is why I initiated the first national strategic review of the party. That is not an easy thing to do; it is fraught with potential conflicting outcomes. I was the first leader to say, `Let's engage and talk about the good and the bad.' Our party processes were all up for discussion.

Colleagues have spoken of their so-called reasonable list of reforms. I dispute the definition of `reasonable' in relation to a number of their proposals. I went in with my own reasonable response this morning and colleagues went in with their reasonable responses too. But I regret that in this morning's meeting—and this has certainly had an impact on my decision today—a majority of my colleagues were unable to support a motion that formally expressed support for the party's constitution and its national executive. They were not prepared to support a motion that supported the right of staff—all staff—not to be vilified publicly by senators in the media or to oppose public denigration of our membership. Motions to this effect were actually voted down at this morning's meeting. I could have retained support for my leadership by supporting such motions— by ignoring the membership. However, it was the membership who, under our constitution, elected me as leader and I am not going to sell them out.

One colleague, Senator Murray, has said that he does not believe in ultimatums, yet one of his earliest communiques to the public and to me was to `shape up or ship out'. Some commentators have mistaken my relative public silence for weak leadership—my refusal to strike back aggressively, particularly in the public domain, as weakness. But I still believe that politics can be a civil discourse, and I choose not to inflame with returned invective. There are many policy examples under my leadership of which I am proud. I lament that many of these were clouded by conflict. I am happy to table many of those if senators would like to discuss them further. But the public could have seen the Democrat policies in action instead of our focus on internal battles.

Our critics have seized on this notion of left versus right in our party, this dichotomy which seems to be serving a useful purpose for some colleagues or some commentators. But there is no such stand-off in our party. We are a progressive party committed to human rights, to social justice and to sustainable development. And, yes, we do have some cherished small `l' liberal principles of which I am proud—freedom of the press and freedom of speech, for example. But the Democrats deserve to be leaders of all debates on public policy, and especially when it comes to social justice. Is it any wonder the coalition is sitting back watching our internal difficulties with glee, looking at what is going on in the balance of power party when they put so much pressure on us and others in relation to issues like Telstra's privatisation or media ownership or the budget proposals, to name a few? But a party that embraces progressive views and activism shapes society for the better. That is what I joined.

The Democrats may well fail progressivism through a party that has conservative alliances. I have repeatedly asked colleagues to play as a team, to stop criticising the party in public and to stop leaking to the media. Of course, that happens in all parties—I accept that. But you have to say that the Democrats have been particularly impressive in the last 16 months. We have a small party, a party which has always struggled for its fair share of media attention as well as public attention for our unique constitution and our legislative achievements. But we have exposed ourselves so rudely and stupidly to the worst kind of publicity—we have been flaunting our disunity.

The reason I can question the motives of some who are calling for reform is that their concerns will, if they are serious, be considered among all the other submissions to the strategic review that I initiated earlier this year. These people are not only pre-empting the review but also destroying its chances of success along with the chances for the party to recover from the blows that have been inflicted upon it, particularly in recent weeks but in recent months as well.

In the short term, to preserve what voter appeal the actions of some have left us with in the last few weeks, I am offering my resignation—not from the party, not from the party room, but from the leadership. This must be one of the first times in history that a leader with a democratic support base— democratically elected with the support of more than 70 per cent of the members—is actually offering their seat. Nor will I be stealing a seat that belongs to the party. I have earned it well and truly for the party and for my colleagues and members in South Australia, and my voice will be heard in that party room so long as I am representative of my party and the people of South Australia. I am not taking my seat. It is clear to me and to any objective observer—and, I am sure, to all of you in this place and maybe to the media as well—that my remaining as leader with a non-supportive party room will lead to continuing and I think potentially irreversible damage to the party that I love and support. If I cannot do it as leader—and plainly the numbers in the party room indicate that I cannot—then I will do it as a plain senator— very much a Democrat senator and still very much committed to the best interests of the party.

However, I put those who have disregarded our constitution, our proper procedures and, yes, even a majority vote of our members, on notice that I will do this: I will bring the party back home to the members again. This is not, and never has been, about personalities. It is about ideas. The instability that we are suffering is because the basic principles of our party have been destabilised. My pledge is to bring the party back home to the members again.