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Forgive me, Meg - I was wrong

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 3 December 2001


In an article in March this year I said that the Australian Democrats needed to change leaders from Meg Lees to Natasha Stott Despoja or their survival was at stake. My argument was that the Democrats are a party that harvests the protest vote and that the main competitor to the Democrats in this respect was One Nation. Because the Democrats had co-operated with the government on the GST and industrial relations legislation, it had compromised itself with its market and it needed a makeover. I picked Stott Despoja over Lees on the basis that ". . . as Hanson proves, celebrity translates into protest votes".

This close to the Melbourne Cup, we all know that one of the problems with punting, which is partly what these columns are, is that no matter how good you are a proportion of your bets will be wrong. There are simply too many variables from the horses, to the jockeys, to weather on the day, to getting caught on the inside for anyone to get it right more than a proportion of the time. And when you get it right, sometimes it is for the wrong reasons.

In this case I am not going to blame my analysis, no punter ever does! How was I to know that the Tampa incident was going to make the track heavy and that the jockeys either don’t read my pieces or weren’t prepared to follow my riding instructions? "Tear up those betting tickets, Graham, and swear never to put money on anything" (until the next column that is). Actually, maybe someone who’d hung around the Democrat stables more frequently would have been better informed and wouldn’t have made the same mistakes as I did. In view of the way that the Democrat campaign was run, the majority of the Democrat parliamentary team, who wanted to stick with Lees, probably had it right.

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If you infer from this that I think that Tash was the problem with their campaign, you are right. There is nothing wrong with celebrity if it attracts attention to a message and gives people a reason to change votes. There is everything wrong with it if it merely attracts attention.

From the Aston by-election on it was clear that the Dems were having identity problems, because it was in Aston that they first ran their slogan "Change Politics". I am told that this phrase arose from research with one focus group. If so, it is a clear warning against some of the pitfalls in qualitative analysis based on insufficient evidence.

The phrase is as clear as a palette full of potting clay. Is "change" a verb or an adjective? If an adjective, those Australians who have been "change managed" out of a job are not likely to be comfortable with it. If a verb it is grandiose and overstates the case that the Democrats used to make of "Keeping the Bastards Honest". The Democrats are 24 this year. They are part of the political furniture, and what they do doesn’t represent change but the status quo. The only possibility that they might change politics is if they were to form a part of the government, but no-one, expects them to do that.

Why were the Dems running with a slogan that was so at odds with reality? Circumstantial evidence would point towards the leader and her office. The only thing that had "changed" about the Democrats was their leadership, so any ability to change politics had to be leveraged from this internal change. There was also a change in perception of the party’s role from that of minor party to major party.

The role of the Democrats is to balance the major blocs. They attract votes because they are not Liberal or Labor. Some of their voters want radical change, but others just want to mow the poppies to a reasonable height. In other words, they wouldn’t vote for the Dems if they were anything other than a minor party. Yet, when the leader’s office was approached to participate in a debate with the Greens and One Nation they retorted by saying that they were a major party, not a minor one. This is a large conceptual problem, which interferes with the balance-of-power strategy.

The second indication that the Democrats had an identity problem sourced to the Leader’s office was the launch of their campaign under a Hill’s hoist in an Adelaide backyard somewhere. The first thing that I noticed was the predominance of young thirty-somethings, the women with streaked hair and I could have sworn Doc Martens, and the guys, somewhat dweebishly dressed in double-breasted suits and ties wide enough to catch their soup in a restaurant. "Where are the adults?" I mused aloud to my TV set. This was not a good look for a party that has quite a wide and varied constituency. It also seemed to indicate that older members, and members with kids, had deserted the party, been banished, or simply hadn’t been told. Tash was the only politician in sight. Aden Ridgeway hadn’t been flown in for the occasion; neither had anyone sent round next door to get Adelaide-based Meg Lees to turn up. It had the look and feel of the party leader, and no-one else.

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Whether these perceptions are correct or not, the whole Democrat campaign looked like a party in search of a photo opportunity. There was no clear message, just focussed images of Natasha holding babies, walking in creeks, smiling for the cameras. Yet Howard and Beazley had set up conditions where the Democrats ought to have been able to flourish. Race is an emotive issue to those who are most likely to vote Democrat, and Howard and Beazley had provided an election where both the main parties were seen by many as, at the best, tacitly racist. To get a good result all the Dems had to do was to dust off the old billboards and tell everyone that if you wanted to protest against racism and xenophobia in Australia, and keep One Nation out of the Senate, you should vote for them.

The two per cent national jump in the Greens vote, contrasted with the stagnation in that of the Dems, indicated that the Greens won this vote. Our qualitative and quantitative research tends to confirm that this was the case. Very few Greens voters nominated the environment as the most important issue this election - they were voting for something else.

What does the future hold for the Democrats? They can’t go back to Meg Lees, even if she wanted the leadership, and there is no-one to challenge Stott Despoja. They need to look at how they are running campaigns and, if necessary, bring some professional help in. There is no doubt that celebrity does win attention. What they have to do is tweak their celebrity leader’s performance so that she can win electoral races for them as well. It’s easy to beat up on Stott Despoja for sins of vanity, but it is also easy to forget that she is the youngest leader of a minor or major Australian political party for quite some time. I don’t want to sound like an old man here, but at 32 years of age she has plenty to learn, and her best years are ahead of her. For the Democrats’ sake, let’s hope she is sitting down over Christmas with friends, not sycophants, and trying to work out what really went wrong. The Democrats have a role to play, but they won’t do it unless they work out what they stand for, and what the electorate will support, and arrange a compromise between the two.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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