On the use and abuse of power: A snapshot of ‘an extraordinary woman in an extraordinary time’

Tony Smith

Alison Rogers The Natasha Factor: Politics, Media and Betrayal, South Melbourne, Lothian, 2004 (224 pp). ISBN 0-7344-0683-5 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

Although everyone thinks they know where political power resides, our assumptions sometimes lack empirical foundation. Shortly after a federal election theories about democracy and people power seem credible. When much is made of the Howard Government having majorities in both houses of parliament, we understandably accept that parliamentarians are powerful. The government’s reliance on its numbers to pass legislation shows that party discipline is paramount, and Labor’s uncertainty over its leadership suggests that the press gallery wields great influence. Occasionally however, such assumptions are challenged by unexpected events. Natasha Stott Despoja’s fall from the leadership of the Australian Democrats is a stark example, and it is dramatically evoked in Alison Rogers’ The Natasha Factor.


Power in Australian politics has shifted markedly since John Howard became Prime Minister in 1996. This astute politician has engineered some changes to facilitate his agenda, while others have been co-incidental. When historians seek to explain the deterioration in the status of the Australian Democrats, Rogers’ insider account should assist their efforts. As the Democrats differ from other parties, it is important to appreciate both how power operates internally for them and how they have gained and exercised power within the system.

Founded in 1977 by former Liberal Minister Don Chipp, the Australian Democrats attracted voters seeking an alternative to Labor and the Coalition. The party prospered, as minor parties can, in electoral systems with proportional representation such as the Senate, rather than in single member electorates. It has been most influential where it has attained a ‘balance of power’ in upper houses of legislative review. The electorate has appreciated the Democrats’ ability to ‘keep the bastards honest’ by dealing with bills discretely on their merits and refusing to ‘cross trade’.

Six women have been elected to lead the Democrats.

The relatively new party has had a modern outlook, reflected in the balance between male and female parliamentarians. Six women have been elected to lead the Democrats; none of the older parties have trusted a woman to lead at the federal level. When Janine Haines (Democrats Leader 1986–1990) died in November 2004, the ensuing tributes showed that the party attracts individuals of outstanding ability, who grow in stature when given the opportunities, responsibilities, and challenges of leadership.

In late 1997, then Leader of the Democrats, Cheryl Kernot, resigned and joined the ALP, citing an urgent need to thwart Howard’s agenda. However, her move to Labor demonstrated how far the centre of political power had shifted towards the Liberals. Her successor Meg Lees ensured that the party recovered from Kernot’s dramatic departure, but Meg Lees’ negotiations over the Goods and Services Tax aroused fears that the party was too close to the Government and had compromised its independence, especially as the Greens seemed to gain support at the Democrats’ expense.


These developments set the scene for the rise of Natasha Stott Despoja and for Rogers’ inside account. Rogers was a Stott Despoja ‘staffer’ and her chief media adviser during the sixteen months of her leadership (April 2001–August 2002), and this status informs her recollections and writing. Rogers writes from ‘my experiences’ (p. 2), not ‘academic analysis’ of Stott Despoja’s contribution nor ‘biography’, but a ‘snapshot of an extraordinary woman in an extraordinary time’. Rogers gives ‘a personal account … my view of what happened, not Natasha’s or anyone else’s’.

An author can claim the privilege of setting her account where she sees fit, but readers might see the book as partially many things, including analysis, history, and biography. These genres are not always distinct, and the deepest understandings use evidence from diverse sources. The ‘snapshot’ is a useful analogy because it provides a still picture of a moment in political history—the period during which Rogers worked for Stott Despoja rather than the Senator’s whole career. Although Rogers denies trying to provide an ‘objective journalistic’ account, the book is primarily concerned with her professional pre-occupation, which is the relationship between media and politicians. While some observers might dissent from the notion of objective journalism and others would want to heavily qualify the idea, Rogers’ account should not be dismissed automatically just because it might be subjective.

The Natasha Factor resembles books such as Pamela Williams’ (1997) The Victory and Margo Kingston’s (1999) Off the Rails, as it recounts Stott Despoja’s campaigns for the leadership in early 2001, the federal election later that year, and her attempts to thwart the destabilisation that ended her leadership in 2002. Consequently, the book’s insights into the press-politics symbiosis are very valuable. The names in the Index for example, show clearly that media personalities dominated the mental space in which Rogers worked. Rogers tells many cautionary tales about the behaviours of some journalists. These include displays of petulance over access and exclusives, abuse of off-the-record comments, deliberate distortion and misinterpretation of remarks, ignorance of the purposes of press conferences and doorstop interviews, putting personalities before policies, silly questions, outright hostility, and bias. Rogers contrasts the pettiness of the media to Stott Despoja’s calm, strong approach when answering questions. She describes Stott Despoja as a remarkable listener with a good sense of humour, and a communicator skilled at pitching messages appropriately for audiences (p. 32).

Rogers tells many cautionary tales about the behaviours of some journalists.

Perhaps some journalists were frustrated by her insistence on the ‘fine nuances’ of words, which she used with the ‘precision of a surgeon’ (p. 38). It probably did not help that Stott Despoja was willing and able to put journalists in their places. When ABC’s AM questioned her about whether the images of her trying on Mambo shirts and emerging from the surf represented the ‘sort of campaign’ she wanted, an annoyed Stott Despoja replied that it was not she but the media that decided those priorities: ‘… in the past thirty-odd days I have launched more than twenty policies, probably given more speeches than the two party leaders of the old parties combined … Whether or not I get publicity or promotion on those issues seems to be up to the media, not me’ (p. 111–15). When she became engaged to a political consultant, she was asked on Channel 10 about possible conflicts of interest. She noted that a century earlier, an argument against granting women full political rights was that they might vote the same as their husbands. She said that people can separate their public and private concerns: ‘I don’t think that’s particularly unusual … it’s unusual to be asked about mind you, because I’m not sure how many other politicians get the same question’ (p. 148–49).

Rogers notes that some journalists resented Stott Despoja for building her profile without Press Gallery scrutiny. Rather, she used popular media including women’s magazines, light television programs and youth radio. Stott Despoja showed a keen sense of the catchy headline, coining terms such as ‘cutting compassion to fund fear’ (p. 150) to describe the 2002 budget. Ironically perhaps, journalists came to appreciate her strength only after she gave the most difficult press conference of her career. Members of the pack that had tried to dent her image and unsettle her, finally conceded upon her resignation, that she was gutsy, strong, and dignified.


Stott Despoja attained the leadership after a spill of positions forced by the party organisation. In the Democrats, important questions are decided by a participatory postal ballot of all members rather than just the parliamentary wing, and Stott Despoja agreed to contest the ballot only after strong urging. Of nine Senators most were not enthusiastic about replacing Meg Lees. While Stott Despoja’s supporters shared the members’ alarm over the GST negotiations, Lees’ parliamentary supporters believed that the issue was their autonomy and freedom to operate.

Stott Despoja faced a dilemma. If she waited until after the 2001 election to stand, the question about whether Lees had become a liability would have been settled. On the other hand, if the party suffered badly at the polls then the members might have blamed her for not stepping forward earlier. Rogers concludes that the decision to run harmed Stott Despoja’s career (p. 234). However, once committed, Stott Despoja wanted a good endorsement to ensure support and unity.

Stott Despoja agreed to contest the leadership ballot only after strong urging.

The leadership campaign provided some hint of the controversy that would dog Stott Despoja’s leadership. Lees raised the age factor aggressively, claiming victimisation, and some opponents suggested that Stott Despoja’s candidacy relied on ‘middle aged male Democrats’ fantasies’ (p. 36). Rogers

developed a heightened sensitivity to everything that was related to the Democrats. I entered a parallel universe where newspaper headlines made the difference between a good and a bad day. It mattered so much. I was living, breathing and consuming politics. Friends became distant figures … (p. 33).

There were some tensions with Stott Despoja, but interestingly, Rogers admits that these were times she became angry with her boss rather than vice-versa. It is no wonder that Rogers presents Stott Despoja as an understanding employer.

Stott Despoja secured 69 per cent of the vote and won every state, but there was no honeymoon. She was asked what it felt like to have Meg Lees’ blood on her hands, and there were stories about Lees’ staff losing jobs. Journalists showed ‘glee’ for anything about Stott Despoja ‘fact or fiction, that put a dent in her image’ (pp. 60–61). Within weeks, cracks appeared in the party’s unity and leaks affected the leader’s ability to discuss policy.


By August, Stott Despoja was in election mode, developing policies, securing candidates, and planning strategies. Even Senators who did not want her as leader sought to have her campaign for them. However, the Democrats experienced internal and external problems. The Government responded to the arrival of a Norwegian vessel, called the Tampa and laden with rescued asylum seekers, by refusing to allow the captain entry to Australian waters. It introduced the Border Protection Bill, which the Labor Opposition eventually supported, isolating opponents including the Democrats. In September, following the ‘9/11’ terrorist attacks in the United States, it became clear that people wanted ‘familiarity and boring politics’ (p. 86), which contradicted the Democrats’ slogan ‘Change Politics’.

Stott Despoja suffered the losses of two friends in this period, which made her question her priorities. Internal party problems were unrelenting. There was a downturn in media coverage when the campaign director, against the leader’s direction, organised some preference deals. A picture of Stott Despoja grimacing as she held Senator Andrew Bartlett’s baby was reproduced in the print media nine times during the campaign and The Australian newspaper ran a caption competition (p. 107). In the week of the election, former Leader John Coulter resigned from the party citing disappointment with the leadership’s failure to ‘purge’ the pro-GST forces (p. 110).

Internal party problems were unrelenting.

Despite these setbacks, the election was far from disastrous. Australia wide the Democrat vote fell from 8.45 per cent to 7.45 per cent (p. 118). The party lost Senator Vicki Bourne in New South Wales where the Greens’ Kerrie Nettle was elected. Stott Despoja blamed the GST stance and this angered Lees. The party had an automatic post-election leadership spill and Stott Despoja and Deputy Aden Ridgeway were confirmed in office (p. 121). However, some Senators complained that their profiles were lost in a campaign that was too ‘presidential’.


By mid-2002 the destabilisation campaign was unstoppable. When Lees suggested that she might negotiate with the Government over the sale of Telstra, Stott Despoja wrote to the National Executive. In an angry letter defending herself, Lees complained that there was little publicity for Democrat policies. Rogers says that it was difficult ‘getting journalists focused on key issues, when the main political issue was internal disunity, leaks and bitching’ (p. 163). Lees charged the Leader’s staff with leaking material to damage her, but Rogers argues that most leaks appeared on the Crikey website and clearly were intended to damage Stott Despoja.

The Senators insisted on more frequent ‘senator-only party rooms’. Someone suggested mediation but Stott Despoja opposed the idea and again the story leaked. When Stott Despoja went to England to meet her fiance’s ill father, Ridgeway said that a poor result in the Tasmanian state election showed the party must go further right to capture ‘small l’ Liberal voters. Ridgeway then used what became known as ‘the Aden defence’ pleading that he did not know the journalist would pick up that aspect of his statements. This period saw the rise of the ‘two Andrews problem’ (p. 172). When Andrew Murray attacked Stott Despoja and defended Lees, Andrew Bartlett called Murray’s comments ‘pathetic, stupid, gutless’. Bartlett said that Murray, who owed his election to Stott Despoja’s leadership, was either ‘politically inept or deliberately treacherous’. When Ridgeway was asked on ABC television to express support for his leader, Rogers described the performance as like ‘pulling teeth’ (p. 174). Stott Despoja curtailed her trip, but before her return, Lees resigned, declaring that she intended to keep the seat as an independent. West Australian Senator Brian Greig likened Lees’ action to ‘corporate theft’.

Rogers, sick of crises disrupting her life, met Stott Despoja off the plane at five in the morning. Despite her tiredness, Stott Despoja ‘snapped into … her steely mood. She was not going to be cowed or bullied … Her ability to find energy when she was completely spent was one of the characteristics that surprised me’ (p. 181). Stott Despoja was however, frustrated that journalists had obviously swallowed her opponents’ ‘spin’. Murray’s announcement that he would become a backbencher, a ‘Democrat in exile’ was unacceptable and the remaining Senators gave him a week to return to the party room or vacate the seat. Murray wanted to discuss his grievances and urged party reform but Stott Despoja refused to negotiate unless Murray was a committed Democrat.

When the ambush eventuated, Stott Despoja realised her leadership was over.

Eventually Murray returned. Stott Despoja understood that he was back unconditionally but Murray let it be known that he had returned on certain conditions. When Senator John Cherry presented Murray’s demands as a ‘Ten Point Plan’, Stott Despoja persuaded the party room to discuss the document at a special meeting later in the week, enabling her to formulate responses to what were essentially, grievances about her leadership. To accept the plan would have made her position untenable. Rogers learned from a journalist that the four Lees-Murray supporters had leaked the plan and intended to ambush Stott Despoja before the meeting. When the ambush eventuated, Stott Despoja realised her leadership was over and resigned in a speech to the Senate that day. The National Executive rejected Ridgeway’s offer to act as temporary leader, and appointed Greig instead. Rogers notes that the Ten Points were not presented to newly elected Leader Andrew Bartlett. In sixteen months, she had witnessed the Democrats reduced to a ‘disintegrated rabble by the politics of jealousy, resentment and bitterness’ (p. 229).


This book is a valuable resource. Rogers supplies detailed accounts of several incidents including a Laurie Oakes interview on Channel 9 (pp. 52–54), the budget lockup (pp. 65–69), the use of focus groups to test the suitability of the ‘Change politics’ slogan (pp. 86–90), an ABC AM interview (pp. 111–15), a visit to the Woomera detention centre (pp. 128–32), the 5 am airport doorstop (pp. 181–85) and Stott Despoja’s resignation speech (pp. 223–28).

The author makes some brave assertions about journalists. She notes their preoccupation with the accountability of politicians while lacking accountability themselves. As a broadcaster, Rogers had not realised the power she had ‘to make or break someone’s reputation just by using a certain tone of voice, [so] emphasising a particular detail over another’ (pp. 100–101). She says that few journalists have experienced journalism ‘from the other side – as the subject of a story’ and that few could claim never to have written a story before interviewing their subject.

Rogers says that she was loyal while working for Stott Despoja. Whether she has since distanced herself sufficiently to provide objectivity is for readers to judge, but subsequent events seem to justify Rogers’ sympathies. While there might be many explanations for the party’s poor showing in the federal election of 9 October 2004, it is difficult to discount the disturbances of 2002. Australia wide in Senate elections, the Democrat vote fell to 2.1 per cent of first preferences—a loss of 5.35 per cent after 2001. They lost all three Senators up for re-election as well as the seat Lees held. In the new chamber in mid-2005, the Democrats will lose their status as a parliamentary party, bringing huge cuts in staff and resources. This will make it difficult for them to maintain their high profile and engage in serious policy development. The four remaining Senators are Bartlett, Stott Despoja, Murray, and new Leader Lyn Allison. Whether the Democrats can ever recover to have as many as nine Senators again is impossible to predict. For now, the electorate has polarised, with growing support for Greens and conservatives. Perhaps, if circumstances were perfect, the Democrats might appeal again as a centre force in the house of review. Certainly, their policies alone do not seem to be distinctive enough to make them likely challengers in lower house seats.

Stott Despoja’s treatment by media carries negative messages for aspiring female leaders.

Stott Despoja’s treatment by media carries negative messages for aspiring female leaders. Women parliamentarians are still treated differently to male colleagues, and the experiences of other females provide a daunting history. Perhaps the media do not give females a chance because they have stepped into a masculine world, and so in attempting to fit male-constructed leadership paradigms, female parliamentarians are exposed to greater scrutiny, criticism, and judgment. Cheryl Kernot (2002, pp. 74–75) has noted how ready the media were to turn on Stott Despoja, and Kerry Chikarovski (2004, p. 229) has argued that by piling expectations on her and others, media eagerly created opportunities to fail. Female parliamentarians have made similar observations over decades as there seems to be no generational bonus for them.

The powerful are advantaged when they can evade identification and so avoid critical attention. This makes inside stories of behind the scenes activity very valuable. By reminding us that the sources of power shift around to avoid scrutiny, they help us to reset our focus. Alison Rogers argues that ‘knowledge is power and if at the conclusion of my story you have a little more knowledge, then I will have achieved my aim’. Should more people with hidden power make themselves publicly accountable, then debates about policies should be better informed and more open. When Labor front bencher Stephen Smith resigned as a staffer to Prime Minister Keating to become an MP, the transition taught him the difference between ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ power. The Natasha Factor clearly demonstrates another difference—between using power to make positive contributions to policy debates and using it to obfuscate, undermine, and frustrate. Whether you are a Senator or a journalist, to use power destructively is easy, but to use it constructively is difficult indeed.


Chikarovski, K. & Garcia, L. M. 2004, Chika, Lothian, South Melbourne.

Kernot, C. 2002, Speaking for Myself Again, HarperCollins, Sydney.

Kingston, M. 1999, Off the Rails: the Pauline Hanson Trip, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

Smith, T. 2001, ‘Others need a dose of Stott Despoja too’, Australian Financial Review, 9 April.

Smith, T. 2002, ‘Voters may yet reprieve Stott Despoja’ Australian Financial Review, 31 July.

Williams, P. 1997, The Victory, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

Tony Smith saw the rise of Natasha Stott Despoja to the Democrats’ leadership as a positive development because students would feel greater ownership of an Australian politics with a more dynamic image. He regarded her fall as a setback for the Democrats and for the Senate (see Smith 2001; 2002).

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