Meg Lees crucial to GST negotiations: succeeded as Democrats leader by Natasha Scott-Despoja

 

Meg Lees put South Australian women further into the federal political spotlight – and heat – as leader of the Australian Democrats from 1997.

When Cheryl Kernot defected to the Labor party, Lees became Democrats leader, with another South Australian, Natasha Stott Despoja, as her deputy. The Democrats held the balance of power in the senate.

With Lees as leader, the Democrats strengthened the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act, and improved the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Lees came under pressure when she had to negotiate with prime minister John Howard on aspects of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Many Democrats were unhappy with the deal and, when the party declined in the polls, Stott Despoja successfully challenged for the leadership in 2001.

Stott Despoja, the youngest woman elected to federal parliament (a record taken by the Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young in 2008) and the youngest to lead a political party.  She had come from a background of student politics, becoming president of Adelaide University’s students’ association.

Her 16-month leadership was marred by rifts among the seven Democrats senators, ending with Stott Despoja resigning over a proposed package of reforms.
During her political career, she had introduced 24 Private Member's Bills on issues including paid maternity leave, the republic, genetic privacy, stem cells and same sex marriage.

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