Natasha Jessica Stott Despoja


Natasha Jessica Stott Despoja AM (born 9 September 1969) is an Australian former politician and former leader of the Australian Democrats. She was a Democrats senator for South Australia from 1995 to 2008. Appointed to the Senate at the age of 26, she was the youngest woman ever to become a member of the Parliament of Australia, until Sarah Hanson-Young was elected in 2007.

Stott Despoja was born in Adelaide, the daughter of Shirley Stott, an Australian-born journalist with English heritage, and Mario Despoja, an immigrant from Croatia (then Yugoslavia). She was educated at Stradbroke Primary and Pembroke School and, later, the University of Adelaide where she graduated B.A. She was active in student politics, becoming president of the Students’ Association of the University of Adelaide (SAUA) and serving as state women’s officer for the National Union of Students in South Australia. She then worked as a political advisor to Democrat senators John Coulter (SA) and Cheryl Kernot (Qld).

On 29 November 1995, Stott Despoja was appointed to the casual vacancy created by the resignation of Senator Coulter due to ill-health. She completed the remainder of Coulter’s term, and was returned at the 1996 election and re-elected in 2001.

Stott Despoja was elected to the party’s deputy leadership in 1997 under Meg Lees. At the time, she was party spokesperson for parliamentary portfolios including Science and Technology, Attorney General, Higher Education, IT, Employment and Youth Affairs.

During the passage of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) legislation in 1999, Stott Despoja, along with Andrew Bartlett, split from the party’s other senators by opposing the package, which had been negotiated by Lees and prime minister John Howard. She said that she refused to break promises made by the party during the election. The party had gone to the election stating that they would work with whichever party formed government to improve their tax package. The Australian Democrats traditionally permitted parliamentary representatives to cast a conscience vote on any issue but, on this occasion, close numbers in the Senate placed greater pressure than usual on the dissenters.

Stott Despoja was elected leader on 6 April 2001, replacing Meg Lees, who resigned from the party in July 2002. Further public criticism and disputes between Democrat senators resulted in Stott Despoja’s resignation as leader on 21 August 2002, following presentation by four of her six colleagues (those who had earlier enabled the passage of the GST) with a ten-point ‘reform’ agenda proposed by John Cherry.

After 16 months in the job, Senator Stott Despoja finally decided she couldn’t heal the rifts which had divided her seven-member party room. Her colleagues were apparently stunned by the resignation, but shouldn’t have been. Four of them had brought the crisis to a head, forcing Natasha Stott Despoja to accept a package of reforms she was utterly opposed to.

She announced her resignation in a speech to the Senate, concluding with a “pledge to bring the party back home to the members again”, and referring to her reluctance over colleagues’ attitude towards her.

“One colleague, Senator Murray, said that he did 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,” she said.

In 2004, Stott Despoja took 11 weeks’ leave from the Senate following the birth of her first child before returning to full duties as Democrat spokesperson on, inter alia, Higher Education, Status of Women, and Work and Family.

On 22 October 2006, after undergoing emergency surgery for an ectopic pregnancy, she announced that she would not be contesting the 2007 election to extend her term beyond 30 June 2008. She was the Australian Democrats’ longest-serving senator. Her retirement coincided with the ending of her party’s federal parliamentary representation; the Democrats’ support had collapsed after 2002 and they won no seats at the 2004 and 2007 half-senate elections.

Stott Despoja is married to former Liberal party advisor Ian Smith.

She is also a board member of non-profit organisations Burnet Institute (Australia’s largest virology and communicable disease research institute) and BeyondBlue (Australia’s national depression initiative).

On 13 June 2011, Stott Despoja was made a Member of the Order of Australia for service to the Parliament of Australia, particularly as a Senator for South Australia, through leadership roles with the Australian Democrats, to education, and as a role model for women.