Missing a Mentor

It’s really just as well I believe in science, not superstition, or I would be thinking my decision to write more obituaries was having some dire consequences, given how many opportunities I have had since making it.

The death of Janet Powell has hit particularly close to home. In recent years I only saw Janet about once a year or two, although I’m grateful I got the chance for to say goodbye, even if only by phone. That contact however, does not do justice to the influence she had on my life, and the example she provided on how to approach politics.

Janet once told me that she joined the Australian Democrats without a cohesive political vision, or even a broad range of issues she cared about. “I just wanted to get some honesty back into politics and stop spreading uranium around the world,” she said.

However, unlike so many other people who get into politics without a broad understanding of what is involved Janet thrived, deliberately opening her mind up to ideas and debates. By the time Don Chipp retired in 1986 she was a key figure in the party in Victoria, and was selected to take his spot. She won re-election in 1987 at the Double Dissolution for 6 years (and there-in hangs a story I might add later).

Janet’s private member’s bill banning advertisements for smoking was a crucial stepping stone in the battle to phase out the legal pushing of Australia’s most destructive drug. Smoking rates have plummeted since, in large part as a result of the bans on advertising, and the number of lives saved as a result would run well into the thousands. This was, I learned recently, the first successful private members bill by an Australian woman. My memory is hazy on the details, and I have not seen it written up in any obituaries, but she played a part in winning equal rights for gays and lesbians, seizing an opportunity to put a particular form of discrimination (I think perhaps bans on serving in the military, but as I said hazy memory) on the agenda. This occurred at a time when the government would not have acted of its own accord, but once this issue was raised it moved relatively promptly to remove the problem.

In 1989-90 environmental issues were experiencing a world-wide surge. Had there been an organised national Green party it is possible it would have been the beneficiary. However, the Greens at the time were a series of state and locally based parties (around a dozen sprinkled across NSW) with a fair degree of diversity amongst them – some were fronts for socialist parties, while others were quite right-wing (the leader of the South Australian Greens at the time is now leading the fight against wind turbines many kilometres from her home using all the standard disproven arguments). In those places where the Greens were substantial and organised they did quite well at the 1990 election, but across most of the country the Democrats were the beneficiaries of this vote, getting their highest score ever and winning Senators everywhere except WA, where they were narrowly beaten by the Greens.

A big part of the Democrats success was based on the decision of their leader, Janine Haines, to give up her safe spot in the Senate and run for a lower house seat. People were attracted by the bravery of this move and it boosted their vote elsewhere, but in the end Haines was not elected (in large part because she picked the wrong seat to run for) and the party needed a new leader. Janet was chosen.

It was not an easy time to fill the position. Almost as soon as the election was over the economy went into decline, and the party struggled to make it’s voice heard on issues like unemployment that moved to the front of people’s minds. Janet was much more of a strategic thinker than Haines, but less charismatic, which didn’t help the polling.

In the Democrats’ one big electoral test under Janet’s leadership, they got their highest ever vote at a NSW state election, but this still didn’t meet expectations, and lead to rumbles of dissent, not stilled by achieving 22% at the Menzies by-election.

Many people saw hope in the idea of a merger or alliance between the Greens and the Democrats. Probably most members of each party were keen on the idea, but there were wildly different visions of what that would involve.

There was also a general feeling that things needed to move slowly. The Greens were edging their way to a consistent national voice, one that included the stronger parties around the country with a cohesive set of values and excluding those groups that used the name but were not really in line with the positions of Greens Parties globally. However, this was taking time.

I was a member of the Democrats at this point, but almost all my focus was on student politics, so I was barely aware of the debate. It seemed to me natural that the parties would join at some point and that this would bolster the Democrats in the places where the Greens were strong and the Democrats weak (WA, TAS, parts of NSW). I think a lot of other Democrats saw it the same way, but assumed that they would definitely be the dominant wing. After all, they had 8 senators to one, how could they not be the leadership of the party?

However, at a press conference revealing that negotiations were underway, Janet was asked who would lead the new party, should it come about. She said, “Bob Brown”. It was an act of great integrity – the leader of a national party with 8 spots in the Senate was putting the interests of the movement ahead of personal ambitions, handing the leadership to a state MP from a sparsely populated island who was part of an informal network of disorganised parties simply because he would be better for the job.

It was also a huge tactical misstep. Democrats who anticipated that any merger would happen on their terms were not pleased at all. Those with their own ambitions to leadership saw it slipping away, and started a campaign to undermine Janet. The drop in the polls gave them plenty to work with, and they also exploited her relationship with her fellow Victorian Democrat senator Sid Spindler.

Janet’s integrity tripped her up in another way as well. At the time parliamentarians in parties with 5 or more MPs got 3 staff each, but the party leader got 1.5 staffing positions for each MP to allocate as they saw fit. Both Janet’s predecessor and successor kept most of these positions for themselves, choosing the staff and basing them either in Canberra or their home state. However, Janet shared the staff amongst her fellow senators, and it was one of these who she believed organised the petition to have her dumped (100 Democrat members could trigger a leadership spill).

I think my membership had lapsed at this time and I didn’t even vote in the ballot that followed. Certainly I didn’t understand what was at stake, although my sister, who was also in the Democrats then, fiercely supported Janet.

Janet’s dumping turned out to be a disaster for the Democrats. Her replacement, John Coulter, lacked both her strategic mind and Haines’ charisma. Meanwhile, many of those who had supported her dumping continued to bully her. The spill had been timed, possibly deliberately, to coincide with some family tragedies, and Janet became quite sick for a while afterwards.

When she recovered, in early 1992, she quit the party, taking with her many of the core members in Victoria, although almost no one in other states.

I was just starting to think I should stop focussing so much on university politics when this occurred, and didn’t really know which side of the split I fell on. I was helping out with the state election campaign of one of the candidates who chose to stay. However, I also had some connection to some of those who left. In the end geography proved crucial. Janet’s office was on one possible route between my house and university. I dropped in regularly on the way in to uni, and after a while it became clear that this was where I was at home.

Janet was often in Canberra, or otherwise not in her office, so I got to know the staff much better than I knew her, but I still became firmly committed to her re-election, and I was put in charge of the electoral analysis, trying to work out where she should target to win votes.

It was a folorn hope. Janet didn’t get close. Lacking a party name or much statewide infrastructure it was always going to be hard to be elected. She had the backing of several groups, but none of them was large enough to make much difference. The Greens Party had formed by then in Victoria, but was so small it did not feel capable of doing any more than running one lower house candidate, and advising a vote for Janet in the Senate on the how to vote cards there, as well as to members outside the seat.

I’m sure I would have found my way to the Greens in the end anyway, but the opportunity to meet those who were establishing the party while collaborating on Janet’s campaign hastened my decision to join within a few months of the election. I formed some important friendships out of the campaign, as well as learning a lot that I was later able to apply to the Greens. Janet went on to mentor many women thinking of entering politics, and Janet Rice, elected on the day her namesake died has paid tribute to her role.

Janet also retained a level of popularity that went entirely under the radar for the media. When she ran fifth on the Greens ticket for Eastern Metropolitan Region in the Victorian Upper House she scored a remarkable below the line vote for someone in that position, despite no great amount of publicity.

While some politicians use their time after parliament to make a lot of money or play a lot of golf, Janet instead threw herself into charitable work, most notably with the YWCA, an organisation that, in Australia at least, is far more radical than its name might suggest.

I’m sure plenty of people would write Janet off as a political failure, but I think she made an important contribution to the formation of the Greens, even though she didn’t join until quite a few years later. Most of those who left the Democrats to support her ended up joining the party, and were more experienced and astute as a result of their experience working to elect her, and supporting each other at the 1992 state election. I think they are a big part of why the Greens are now more successful in Victoria than the other mainland states.

Janet’s endorsement added credibility to the Greens as a national force at the 1993 federal election, which helped bolster the remarkably tricky process of drawing the state organisations together into something vaguely cohesive.

Most significantly however, by demonstrating that one can be a politician, fight hard to get to a position of power, but be willing to give it up if someone else can do it better, she leaves a legacy that very few can match.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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