On 9 September 1969, former Australian Democrats leader and senator Natasha Stott Despoja was born.
Natasha Jessica Stott Despoja AO is an Australian politician, diplomat, advocate and author. She is the founding Chair of the Board of Our Watch, the national foundation to prevent violence against women and their children, and was previously the Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 2013 to 2016.
She was also a Member of the World Bank Gender Advisory Council from 2015 to 2017 and a Member of the United Nations High Level Working Group on the Health and Human Rights of Women, Children and Adolescents in 2017. She is a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
Stott Despoja began her parliamentary career after being appointed to the Senate at the age of 26 serving as an Australian Democrats Senator for South Australia from 1995 to 2008. She went on to serve as the Deputy Leader and Leader of the Australian Democrats. She holds the record for being the youngest woman to sit in the Parliament of Australia and the longest serving Australian Democrats Senator.
Stott Despoja was born in Adelaide to Shirley Stott Despoja, an Australian-born journalist and Mario Despoja, who was from Croatia (then part of Yugoslavia). She attended Stradbroke Primary and Pembroke School and later graduated from the University of Adelaide in 1991.
She was President of the Students’ Association of the University of Adelaide (SAUA) and the South Australian Women’s Officer for the National Union of Students. She then went on to work as a political advisor to Senator John Coulter and Senator Cheryl Kernot.
When John Coulter had to stand down for health reasons in 1995, Stott Despoja was the successful candidate to replace him. Her performance was recognised when she was re-elected not only in the 1996 election the following year, but again in the 2001 election.
In 1997 she had been promoted to become the deputy leader of the Democrats from her position as party spokesperson for parliamentary portfolios such as Science and Technology, Higher Education, IT, Employment & 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.
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.
During her political career she also introduced 24 Private Member’s Bills on issues including paid maternity leave, the Republic, genetic privacy, stem cells, captioning and same sex marriage. Stott Despoja regularly attends the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
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 became the leader of her party on 6 April 2001. The preceding leader Meg Lees left the party in the following year. Stott Despoja faced criticism with calm resolution from Democrat senators and the general public, but she opted to resign on 21 August 2002 after 16 months.
She had been faced with little alternative after four of her six colleagues – the so-called “Gang of Four” – forced a ten-point reform agenda upon her. The agenda was proposed by John Cherry and she was opposed to its content.
Her colleagues were apparently stunned by the resignation, but shouldn’t have been. Four of them had brought the crisis to a head, forcing 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 colleagues’ attitude towards her.
One colleague, Senator Murray, has said that he does 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 was replaced as leader by Andrew Bartlett following a membership ballot interval during which Brian Greig acted in the position.
Stott Despoja has been a casual host on ABC 891 radio, a guest panellist on Channel 10’s The Project and a columnist for the Australian business news website Business Spectator.
She was a board member of non-profit organisations the South Australian Museum (SAM) from 2009 to 2013; the Museum of Australian Democracy (MOAD) from 2010 to 2013; and the Advertising Standards Board (ASB) from 2008 to 2013.
She was a deputy chair at beyondblue (Australia’s national depression initiative). She has been an ambassador for Ovarian Cancer Australia (OCA), The Orangutan Project (TOP); Cancer Australia; secondbite; and the HIV/AIDS anti-stigma campaign, ENUF, (along with her husband Ian Smith).
She was on the board of the Burnet Institute (Australia’s largest virology and communicable disease research institute) from 2008 until December 2013, when Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced the appointment of Stott Despoja as Australia’s new Ambassador for Women and Girls, a role she held until 2016. This involved visiting some 45 countries to promote women’s economic empowerment and leadership and to help reduce violence against women and girls.
Stott Despoja has also been an election observer for the US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Nigeria (2011); visited Burkina Faso for Oxfam (2012); and went to Laos (2011) and Burma (2013) with The Burnet Institute. She was mentioned in June 2014 as a possible replacement for Kevin Scarce as the next Governor of South Australia, however Hieu Van Le was chosen.
On 21 July 2015, Stott Despoja returned to the Burnet Institute as a Patron.
In July 2013, Stott Despoja was the founding chair of Our Watch, originally named Foundation to Prevent Violence Against Women and their Children, and as of April 2019 still occupies this position. A joint initiative of the Victorian and Commonwealth Governments, the organisation is based in Melbourne.
As of April 2019 she is still a columnist for The Advertiser and an Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at The University of Adelaide. In 2010, she taught winter school at The University of Adelaide with former Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, “The Practice of Australian Politics”.
As of April 2019 Stott Despoja is on the Advisory Board of the Australian Privacy Foundation (APF) and the Global Women’s Institute Leadership Council.
In November 2020, Stott Despoja was elected to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, becoming the first Australian member in 28 years.
Stott Despoja is married to former Liberal party advisor, Ian Smith and has two children.