“As Tina Turner might have sung, “What’s age got to do, got to, got to do with it?” Likewise, Democrats leader Meg Lees and her deputy, Natasha Stott Despoja.

Tina, 62 this year, appears ageless. While Meg (aged 52) and Natasha (aged 31) seem to have an age problem. Lees, on Ten’s Meet The Press last Sunday, admitted having to reject the idea she was “past” her “use-by date”. Stott Despoja is still dogged at times by her girly “Doc Martens” image. Perhaps this is just a media perception? Or white-anting from their opposing camps? Who knows?

Apart from a frothy news beat up, the question of age should not be a factor in whether it’s Meg Lees or Natasha Stott Despoja who leads the Democrats. But it won’t go away. Natasha now caricatured with schoolbag and bobby socks; Meg the matronly schoolmistess look.

At first glance, age, like beauty, seems to be a woman thing, especially when the audiences in TV land seem uncomfortable with pictures of women at the helm. Whether they’re older or younger, cartoonists still reach for any image that suggests women lack the strength for the job.

Tina Turner has to look half her age to survive. Younger women still attract dollybird, girlfriend only judgments, regardless of their intellectual achievements. Kirsten Livermore’s RM Williams are compared with Stott Despoja’s Doc Martens as if these two successful politicians’ only talent is their choice of footwear.

And yet, neither Paul Keating nor Peter Costello could claim excesses of maturity when, at 39, they became Treasurer of Australia, any more than Stott Despoja can, at 31, as she challenges for Leader of the Democrats.

Audiences still aren’t used to women in strong roles. Wrinkled males, close to sixty, command the best television presenter jobs while attractive women presenters are sidelined at 45. Fifty-nine year old Cornelia Frances, without the benefit of plastic surgery, gets to host a TV quiz show and it’s a big story.

No one would question John Howard’s right to a third term, if he could win it, although he is 62 this year. He would argue that, at most, he would only be 65 at the next federal election. Robert Menzies retired as Prime Minister at 72.

Yet in 1999, 45 year old Sharan Burrow, earmarked for ACTU president, was criticised by her very ambitious Labor colleague Michael Costa, aged 43, as being too old. For a minute, his argument looked like it might work. He was confident enough to try.

Side issues, such as age, are a distraction. Whether it’s Meg or Natasha who leads the Democrats at the next federal election, it’s going to be a tough. As Cheryl Kernot warned in June 1999, Meg Lees now regrets those photos of her and John Howard over the GST deal – just as Kernot did with the photos of her and Peter Reith on industrial relations.

Disillusionment with the GST is now a burning sore with Democrat voters if letters to the editor pages and talkback radio are any guide. Meg Lees might take heart at this. Many disillusioned Democrats dropped their membership after the GST deal and will now not vote on who leads the party.

Such is the embarrassment, in an article for The Age on 1 March, Lees did not write “GST” once, in spite of its concern to Democrat voters. Stott Despoja, on the other hand, risked rejection by her Democrat colleagues to oppose much of the GST legislation and has promised to work to make it a lot fairer if she becomes leader.

On Sunday, when questioned as to whether she saw the Democrats as a party of policy or protest, Meg Lees spoke strongly in favour of policy. Natasha Stott Despoja would also regard herself as serious about policy, but she can also say that she would reinvigorate the Democrats and be a voice for change.

On Seven’s Sunday Sunrise, Sunday, Stott Despoja spoke of the Democrats’ “strong records on the environment, not just standing up for economic sustainability, but about social justice”. Meg Lees would agree. But, Stott Despoja can also say, “I didn’t support the [GST] deal that was done … in some ways we could have done better.”

As a message to disillusioned Democrats this has a lot to offer. What has age got to do with it, indeed.”

Article published in The Australian