When she was handing out how-to-vote cards at the July 2016 federal election, Fiona Patten realised it was time to change. Patten had been the Sex party’s first MP for close to two years and, from the upper house in Victoria, she had achieved things.
She had proposed a parliamentary inquiry into voluntary assisted dying, an idea the Labor government under Daniel Andrews pursued. She had introduced a bill creating safe access zones around clinics that provided abortion, a move the late minister for women Fiona Richardson called “a significant contribution for women”.
She had put up another bill to legalise and regulate ride-sharing companies such as Uber and again, the government had agreed.
But people kept coming up to her at polling booths. “They said, ‘Congratulations, change your name, congratulations, change your name,’” says Patten over a coffee at the European restaurant, a political haunt opposite Parliament House.
Membership had stalled and financial supporters were avoiding the party, in part because of the “look at me” name, perfect for getting attention when it launched in 2009 as the political arm of the sex industry, but a bit roll-your-eyes now.
Patten says there was a shortlist of about 40 names and the party spent precious funds on market research. The Tulip party was in the mix. Another was the New Democrats, which is about where the party sits ideologically – progressive on social issues and pro-business – much as the Australian Democrats positioned in themselves the 1980s.
They settled on the Reason party, now awaiting registration with the Australian Electoral Commission. On its website, Reason announces itself as a “movement for radical common sense”.
There are more than 40 minor parties listed by the AEC, but Reason may prove to be significant. The Senate voting reforms before the 2016 election mean voters have greater say over where their preferences end up, rather than the little-known deals between tiny parties that made it possible to win a Senate spot with less than 1% of the vote.
The game has changed. This year Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives merged with Family First.
The ABC’s election analyst, Antony Green, expects more mergers because “parties that occupy the same ideological space and compete against each will cut each other’s throat” under the new rules.
There are a flurry of discussions going on about mergers, or alliances of some sort, or the sharing of resources to work on particular issues. Reason intends to be central to those discussions, emerging as a progressive, Democrat-style force in Australian politics.
“We’re not going to see that number of small parties on the ballot ever again,” says Patten. “However, we’re not going to see the voters who didn’t vote for the major parties going back to them. I don’t think we’ll ever have the two-party system again.”
It’s early days, she says, but “it’s people like the Secular party, like the Cyclists, the Progressives, the Arts party. There’s a whole range of them that pick up a couple of per cent [of the vote]. I don’t think they are all going to run again.
“There are other organisations that wouldn’t want to go public right now that are very keen to have a reasonable voice in parliament, and they also want to counter One Nation and that conservative right.” Thinking big, Patten is inspired by French president Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche!, a movement as much as a political party.
Already the Australian Cyclists party has endorsed Reason, announcing it will not stand candidates at the next federal election and urging its members to join Reason.
Patten is talking to similar-minded independents in state parliaments, including the new Queensland independent Sandy Bolton.
She plans to catch up with Senator Derryn Hinch over the summer break but she doubts if Reason would merge with Hinch’s Justice party. The deal-breaker for Patten is Hinch’s campaign for a national and publicly available sex offenders’ register. She can’t abide it.
Hinch said in an email that, while the parties share some policy ideas, he has “absolutely no intention of joining the Reason party. Personally, I think her party name change was a mistake and almost ensures her demise.”
Late in this parliamentary year the Victorian parliament debated laws to trial safe injecting rooms for drug users, based on Patten’s private member’s bill. She also released another bill, to make religious-owned businesses pay land and payroll tax, unless their work is involved in charity.
The shareholder activist and anti-pokies campaigner Stephen Mayne has worked with Patten on attempts to amend the state government’s legislation to hand gambling venues 20-year licences. Patten proposed daily limits of $200 on eftpos withdrawals at pokies venues, and maximum bets of $1.
The amendments were defeated but Mayne credits Patten with “getting the issues elevated – pivotal to that was her ability to cut through in the media and the upper house”.
“It’s one thing to get elected and to sound off in the press and give speeches,” says Mayne. “It’s another thing to introduce legislation and then to go through the grinding process of negotiation and committees and drafting, and she’s done that with euthanasia, injecting rooms and the Uber bill, all of which were good pieces of legislation.
“She is a rare beast because she’s a lefty but she believes in business as well … and she’s very charming.”
Patten has been strategic in using her limited opportunities to introduce private member’s bills and attempt to refer issues to inquiries. The Andrews’ government lacks a majority in the upper house and relies on crossbench support to see legislation passed. There are five Greens, two Shooters and Fishers, one Australian Conservative MP (signed up by Cory Bernardi), a Vote 1 Local Jobs member and Patten.
The Greens now have three lower house members after defeating Labor in the inner-city electorate of Northcote in a byelection last month.
On social issues, Patten agrees with many Greens’ policies but she is curious about what impact they have had with their Victorian success.
“For some reason they don’t seem to be proactive – they don’t put up pieces of legislation,” she says. “Even with the gambling, I put up numerous amendments to that. The Greens would say, ‘We’ve been calling for those amendments,’ but they’ve never done them.
“The supervised injecting centre, and safe access zones, they said, ‘We’ve been calling for this for ages,’ but they’ve never in their time put up a bill to introduce either. I just don’t get it.” (The Greens declined to comment.)
It is the Greens who pose the leftwing threat to Labor in the affluent Melbourneinner city, even though the state government is progressive. The parties loathe each other and Patten wonders if the Greens would prefer Labor not get progressive legislation passed, because it gives them a point of difference.
“I don’t know whether it is because they don’t want the government to achieve it, where I’m more than happy for the government to achieve it because it means it gets done.”
Patten says she’s more ambitious than she was when she was elected three years ago. Reason will stand at the next federal election, and hopes to win another seat or two at the Victorian election late next year.
It needs to grow, she says, to go beyond social issues to have detailed policies on the economy, housing affordability, the environment. She says its key difference from Labor is that Reason believes strongly in the private sector – housing affordability, for instance, should be business-led.
The party’s links with the sex industry have weakened as its interests have broadened. The Sex party was formed by the Eros Foundation to fight censorship. Patten says the industry lobby group now pays the salary of one staff member but party funding is much broader.
Mayne says Patten has proved to be a hard-working, evidence-based politician. “She is trying to get up an alternative national party that is not of the right but not as far left as the Greens. She really is trying to resurrect the Democrats.”
As for Patten, being a politician has been a revelation. “I’ve really enjoyed it,” she says. “I don’t mind hard work, but it’s probably more hours of the day then I ever thought possible. But I know I could do a lot more.”
– Gay Alcorn, The Guardian, 30th December 2017