The Reason Party is selling more than sex. But will voters buy it?

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The Reason Party is selling more than sex. But will voters buy it?

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Reason Australia, formerly the Australian Sex Party, is running a “pared-back” federal campaign, fielding just three candidates in the lower house and none in the Senate.

Listing budget constraints and the overhauled Senate voting system as factors, Reason founder and Victorian MP Fiona Patten says the bare-bones campaign was a difficult decision. There are 31 political parties running for the Senate in Victoria, she says, “so we looked at how could we have the best impact”.

“We were really concerned that we would get, you know, that we would have a wonderful Senate candidate and they would get a really small vote. And we just didn’t want to put a candidate through that.”

Aged care advocate Sarah Russell is running for Reason in Cooper. Drawing on her own experiences living with bipolar, and a research grant from Beyond Blue, she published A Lifelong Journey: Staying Well with Manic Depression/Bipolar Disorder in 2005.

Judy Ryan is contesting Melbourne on a platform of drug law reform, homelessness and mental health. Rachel Payne, general manager of the Eros Association, is taking on Liberal incumbent and arch conservative Kevin Andrews in Menzies who, Ms Patten argues, is out of step with community attitudes.

The party’s low-key approach in this campaign is in stark contrast to the 2016 Federal Election, when in its previous incarnation as the Sex Party, Patten’s team released its controversial “#VaticanCan” campaign advertisement slamming Catholic Church’s influence in Australian politics with a sleazy priest reworking the lyrics of “The Candy Man Can.

Nonetheless, the behaviour of religious organisations is still squarely in the party’s sights. One of its policy promises to voters is to push to taxes on for-profit businesses owned by religious organisations – such as Sanitarium, a commercial property of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The number one issue for the self-described ‘forward thinking’ Reason Party agenda in Victoria, and central to its platform in this federal campaign, is drug policy. It hosted a five-hour rave to support pill-testing as part of its campaign ahead of the last Victorian election, was highly influential in establishing Victoria’s first medically supervised injecting room, and is currently campaigning in Victoria to allow people who take medicinal cannabis to drive.

It should be treated like “every other prescription medicine”, says Ms Patten, who is arguing to have it excluded from the offence of driving with a drug present in oral fluids.

Ms Patten sits with The Junction at her Brunswick MLC office. In a bright room with a window straight onto the traffic of Sydney Road, she pauses for a moment to wave to someone walking past.

Made of French mohair, ‘Obama’ and ‘Michelle’ were designed by Sydney artist Kirsten Fredericks, but “even more beautifully”, Ms Patten enthuses, they were knitted by ladies in a King’s Cross aged care facility.

Displayed in Ms Patten’s office is a relic from the National Museum of Erotica she began with Robbie Swan: a big woollen penis named ‘Obama’, gently cupped by a knitted woollen hand – named ‘Michelle’ – complete with plastic nails painted the precise coral of Ms Obama’s favourite nail polish.

Made of French mohair, ‘Obama’ and ‘Michelle’ were designed by Sydney artist Kirsten Fredericks, but “even more beautifully”, Ms Patten enthuses, they were knitted by ladies in a King’s Cross  aged care facility.

“It’s a wonderful piece, I couldn’t go past it,” she says.

CEO of the Eros Association for 20 years, Ms Patten says the Sex Party was formed sitting around her kitchen table in response to the Rudd Government’s internet censorship policy.

“And this was just an anathema to us and to have this kind of high level – almost Chinese – form of censorship on what adults could and could not read online was the final straw,” says Ms Patten.

“We really saw ourselves as a social justice or a civil libertarian party that was about the rights of children to be treated as children and protected as children, and adults to be treated as adults.”

Reflecting on the resignation of seven candidates from various parties in the course of this campaign, each skewered when controversial comments buried in their social media histories came back to haunt them, Ms Patten calls for greater forgiveness, noting “we have all said or done stupid things in our past”.

“We want the most sanitised politicians that have no life experience – that have no opinions – to be elected, and that’s not what we want. We want more human beings in our parliament, and human beings are imperfect.”

Ms Patten rebranded the Sex Party as the Reason Party in 2018 because, she says, the name painted it as a single-issue outfit on the political fringe. The change has attracted a “higher calibre of candidate” who “wouldn’t have felt comfortable wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with ‘SEX’ emblazoned across their chest” .

Tristram Chellew, a former Sex Party candidate, says the change has brought new energy to the party, which he describes as a centrist party due to its pragmatism and ability to work across the political spectrum without being held hostage to ideological purity.

Ms Patten, asked to explain where her policies fit on the policy spectrum, quotes Australian Democrats founder Don Chipp: “We’re not left, we’re not right, we’re forward.”

She says she isn’t in the Victorian Parliament to oppose the Government by default, but rather to progress her own policies. She keeps a copy of Labor’s election platform on her desk. “Now when that platform contradicts my own, that’s when we have a problem,” she says.

Hired to work on her successful 2014 campaign was a man called Glenn Druery, a now infamous expert on harvesting political preferences who, Ms Patten says, was paid $20,000 as an “independent operator”.

Mr Druery, the so-called “preference whisperer”, has helped elect the likes of Senator Derryn Hinch and Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party.

Ms Patten says Mr Druery was hired without her knowledge by her campaign director, Craig Ellis, who thought it would be “better to have Glenn inside the tent than outside” and paid him “to ensure that we didn’t get done over” in the final lodging of the group voting tickets.

The pair had a bitter falling out ahead of last year’s Victorian election, with Ms Patten lodging a formal complaint with the Victorian Electoral Commission alleging that Mr Druery had improperly asked for payment in order to negotiate micro-party preferences while he was Derryn Hinch’s chief of staff.

Her complaint was forwarded to the Victoria Police in November last year.  A Victoria Police spokesperson has confirmed to The Citizen that an investigation is still underway, and that police hope to have an outcome soon.

“I’m not sure how Derryn can allow that to occur,” says MsPatten. “If that’s legal, it certainly doesn’t pass the pub test.”

Mr Druery wanted $5000 to join his minor party “family”, with a $50,000 fee if a candidate was elected, Ms Patten told The Age.

According to Ms Patten, even parties outside of Mr Druery’s “family” were coaxed into putting the Reason Party last.

“Glenn Druery had said to our campaign director, ‘I will make sure that Fiona does not win a place on a netball team. I will make it my life’s work to make sure she does not get re-elected.’ So there was nothing to lose in talking about this.”

Asked for his response, Mr Druery called this a “gross exaggeration” and said he “never threatened her”.

Ms Patten was re-elected to the Victorian Legislative Council as the final member for Northern Metropolitan Region in 2018. She’s succeeded in gaining credibility and influence with her close involvement in social reforms including voluntary assisted dying and safe access zones around abortion clinics.

When it appeared she might lose her Victorian seat last November, Premier Daniel Andrews said her unseating would be a “loss to the Parliament” and signaled he would consider giving her a job.

But Ms Patten’s performance and the evolution of the party hasn’t been without its detractors, including one-time true believers. Dr Meredith Doig resigned from Reason last year, and describes Ms Patten as more an independent with a fan base than the leader of a genuine political party – though, she adds, an effective politician.

“In my view, any political party needs to have a robust and effective organisational arm and this has not been built for the Reason Party,” she said.

But Ms Patten, Reason’s only elected member to date, argues that keeping the focus on her is an effective way to demonstrate Reason’s achievements. Small, volunteer-run parties struggle with structure and organisation, she argues.

The Greens took nearly 20 years to get a candidate elected and, though Reason has done this more quickly, Ms Patten says, there is danger in young parties growing too fast.

Lucy Lovegrove is a student in the Master of Journalism program at the University of Melbourne.