As the youngest woman to enter federal parliament, the former leader of a federal political party and one of the Australian Democrats’ longest-serving senators, Natasha Stott Despoja has a rich choice of career highlights.

But the South Australian politician, who has announced she will leave politics when her Senate term ends in June 2008, said this week one of her most memorable achievements came some distance from federal parliament.

An absolute highlight for me in a symbolic sense was Mardi Gras, which I have found one of the most positive, life-affirming, community-minded events on the Australian calendar, Stott Despoja told Sydney Star Observer this week.

Besides her six or seven appearances in the Oxford St parade, Stott Despoja has been a consistent advocate for gay and lesbian law reform since taking a Senate seat as a 26-year-old in 1995.

She was a vocal opponent of the 2004 same-sex marriage ban, calling it a blatant attack on gay and lesbian relationships during Senate debate.

The ban was one of the darkest days on the Senate calendar in my past 11 years in parliament, she said.

It is hopefully a constant legislative reminder to Labor and Liberal of the fact that we’ve gone backwards in some respects in terms of law reform.

In June this year Stott Despoja and fellow Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett introduced a private member’s bill seeking to reverse the gay marriage ban.

Despite speculation her departure would spell the end for the struggling Democrats, Stott Despoja was optimistic.

I’m confident that the support that has existed for these issues will continue to exist in the Democrats. It preceded my entry into parliament and it will continue after I’ve gone.

Stott Despoja is leaving parliament to spend more time with her young son. She has not ruled out a return to politics.

Gay activist Rodney Croome said Stott Despoja would leave a formidable political legacy.

She has educated her colleagues in the party and the Senate about the need for change, Croome told the Star.

Whether the Democrats survive or not, her legacy will be greater visibility and understanding of our issues in the party and in the Senate.

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