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04 February 2020
By Matt Hrkac

The Greens have a left-winger leading it – but will it be enough?

Finally! After five years of the Greens under his leadership, Richard Di Natale has called it a day, citing family reasons – the desire to spend more time with his two sons – which is a noble enough reason. This led to a spill of all leadership positions within the federal Greens party room, where Greens MP for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, nominated and was chosen to succeed Di Natale. Larissa Waters and Nick McKim become co-deputy leaders (the latter after fending off challenges from Mehreen Faruqi and Sarah Hanson-Young).

In contrast to his predecessors Bob Brown and Christine Milne, who have a background in environmental activism and Di Natale, who hails from the professional middle class; Bandt is firmly grounded in the working class movements.

Also unlike his predecessors, who eschewed ideology in favour of a 'not Left or Right' approach; Bandt is ideologically Left-wing - emphasising the sort of politics much of the Greens support base has been calling for. However, will this change of leadership be enough to excite and re-energise a Greens base that has grown tired and disenchanted after the last five years?

 

Richard Di Natale’s record as Greens leader

I will get on to more about Bandt in a bit; because it is important to reflect on Di Natale’s leadership over the last five years. From the onset, when he was chosen as the Greens new leader in 2015, he was shunning the party’s left-wing base – pledging that the Greens would be the party for “mainstream, progressive voters” and promising a more pragmatic approach and a willingness to do deals for outcomes. At a time, incidentally, when voters were turning away from the political status quo, Di Natale pledged to lead the Greens into the status quo. Leading into the 2016 Federal Election was a period of extensive profile building from a low base. As he embarked on a national tour, Di Natale became the primary face of the Greens and conservative media were lapping him up. Murdoch’s media stable were calling him a “sports fanatic” who “drives a big fuel-guzzling Ford Territory 4WD”, painting him as an everyman, a ‘new breed’ of Greens leader capable of appealing to conservative voters unlike his predecessors.

The remainder of 2015 and early 2016 involved Di Natale’s Greens putting this impression into action. Several deals between them and the federal government took place to pass legislation. First up, was pensions – where the assets test for pension eligibility was lowered. It soon became clear that although intentions seemed good on the surface – the Greens didn’t exactly secure a great deal from their end and is something the Greens should have never supported in its present state, leaving the Greens to justify to its aggrieved support base why it supported Liberal policy. Thus, begun the overt path down towards neoliberalist politics for the Greens.

In December 2015, the next piece of legislation the Greens would help the government pass was around multi-national tax avoidance – under which companies with a turnover of more than $200 million would be forced to disclose their tax arrangements. Labor, who wanted the threshold at $100 million, referred to the Greens as “tax transparency traitors”. This piece of legislation was good; however, they failed to explain it and were once again pigeonholed into defending the deal with the Liberals rather than explaining the benefits of the legislation that they helped to pass.

The final big piece of contentious legislation the Greens would help pass was around Senate voting reform – the main part of which was to abolish group voting tickets, allowing voters to choose their own order of preferences above the line instead of having these being dictated by parties. This drew ire from a host of smaller parties across the political spectrum who saw this as the Greens pulling up the ladder from behind them. While Labor also went on the attack. This was also good policy, but the Greens were once again pigeonholed into explaining why they did a deal with the Liberals rather than explaining the merits of the policy.

This followed the so-called “Black Wiggle” phase (which became a meme of itself) of Di Natale’s leadership in early 2016 – so-called because of his appearance in GQ Magazine where he was photographed wearing a black turtle-neck skivvy; presumably an appeal to inner-city hipster types and wealthy young people living in blue-ribbon electorates, a demographic which was a heavy target for the Greens at the 2016 Election.

Before long, the government had triggered a double-dissolution election (once again, blamed by opponents on the Greens supporting the Senate voting reform) and campaigning was underway. For the Greens, however, the campaign was a disaster. From allegations that Di Natale used au pairs on his farm property to flaunt minimum wage requirements right down to long drawn out speculation of a preference deal with the Liberal Party (which ended up recommending preferences to Labor at the last minute) that was arguably orchestrated by the Liberals for the sole purpose of hurting the Greens – a fact that the Greens should have seen coming and something that the Greens should have never even entertained the prospect of doing in the first place. Di Natale’s “never say never” gaffe when asked about supporting the Liberal Party in a minority government was also disastrous. His overstating of the Greens long term prospects – claiming that the Greens would get 20% of the vote and be holding cabinet positions in a decade – also didn't help at a time when people were turning away from the political mainstream.

Unsurprisingly, once the votes had been counted, it quickly became apparent that Di Natale’s honeymoon flamed out and the Greens vote ended up flat-lining. They failed to gain any of their target lower house seats and their Senate vote went backwards, particularly in South Australia where Robert Simms lost his seat.

The period following the election was a relatively quiet period for the Greens federally, but this would be short lived. Tensions begun to boil over at the state level. In late 2016, party members in New South Wales, aggrieved by Di Natale’s leadership style and the apparent takeover of the Greens by careerists and opportunists seeking to centralise power within their own state branch (a process that had already ran its course in Victoria and Tasmania) formed the Left Renewal faction. Di Natale’s response to the formation of this faction, telling its members to “find a new home”, caused a schism within the Greens federal party room. This happened in the face of a bruising contest to fill the New South Wales Legislative Council vacancy of the late John Kaye (who was from the Left) – won by Justin Field (from the Right).

In the middle of 2017, these tensions would come to a head. Di Natale, along with federal Greens then-spokesperson for education Sarah Hanson-Young (who was removed from the immigration and asylum seekers portfolio leading up to the 2016 Election) were entertaining doing another deal with the Liberal Party, this time around school funding – dubbed Gonski 2.0. Then-Senator Lee Rhiannon, and the New South Wales Greens, were bitterly opposed to any prospect of a deal with the Liberals on Gonski 2.0 (a fact revealed thanks to alleged leaking from Di Natale’s office), as were the New South Wales Teachers Federation and the Australian Education Union – who were begging the Greens to not do a deal with the Liberals. Embarrassed, the Greens federal party room effectively had its hand forced in opposing this legislation, but it resulted in Rhiannon being barred from the federal Greens party room (Rhiannon and Bandt were the only two MPs to vote against this) and the New South Wales Greens being strongarmed into reforming its own internal processes to give its MPs in the federal party room greater autonomy – to do as they please without having to consult the party membership.

A bruising preselection contest in New South Wales would begin as a result of this – with Rhiannon being challenged by then-member of the New South Wales Legislative Council Mehreen Faruqi. Although Faruqi herself comes from the Centre-left, she received endorsement from the party’s Right as well as the Greens’ federal leadership. Faruqi was merely the final piece of the puzzle for Di Natale’s pragmatic Greens and someone who wouldn’t cause disruption. The Queensland Greens were also the target of some attention, who at the 2017 Queensland State Election where it was successful in getting its first MP elected to the Queensland State Parliament, credited its success to putting as much distance as possible between it and the federal party leadership.

Once Faruqi vacated her seat in the New South Wales Legislative Council in mid-2018 in order to take up her Senate seat, a second bruising contest would take place within the New South Wales Greens to fill her vacancy. This contest was ultimately won by Cate Faehrmann, who was up until that point Di Natale’s Chief of Staff and is alleged by some within the Greens to be a key architect in the downfall of Rhiannon.

Meanwhile, tensions were coming to a head in Victoria – Di Natale’s primary base of power within the Greens. The Seat of Batman, in Melbourne’s inner north, went to a by-election following the resignation of MP David Feeney. This by-election pitted long-time candidate for the Greens Alex Bhathal against Ged Kearney for Labor. This campaign was another shocker for the Greens, not because of Bhathal herself, but because of Di Natale having a number of gaffe moments in pitching to conservative voters in an electorate that is broadly progressive. In addition, the campaign was marred with sabotage and leaks against Bhathal, orchestrated by Darebin City Councillors Trent McCarthy, Kim Le Cerfe, Steph Amir and Susanne Newton. This all came together to see what was anticipated to be a Greens gain ending up being a Labor retain, with a swing against the Greens.

This tension continued to plague the Victorian Greens into the 2018 Victorian State Election; where this and other scandals – including rape and sexual assault allegations – engulfed the party, including its former state leader and culminated in what was a disaster of an election campaign. Victorian Greens membership fell by a third within less than two years, with a number of high profile resignations, following the state election, including Bhathal as well as former Legislative Council members Samantha Dunn and Nina Springle. While in New South Wales, Greens membership dropped by 15% within a year as party factional infighting took its toll.

The period following this, leading up to the 2019 Federal Election and the year following the election was a relatively quiet affair with some moments of notability, including when he ripped into the Liberal Party over its leadership crisis. Overall, following the departure of Faehrmann from Di Natale’s office, his role as the leading voice of the Greens had taken a back foot with other Senators sharing the spotlight more. The Greens backtracked from a party willing to do deals in parliament more to a party that is willing to tackle the issues.

Overall, Di Natale’s period as leader of the Greens will be remembered by division, rank opportunism, overstating and under-delivering in terms of performance, policy announcements without consultation, and further centralisation of power within the hands of parliamentarians; with fewer and fewer people calling the shots on behalf of an increasingly aggrieved and frustrated Greens membership. Indeed, it has been suggested that Di Natale chose to resign as leader now partially to keep decisions on party leadership in the hands of the federal party room for as long as possible – vetoing a process soon likely to be introduced allowing for membership plebiscites on who leads the party.

Enter Adam Bandt

Bandt’s history reflects more the typical Labor politician of times past than it does Greens. In his university days, he was a member of the Left Alliance, which was notably aligned to the Communist Party of Australia. During this time, he described the Greens as a “bourgeois party”. He was also a member of the Labor Party from 1987 to 1989. At some stage after graduating, Bandt began working as an industrial, labour relations and public interest lawyer for Slater & Gordon. Bandt was elected as the first Greens MP in the House of Representatives, for the seat of Melbourne, at the 2010 Federal Election.

Bandt takes on the Greens leadership at a pivotal time. Electorally, he faces the challenge of reversing the Greens electoral woes of the last decade – where the Greens have flatlined since their peak in 2010 and have gone backwards in several state parliaments. He will also need to appeal to working class voters if the Greens are to ever grow their base beyond 10% of the electorate. His background in the labour movement should make this process easier, but it will take a while to rebuild trust with these voters, who are increasingly looking at the Greens with suspicion, especially after the last five years. Failing that, we are likely to see the Greens under Bandt’s leadership give more emphasis in industrial relations issues, unions and workers rights then we have seen previously from the Greens.

On his part, Bandt is also already signalling that a Green New Deal, to deal with the combined issues of the climate crisis, inequality as well as unemployment, will be front and centre. His record as an MP has also shown him to be a passionate and energetic speaker but whether he can channel the energy, as the likes of Bernie Sanders exhibits in the United States, and mobilise and unite a mass movement of working- and middle-class people against the corporate elite remains to be seen.

Internally, Bandt faces having to smooth over aggrieved, deflated, burnt out and frustrated members, former members and supporters and to give these people something, once again, to get excited about. Many of the people who came into the Greens and benefited out of Di Natale’s leadership will likely still hang around and these people are determined and driven and as has been demonstrated, will do anything even if it means driving active members and activists out of the party. When the time comes, Bandt will have to deal with the internal tensions that this may entail as well but, hopefully, he and the Greens will have been able to build big enough of a membership base to effectively counter it.

Bandt alone won’t be able to turn the ship around, but if he plays his cards right, he won’t be alone in the fight for the heart and soul of the Greens.

About the author:

Matt Hrkac is a writer and photographer based in Geelong. He has particular interests in politics, elections, social movements and the trade union movement. If you like what you see here, please consider giving a small donation to help cover the expenses.

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