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Inside the Greens

Aug 28, 2019 • 16m20s

The Greens is a party with a leader who many think is too mainstream, struggling with the growing pains of infighting and factionalism. It is also on the cusp of another step change.

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Inside the Greens

67 • Aug 28, 2019

Inside the Greens

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

The Greens is a party with a leader who many think is too mainstream struggling with the growing pains of in-fighting and factionalism. The party’s biographer says it is also on the cusp of another step change. Paddy Manning on Richard Di Natale and his third force.

[Theme ends]

ELIZABETH:

Elizabeth g’day.

ELIZABETH:

Hi Paddy.

PADDY:

Hello.

ELIZABETH:

Paddy, let’s jump right in.

PADDY:

Yeah.

ELIZABETH:

You've spent years writing this book about the history of the Greens. Richard Di Natale became leader of the party in 2015, when Christine Milne had stepped down after three years of leading the party. Why did they choose him?

PADDY:

It was a surprise to a lot of people and they are still kind of chewing over almost five years later, how they came to choose Richard as leader. It was a very sudden transition it was not expected at all.

ELIZABETH:

Paddy Manning is a contributing editor for The Monthly. He’s the author of Inside the Greens.

[Music starts]

PADDY:

Christine Milne had only been there for three years and before that, either unofficially or officially, Bob Brown had been the leader for two decades.

Archival tape — Bob Brown:

“The Greens have been called revolutionary, and of course we fail in the usual sense of that word, we fail because we are determined to promote peace…”

PADDY:

This was a party that wasn't used to leadership intrigue at all. And when they did change leader it was done with clinical kind of precision, it was a very tightly kept secret that Christine was stepping down.

Archival tape — Christine Milne:

“... and I decided that now is a very good time to be going because the party is in really good shape…”

PADDY:

Nobody in the party room knew. And then there was a brutal short meeting where half the party room realised that the leadership had been stitched up and a decision had been made. And Richard stepped up as the leader of the party.

Archival tape — Richard Di Natale:

“I’m not an ideologue, I’m not going to come in here and saying oh we want small government or big government, you’re not going to get that from me. We want a decent government, a government that looks after people,they’re choices we have to make. I don’t have a dogmatic view about whether we should do one thing or another, my view’s pretty straightforward…”

PADDY:

But because it's the Greens and they're a minor party the media was very happy to move on quickly. And, you know, who was this character?

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

Who was this character, who is Richard Di Natale?

PADDY:

After the years under Bob Brown and Christine Milne, Bob had been to jail he'd been bashed he'd been shot at, everyone knew exactly why he was leader of the Greens. Christine Milne also from Tasmania, had fought to stop the Wesley Vale pulp mill in 1989 got elected to the State Parliament. She'd been there for a decade and so she similarly had a very high profile. When the party switched to Richard di Natale, he was much less well-known and he was not from the same kind of activist mould that the two previous leaders had come from. He had done, for example, a stint as a volunteer out in Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. He'd been in India working as a...part of a foreign aid mission and then in Community Health in Melbourne.

The way he describes his political sort of awakening...although his family, his extended family voted Labour, and he actually at one point later flirted with joining the party when he was up in the Territory but he was also he was also disappointed by Labour and he watched the impact of Labor's embrace of economic rationalism on the people including in his family that worked in, for example, a textile industry manufacturing in Melbourne. Di Natale's political trajectory was consistent with rejection of the free trade necessarily, you known, rejection of, you know, lower taxes, deregulation. Actually he joined the Greens by chance after picking up a book that Bob Brown had written with the philosopher Peter Singer. Just titled The Greens. He just picked it up by chance out of a bookshop in Adelaide when he was on a holiday there and read it and decided that he wanted to join that party.

ELIZABETH:

And when he took over the party, what was the pitch that he put to them?

PADDY:

He made an argument that the values of the Greens were in line with the values of mainstream Australia. And I think that argument was kind of misunderstood.

Archival tape — Richard Di Natale:

“...you look at, for example, the war in Afghanistan, the right to die with dignity, equal love in marriage, they’re all mainstream Australian values and it’s now the Greens who represent those things while the two old parties don’t represent Australians on those important issues.”

PADDY:

There, were and are, a lot of kind-of radical activists inside the Greens for whom the word mainstream is anathema and they’re looking for radical social change. Yet Di Natale’s argument was not that he wanted to take the Greens into the political mainstream but that the political system was not representing the views of mainstream Australians, which is a majority support for climate action, majority support for marriage equality. He thought there was potential for the Greens to take up voters from disaffected Labor and Liberal supporters. There were a string of issues where a political system actually seems to be both to the right of and actually behind the community.

ELIZABETH:

But despite his argument that the policies of the Greens are actually already mainstream values, Di Natalie’s position has been controversial within the party.

PADDY:

Well because he's not the activist leader of the firebrand that would be the kind of politician that the Greens would put up in the past because he wasn't that kind of politician he presents as a very reasonable, well-educated character. He's not the anti-politician.

And yet what we've seen in whether it's the shift overseas towards populism of Trump or Brexit, both on the left and the right, you've seen a rejection of the kind of guy in a suit talking down to people. That's the kind of worst way of putting it. And he has taken the Greens in a direction that on the radical fringes of the party they feel it's kind of out of sympathy with the mood of the electorate. The voters are shifting. They're desperate for an alternative to the major parties that doesn't look like the major parties and doesn't speak in pollie speak. And so there is an argument that Richard as a professional politician is not the right face for the Greens at this time.

To Di Natale’s credit the Greens at a federal level have racked up some serious wins, so they were the first to call for a banking royal commission, tax reform, federal ICAC, multinational tax avoidance, Senate voting reform to get rid of preference whispering. A lot of these reforms, the policy work was done first by the Greens. And I think Di Natale and the party deserves credit for that, what he calls, thought leadership you know it’s not just a slogan, the Greens have actually been at the vanguard in a policy sense.

ELIZABETH:

Di Natale has said that he wants the Greens primary vote to lift to something like 20 per cent by 2025. How is that going? How is he tracking?

PADDY:

On its face, just on the statistics you would say it's not tracking well. Basically the party has been sitting at that level of nine to 10 per cent for a decade now. Nevertheless at the 2019 election an election the Greens, with predictions that they might half their presence in the Senate, in fact they did well. They held onto all six of the senators that were contesting the election and their vote went up, not by much, but it did a little.

[Music starts]

The cycle is such that in 2022 if the Greens get the same vote even if they don't increase their vote they could add two or three senators. So, although Di Natalie’s target of 20 per cent by 2025 feels like a long way away, in fact the cycle could favor them at this coming federal election and you might see them even emerge with, for example, the balance of power in the upper house.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

[Music ends]
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ELIZABETH:

Paddy the Greens have had Richard Di Natale to lead them now to two federal elections. Looking ahead, what do you think are some of the main struggles for the party more broadly?

PADDY:

I think they're too preoccupied with fighting each other. There is this kind of toxic level of abuse particularly on social media. So you've got closed Facebook groups which I’ve... unlucky enough to have waded through and you'll see a level of rancor that is just completely removed from the ideals of the party.

[Music starts]

It's sort of like physician heal thyself. You know, the Greens have got a very good diagnosis of what needs to happen in Australian politics but they come to it with an internal culture that is brutal.

Archival tape — Unidentified female newsreader:

“The Green’s plans are in chaos after a vicious round of infighting in the parties long-troubled NSW branch…”

Archival tape — Unidentified male newsreader 1:

“...a battle has broken out within the Greens over Australia Day with a fringe group wanting to burn the flag and disrupt celebrations on January the 26th…”

Archival tape — Unidentified male 1:

“...when someone makes a request confidentially, it is incumbent on those people who are responding and dealing with that request, to deal with it confidentially. If recent events have told us anything, it is that that basic principle should always be upheld…”

Archival tape — Unidentified male newsreader 2:

“…the party even fought moves to establish Bob Brown as national leader on the grounds it was too hierarchical…”

Archival tape — Unidentified male 2:

“…Well I think the hierarchy question is a bit of a paradox actually. A lot of people in the Greens, when they say they don’t want a hierarchy just mean I don’t want somebody else being at the top of the ladder. There’s an old joke, and the old inner city left that says, there is
nothing more tyrannical than structurelessness.”

[Music ends]

PADDY:

You've also had the hardening of differences within the party and yet the structure of the party and the culture of the party hasn't adapted to recognise factions. Bob Brown himself would say there is nothing to fear from the formalisation of factions but the problem is it's not consistent with a consensus decision making process and so the party kind of baulks at allowing factions to form. The problem with consensus decision making is you need to get 75 per cent agreement to make it a substantial change. And that is very difficult when you've got important debates educated, intelligent people arguing about issues that they care about greatly and seats in parliament thrown into the mix.

ELIZABETH:

Patty tell me about the green movement globally and where Australia kind of fits in, is it part of the same wave in any way?

PADDY:

Well what's inspired the Greens recently is the European elections in May. So what you've seen is a backlash against the populist right and the nationalist right in Europe, that's inspiring Green parties around the world and particularly in Australia. As a result of the disappointment of the recent election, Labor seems to be shifting to the right trying to reassert its relationship with working class communities in coal mining electorates and also voting in favour of 158 billion dollars of tax cuts that overwhelmingly will benefit the better off. So that could really work, I think, in the Greens favour.

ELIZABETH:

And what do you think that means for the future of the Greens, what is the future for the Greens?

PADDY:

Well I think if the Greens can stop fighting each other and if Labor is going to walk away from important issues that are a concern to a lot of, even mainstream, voters not just necessarily progressive voters then I think the Greens really could surge. I was given an analogy by one former Greens politician who said the way it builds up is, it's like a rice paddy, like the water just builds up and then you know you say nothing and then it'll spill over to the next level. And I think that's right that the Greens they went through a step change in 2010, and it may well be, although that they've been treading water for a decade, at a federal level, they may be building up to another kind of step change in the coming decade.

ELIZABETH:

But at the same time, there’s this view, this persistent view that the Greens are perpetually on the point of potential collapse.

PADDY:

Yeah well I'm glad you asked about that because there’s this kind of working assumption that the Greens will at some point collapse the way the Democrats did. And you hear it all the time that the Greens will have a Democrats moment that's wrong on a number of levels I think.

First of all, the Democrats didn't have a moment they had about three of them so it took a long time for the Democrats actually, to collapse. And secondly if you look at the trajectory, the DLP and the Democrats they go through a very rapid rise, they peak and then they fall very rapidly. But the Greens have not had that trajectory at all. What they have had is a very slow build to a peak in 2010 but they haven't fallen away to anywhere near the same degree as either the Democrats or the DLP. They are here for another decade at least.

ELIZABETH:

That might be their most successful decade yet potentially.

PADDY:

Yeah it may well be.

[Music starts]

The most recent election just saw the lowest level of primary support for the two major parties in history. So depending on where you start the story I start in 1966. But if you start from ‘92 that's at least you know they've had their quarter century, they've outlasted the Democrats, they've certainly outlasted the DLP. One Nation by comparison is a complete joke, it's had 28 candidates and lost more than three quarters of them. You know, it's got no platform to speak of. Here is a party that has been around for decades working up a platform that has a long history and they are continuing to grow.

ELIZABETH:

Patty thank you so much for speaking with us.

PADDY:

No problem.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

The Victorian supreme court has ruled against an injunction, which it sought to prevent John Setka's expulsion from the Labor Party, saying the application was outside the court’s jurisdiction. Setka, who is the Victorian secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union, is being expelled from the party for bringing it into disrepute through his criminal convictions and for comments that he’s reported to have made about anti-domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty.

And the inquest into the death of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day has been told race did not play a part in the decision of a train conductor to report her to police for drunkenness. He maintained that he called police because he was concerned for her safety. Day later fell in her cell and died of a brain haemorrhage. The inquest is the first in Australia to consider whether racism contributed to the death of an Indigenous person in custody.

This is 7am. I'm Elizabeth Kulas. See you Thursday.

The Greens is a party with a leader who many think is too mainstream, struggling with the growing pains of infighting and factionalism. The party’s biographer says it is also on the cusp of another step change. Paddy Manning on Richard Di Natale and his third force.

Guest: Contributing editor (politics) for The Monthly and author of Inside the Greens Paddy Manning.

Background reading:

Inside the Greens, by Paddy Manning, published by Black Inc.
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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67: Inside the Greens