The view from Billinudgel

Escape from Tasmania
Richard Di Natale will bring the Greens to the mainland, if not quite the mainstream

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The Sex Party finally succumbed to supporters’ droop last week; it has been deregistered by the electoral commission through sheer lack of interest. It thus joins a long line of failed parties, the more recent being the Australian Democrats and the Democratic Labor Party.

At the same time, Nick Xenophon and Jackie Lambie have joined their own parties, and Glenn Lazarus will do the same. So there will be no lack of festivities in the senate.

But the big minor-party news of the week was the seamless  (to the surprise and frustration of the press gallery) leadership succession in the Greens; its relatively short-lived leader Christine Milne resigned to join what she hopes will be the world, and has been replaced by the all-but-anonymous Richard Di Natale. 

The transition was so low key as to be almost sub-sonic, but it was a significant one in the party’s continuing progress. The Greens emerged into federal politics with the improbable Western Australian duet of senators Dee Margetts and Christabel Chamarette in the 1990s, who were ridiculed and dismissed as the tree fairies or the gumnut twins. 

Then came the charismatic Tasmanian Bob Brown, a media-savvy orator who became a minor celebrity, and people began to pay attention. He built up numbers on the mainland, and gave way to his fellow Taswegian Christine Milne, a battle-hardened activist who consolidated the position. The Greens are now part of the scene.

For all their undoubted talents, Brown and Milne were basically fringe dwellers, running a niche market indissolubly bound to the wild rivers and old-growth forests of their homeland. The Greens won senate seats in every state, but their leaders were, in the end, Apple Islanders, and that was how they were defined.

But Di Natale is a Melbourne boy, a serious professional and a sportsman to boot.  He will no doubt always remember the origin of the Greens – the basic aim of protecting and nurturing the environment – but his agenda, like his background, will be a broader one. It may or may not lead him to greater co-operation with the mainstream political parties, but it will certainly relate more comfortably to the wider electorate. 

We can expect the Greens to enter a new phase in their development. They may not become recognised, as Di Natale boasts, as the natural home for mainstream, progressive values – at least not in the foreseeable future. But they will probably be seen as a more solid and permanent base for their own left-wing voters, and may well procure more from the swelling ranks of those disillusioned by what they see as the formulaic and cynical approach of the major parties. 

Whether you see this is a good result or not for the political process as a whole depends on just how wedded you are to the two-party adversarial system that has endured since before Federation. But it will certainly shake things up a bit, and that can only freshen up the current debate, which is bogged down in something of a quagmire, or even a cesspool. So this is to be applauded. Come in Greens. Welcome to Australia.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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