The view from Billinudgel

Green leaves
Throughout Richard Di Natale’s decade in parliament, he never lost his idealism

Outgoing Greens leader Richard Di Natale. Via Facebook

Richard Di Natale left his party much as he led it: without fuss or fanfare. The retiring Greens leader was quiet and reasonable, and he always kept a certain distance from the turmoil of parliamentary conflict.

It was therefore almost appropriate that, because of COVID-19, his valedictory speech had to be delivered via video link from his home state of Victoria rather than at a more public farewell in the Senate. Di Natale was, and is, a figure of substance, at times one of distinction. But he has never really been a political animal.

Last week, as he bade farewell, Di Natale was almost apologetic about it. During his tumultuous decade in parliament – including five years as party leader – he was part of many significant reforms, with the Greens supplying the crucial balance of power to implement them.

But he also had to acknowledge the failures, among which he mentioned climate change, homelessness, job insecurity, mental illness and the protection of the environment. Di Natale blames not individual governments but, rather, the overriding political culture that has rendered the system incapable of responding to current challenges.

This has perhaps been his greatest failure. When Di Natale became Greens leader in 2015, he made it clear that he wanted the party to enter the mainstream. He did not want the Greens to be a fringe party, seen as a bunch of tree-hugging extremists, but part of a general reform movement that could eventually compete to form government.

This meant, of course, winning a lot of seats and gaining a real foothold in the House of Representatives. But in spite of repeated hopes, only Adam Bandt in Melbourne got over the line. And given the way the system works, he is unlikely to ever find himself among colleagues.

The big issue for the Greens has always been that, as a progressive party, it has to win votes that would normally go to the Labor Party. And given the vastly superior resources of the ALP – thanks partly to the money and influence of most of the unions, but also through the sheer political inertia of many voters – this has been mission impossible for the Greens.

Di Natale remains optimistic; he believes that COVID may yet prove to be a game changer, forcing politicians, the media and finally voters to confront reality. The pandemic has led to suffering and loss, but it may also engender a new sense of solidarity and collective action, not only across the nation but also across the world.

Of course, if this utopian dream becomes reality, it will mean the end of the Greens as a separate force – the party will simply become a faction in the bloodless revolution. But this, obviously, would be a price Di Natale would willingly pay.

In this sense, his time has not been wasted. He has not lost his idealism or his sense of purpose. He has never been seduced by power for power’s sake. A cynic might say he has never had the chance, but I suspect that the Melbourne-born medico is sincere.

He really does want to leave the political scene better than he found it. And whether or not he is counted a success, he has given it a bloody good try. So farewell, Richard – we will miss you.

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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