On election night, crouched over their laptops in a tatty old make-up room in the bowels of Melbourne’s Forum Theatre, Greens campaign workers were fielding calls from scrutineers at polling booths in the city’s inner suburbs and trying to make urgent sense of the count.
The Greens’ leader, Senator Richard Di Natale, twigged early. “It’s going to be one of those elections,” he said. “Four seats like this.” He gestured, fingers pinched close.
Switching between the Australian Electoral Commission’s website and their own spreadsheets, the number crunchers settled in for the long haul, plugging in results for booth after booth. But the Greens’ best prospect for winning a new seat, the vulnerable Labor-held Batman, was already adrift. The hitherto ultra-safe Liberal seat of Higgins, another bright contender, was not looking too good either: frontbencher Kelly O’Dwyer was rock-solid on a 48% primary vote. A call from Melbourne Ports sent a shiver of excitement through the room: the Greens’ candidate was in front of Labor by a nose, meaning a two-party run-off with the Libs was on the cards. Could be an upset! For a second, the room’s mirrors and light bulbs felt right. Maybe Di Natale’s star was rising.
Suddenly I was uninvited – no media – and ushered warmly but firmly out the door and back upstairs to the party in the main theatre as Di Natale, his chief of staff and his comms guy went into a huddle to decide which just-short-of-a-concession speech the Greens’ candidate for Batman, Alex Bhathal, should give.
The show must go on. Rather than a chance to let hair down, the party was thoroughly stage-managed, a performance designed to feed the saturation television coverage and keep the volunteers’ spirits up.
Twice, Di Natale endured an excruciating wait – besuited and smiling, earpiece in, lights burning, cameras trained, journos bunched – for a live cross that didn’t come. Oh well. The action was elsewhere: in Adelaide, where the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) was making its ascent, or in Ipswich, where Pauline Hanson was back. Or in Tasmania or in Sydney’s west, where Liberal seats toppling to Labor would spoil Malcolm Turnbull’s own party.
Labor was actually in the running. The news crackled round the Greens’ party like wildfire.
A cheer went up for Adam Bandt as he tightened his grip on the seat of Melbourne, which has become the Greens federal stronghold as well as a base for victorious campaigns in the overlapping and neighbouring state seats. By the time Di Natale spoke, around 9.30 pm, the ABC had already given Higgins to the Coalition, Batman was going to Labor, and no other seats were on the radar. Di Natale did his best, teasing that “we won’t know tonight”, and claiming a Greens win of sorts, on the back of double-digit swings in key lower house seats. The Greens’ primary vote was back above 10%. It was half the 20% goal he’d set for the party when he took over the leadership just one year earlier, but at least it was heading in the right direction. In any case, it gave everyone an excuse to dance, as a hilariously uncool DJ took charge, and guests downed rather pricey house champers and Mountain Goat beer.
Downstairs, jaws must have been clenched by the end of the night. The primary vote would sag as the long count continued, and over the ensuing fortnight the Greens’ position in the Senate count would deteriorate. Everyone knew Robert Simms, number two on the ticket in South Australia, was in an unwinnable position in the face of the NXT juggernaut. But hopes of a second Greens senator in Queensland or New South Wales were soon out the window, and at the time of writing the second senators in WA and Tasmania, Rachel Siewert and Nick McKim, were on tenterhooks. Nationally, the Greens suffered a 0.8% swing against them in the Senate, although two-thirds of that movement can be explained by stripping out the one-off boost the party received from the campaign to save Scott Ludlam in the WA by-election of 2014. Still, a drop from ten to seven senators, if the worst happens, can hardly be sugar-coated. Recriminations and finger-pointing have already begun.
Are we over the Greens? In 2013, Julia Gillard attacked her erstwhile junior partners in minority government: they were a party of protest, she accused, not a party of government. In 2016, two prime ministerial knifings later, the protest vote was certainly on: in the lower house, a record one-quarter of Australians voted for anyone but Labor or the Coalition. The Greens could have been the big winners. “We’re caught in the middle,” admits national co-convenor Penny Allman-Payne.
Why was there a swing to the Greens in the lower house and a swing against them in the upper house? “It’s a question we’ll address in our election review,” says Di Natale post-election. “There are a number of possibilities … One of them is that we are now regarded by some people as a major party, and they’re voting for us in the House of Reps, and they’re voting for other micro-parties in the Senate.”
The Greens may have succeeded in turning themselves into a major party, in terms of voter perception, right when a backlash against the major parties is peaking.
This federal election was arguably the first for years to offer a real debate about trickle-down economics. In a column for the Australian, Chris Mitchell described it as “the first really important philosophical election since Fightback in 1993”. The Coalition made a $50 billion tax cut for business the centrepiece of its re-election strategy. Labor campaigned strongly against it, and was unfazed by the hoary old “anti-business” smear trotted out from the big end of town. Veering left (as it tends to do in Opposition), Labor knocked off the Greens’ policies on negative gearing and a royal commission into the banks along the way.
“If any party wants to steal our policies, then that’s a sign of us being successful,” Di Natale says. “I agree that what you are seeing is a huge challenge to the consensus that emerged in recent decades on trickle-down economics, and the Greens have led the charge on that issue.”
That message was diluted in the lead-up to and during the election campaign, as the Greens did controversial deals with the Coalition on multinational tax avoidance, Senate voting reform and preferences. For many Greens supporters, even the perception that the party is cuddling up to the Liberals is anathema, and it muddied attempts to attack Labor from the left, acting as the “real opposition” by, for example, sticking up for penalty rates.
The Greens’ deal on the tax transparency legislation – first introduced by Wayne Swan, watered down by Joe Hockey – was easily defended. Rather than have no disclosure at all, the Greens supported amendments that required disclosure by private companies with taxable income over $200 million. Labor, which originally had a $100 million threshold, slammed the deal as a sell-out, but Greens staffers vividly recall an aside from Senator Sam Dastyari as he walked past after berating them in the chamber: “Don’t worry about this, it’s all theatre.” (Dastyari declined to respond on this point.) When the Australian Tax Office put out the first disclosures in March, the information was so opaque that the Australian Financial Review’s Neil Chenoweth wrote that “it looks like the Greens were outplayed”.
Most controversial, in the wake of an election result that could see Pauline Hanson’s One Nation win three or more upper house seats, was the rushed deal to introduce optional preferential voting for the Senate. After a four-hour inquiry and a farcical all-night sitting of parliament, the result was a messy compromise in which at least six boxes must be ticked above the line – with a saving provision that votes with just one box ticked will count as formal – or 12 or more boxes below. The timing of the deal was crucially linked to the timing of a double dissolution election, which was facilitated by the Greens.
The reforms did away with the group voting tickets that allowed so-called preference whisperers to horsetrade among micro-parties to get candidates like Steve Fielding or Ricky Muir elected on a miniscule proportion of the primary vote. Senate voting reform has long been a Greens policy, and party leaders past and present insist the new system is more democratic. But the reforms created a new problem: if voters don’t number every box (whether above or below the line), at some point their vote will exhaust – it stops counting.
It’s still unclear how the new system will affect minor parties. The double dissolution lowered the required quota, complicated things further and certainly helped the little guys. From John Howard down, many assumed that the Greens were backing Senate voting reform because it was in their interests to stop competition from micro-parties. But some Greens supporters fear that in any normal half-Senate election held from now on the party will struggle to reach the required quota in most states and territories.
Meanwhile, the group voting tickets that locked out Pauline Hanson – because all major parties agreed to preference her last – are gone. Yes, based on her primary vote, Hanson would have won her own seat under the old system, but would she have won more? Appearing on the ABC’s Q&A program a few weeks after the election, Hanson thanked both the PM and the new optional preferential voting system. Hanson and Nick Xenophon tapped into a neoliberal backlash that might have otherwise boosted the Greens.
The Greens party line is clear. “We’re very proud to have taken a principled stand,” says Di Natale. “People who want to blame Senate voting reform for electing Pauline Hanson are in fact blaming voters. The outcome of the Senate is a reflection of the intention of voters.”
Commentators now ponder whether the Greens’ deal with the Coalition on Senate voting reform will be the equivalent of the Democrats’ GST deal in 1999 – the beginning of the end for the party.
The drawn-out discussion of a Greens–Liberal preference deal was equally fraught, and is now widely acknowledged to have been unhelpful to the party. The idea was that the Greens would run open tickets in key marginals, rather than preference Labor, in exchange for Liberal preferences in the key Labor seats that were vulnerable. Victorian Liberal powerbroker Michael Kroger, handling the preference negotiations, said the Greens were “not the nutters they used to be”. Labor played havoc, running billboards showing two hands shaking on what was portrayed as a dirty deal.
After weeks of drawn-out, deliberate pot-stirring – amid on-record, hand-on-heart denials of a deal – the preference talks blew up in the party’s face when Turnbull overruled Kroger and decided the Greens would be put below Labor everywhere, “in the national interest”. The Greens’ prospects in the Labor-held lower house seats were sunk. Greens supporters now worry the party was outmanoeuvred on both sides. Every day they spent trying to mix it with the big parties on process – joining leaders debates, talking balance-of-power what-ifs – was a day not spent promoting Greens policies. It’s fine to be pragmatic, the criticism goes, but let’s not campaign on it.
Richard Di Natale took over the party leadership from Christine Milne last May. The succession was orderly and quick – it was over in an hour – and totally unexpected. Two co-deputies were appointed: Scott Ludlam from Western Australia and Larissa Waters from Queensland. Internal misgivings about a stitch-up – why was deputy Adam Bandt passed over? – captured brief attention, but the mainstream media moved on as Tony Abbott’s prime ministership unravelled.
Never an activist, Di Natale broke the Greens mould and represented generational change after decades of leadership under legendary co-founder Bob Brown and his fellow Tasmanian Milne. Born and raised in Melbourne, Di Natale played in the Victorian Football Association state league and became a GP and a public health specialist, working in indigenous communities in the Top End. He was an acceptable face of the Greens. At his first press conference as leader he announced that he was “no ideologue”. He set his sights on winning lower house seats and steering the party on the long, rocky path to government.
When Di Natale took over, the Greens were preparing for what they knew would be a tough election in 2016. Milne’s legacy included a new national council to govern the party, and there was an exhaustive review of the policy platform in 2015. But a 3% swing against the party in 2013 meant that public electoral funding was down, by almost a quarter, to $5.5 million. In 2010 the party had received public funding of $7.2 million in what remains the party’s high water mark, aided by a record $1.6 million donation from Wotif founder Graeme Wood. That year, Di Natale himself was elected, the Greens increased their upper house representation from five to nine seats with 13% of the first preference vote, and the party broke into the lower house when Bandt took the Melbourne seat from Labor.
Coming into the 2016 election, the Greens had a record number of seats to defend – including the half-dozen senators elected in 2010 – and less money to do it with. The solution was an almighty fundraising effort. Greens officials say the party raised $4.5 million in the past 12 months, up from $3 million in 2013, including some hefty private donations (though none to match Wood’s) and small contributions under $100 from more than 20,000 people. So in 2016 it was able to spend more than $7 million nationally, in line with 2013. It is still nothing like the spend of the two big parties, however. On advertising alone, for example, the Greens shelled out half a million dollars compared with Labor’s $5 million and the Coalition’s $7 million.
In September 2015, when Malcolm Turnbull deposed Tony Abbott, the Greens were midway through their major focus group exercise, and the findings underlined the threat posed by the new PM. A copy of the expensive and highly confidential 96-page report by Lonergan Research, obtained by the Monthly, gives some insight to the Greens’ leadership strategy in the lead-up to the election. Lonergan questioned 16 groups from six state capitals in 90-minute sessions held from mid August to early November. The roughly 130 voters surveyed were undecided, not locked onto a party but not Greens rejecters. Unanimously, they saw the removal of Abbott as a positive. Turnbull had reinvigorated the Liberal Party. The jury was out, according to the report, but it was too early to attack him – it would be seen as politics-as-usual. Voters were prepared to consider higher taxes, including the GST hike then on the table, if it meant better-funded welfare, schools and hospitals. “We can’t keep cutting anymore” was a key response.
The report counted Bill Shorten – “not a credible opposition leader” – as a “tailwind”. Arguably, that was a mistake. There were some odd policy signals that undermined Greens strengths. Marriage equality was not seen as a vote-changer. Instead, post-Abbott, it seemed inevitable. Lonergan recommended squarely against raising the issue of housing affordability, even though the Greens had paved the way on negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions. The report also deemed higher education a low priority – so the Coalition got away with not even releasing a policy, despite the debate over $100,000 degrees. Lonergan also predicted, wrongly, that “Liberal and Labor are NOT going to focus on health in the upcoming federal election”. It made this prediction even while describing the focus group’s response to the proposition “Every person should get access to dental and mental health services by having them funded through Medicare” as “Very well liked. Considered vote changing.”
This sort of advice may have informed what seemed a flat-footed response. Di Natale dismissed Labor’s “Mediscare” as a “distraction”. Asked about it now, Di Natale is unapologetic: “The privatisation of Medicare payment services, while we don’t support it, was a distraction from the main issues in health care. The main issue in health care is that we’re moving towards a user-pays, two-tiered, American-style health system. We’ve seen the Coalition [and] the Labor Party undermine universality – both froze Medicare rebates, both support those massive subsidies that go to the private health insurance industry – and neither of them were prepared to talk about those key issues.”
Did he say that when Mediscare was on?
“Only a million times,” Di Natale fires back. “In the last weeks of the election campaign, the reality is that what we see is a narrowing of the focus to the two old parties, and other voices are shut out. I can’t dictate what people write.”
There was another important take-away from Lonergan’s focus group research: when talking about the economy, the party was not believed, as though it was going beyond its area of expertise. The Greens were becoming a mainstream party, a realistic third choice, but there was a recurring, nagging doubt: “How are they going to fund it?” Both Liberal and Labor were seen to be more credible on the economy and how policies would be funded. In the 2016 election, the Greens would go to extraordinary lengths to present a fully costed policy platform, submitting 100 confidential policies to the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) – an agency they helped create, as part of the deal reached to support Labor in minority government in 2010 – and then resubmitting them after the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Outlook (PEFO) statement in May, in a flurry of announcements that continued right up to the eve of the poll and went almost completely uncovered by the media.
Clicking through the policies, I felt I was discovering them for the first time. On the one hand they were a gift for the Murdoch press: a soak-the-rich, tax-and-spend cornucopia. On the other hand, they would do a great deal to address income inequality and repair the budget deficit.
They purport to raise $85 billion extra revenue from higher taxes over the forward estimates. This would come from a carbon price; abolition of negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions; super reform; a higher top marginal tax rate and a Buffett Rule of a minimum 35% tax rate for high-income earners; and new levies on banks, coal and sugar. Add to that $57 billion in savings from, in large part, abolishing fossil-fuel subsidies like fuel tax credits, cutting defence spending by 25% and abolishing the private health insurance rebate.
On the expenditure side, the Greens list a whopping $134 billion in new measures: matching Labor by funding the full Gonski; reversing base funding cuts for universities; increasing paid parental leave, the Newstart Allowance and single parent payments; restoring Family Tax Benefit cuts; expanding Denticare; spending big on social housing; and restoring foreign aid.
Did it all add up? The tallies given to the PBO were out by billions from the figures Di Natale used in his pre-election speech to the National Press Club. More importantly, the PBO had low or medium confidence in many of the Greens’ projections. The abolition of fuel tax credits, for example, could have a negative economic impact that was not factored in, and nor was any behavioural response to the bank levy or to new rules restricting profit-shifting by multinationals. Similarly, higher income earners would not simply cough up under the Buffett Rule. A final assessment will wait on the PBO’s post-election report, but the Greens claim their policies would generate an $8 billion improvement on the bottom line compared with the forward estimates in PEFO. That’s better than the $1 billion improvement claimed by the Coalition or the $16 billion deterioration that was thought to have cost Labor the election campaign.
None of this stopped the Australian’s spend-o-meter spinning out of control. A week from the vote, the Coalition was sitting on $7 billion, Labor on $20 billion and the Greens on $83 billion. Which prompted the same old question about the Greens, “How are they going to fund it?” The implied answer was “Massive new taxes,” or, simply, “They can’t.” No one bothered to ask Di Natale, whose mischievous revenue-focused alternative, the “rev-o-meter”, got next to no coverage.
For those on the left of the party, the whole add-it-up exercise is ridiculous. Of course the mainstream media is going to peg you as economically irresponsible if you propose genuine wealth distribution to tackle rising inequality. Their ready answer is that Australia’s a rich country and we can afford to be fairer. Once you pull out the calculator, you’re playing their game, and it’s rigged.
Like the other major parties, the Greens are deeply divided by factions. The Greens’ left, concentrated in New South Wales, is deeply ambivalent about winning seats, particularly if it means compromising on policy. Its leaders openly deride the idea that the Greens could ever win government, and aren’t sure it’s worth trying. “Party of protest” fits just fine. As NSW senator Lee Rhiannon told me, “Social change doesn’t happen because an MP introduces a bill.” Historically it is true enough that activists, not politicians, have led the charge for workers’ rights, women’s rights, racial equality, peace and the environment. For Rhiannon, being inside parliament is a way to support activists outside.
The deep ambivalence in New South Wales about the Greens’ shift to the mainstream was on display at Alexandria Town Hall in Sydney’s inner south one cold Wednesday night a couple of weeks before the election. On the stage were long-time state convenor Hall Greenland, candidate Sylvie Ellsmore (up against Tanya Plibersek in the seat of Sydney), the Young Greens’ Denise Abou Hamad, and academic and former party official Stewart Jackson, who recently wrote a history of the Greens. There was much wariness on the panel, and in the audience, about the “corporatisation” of the party and the idea that electoral success is the be-all and end-all. As Hamad commented, “In a way I hope we might not become government, because that might be a threat to the way we function, we might become too populist.”
Were they on the same team? Greenland joked that he once called the Australian Greens “neoliberals on bikes”. Ellsmore wondered how the Greens’ economic portfolios came to be handled by “three white blokes in suits”: the leader, Bandt and former merchant banker Peter Whish-Wilson. (To be fair, others in the party wonder the same thing. How have the Greens come so far without quotas? In a party with such strong representation of women, one explanation is that it’s just never come up. Growing pains is another.) Only a few dozen people attended, pretty much everyone knew everyone, and it felt like we were going through the motions.
Doubts about the desirability of winning seats in parliament quickly evaporate when it comes to winning pre-selections, which are bitterly fought and have divided the whole party for decades, particularly in New South Wales. When I interviewed Bob Brown ahead of the election, somehow Stan Grant came up. “He should be a Greens candidate,” I said. “Exactly!” replied Brown. (Grant might have something to say about the idea.) But when I raised the issue of candidate quality with Rhiannon, she brought up Andrew Wilkie, the intelligence whistleblower who ran twice for the Greens, once for the Senate in Tasmania and once in John Howard’s Bennelong seat in New South Wales, before falling out with the party and jagging what might have been a Green jewel in the lower house, Hobart-based Denison, as an independent. I later realised what Rhiannon was trying to tell me: the last star candidate they tried in New South Wales didn’t work out too well.
One bomb let off during the campaign clearly didn’t help: the Greens’ long-time NSW treasurer and former Sydney city councillor Chris Harris resigned over the treatment of executive officer Carole Medcalf, who had complained to Fair Work Australia. More resignations followed. ABC reporter Conor Duffy broke the story on 7.30, portraying the state branch as “plagued by animosity and division”. When questioned about it at a press conference, Di Natale stayed cool and batted it off to the state. But by the look on his face, he was enraged.
When I asked Rhiannon about factionalism in the Greens, and the so-called Eastern Bloc that she leads, she burst into tears. Years of haranguing have clearly taken a toll. Again and again, the Australian has picked over Rhiannon’s past: her studies in Moscow, her ASIO file. But the most hurtful attacks clearly come from inside the Greens.
“I actually find the ‘Eastern Bloc’ quite an insulting term,” she explained. “People use it as a term of abuse because of the association with the old socialist countries. It was to make out you’ve got dangerous lefties in the party. What I find offensive is that I’ve always been open. My parents were in the Communist Party. I was in the old Socialist Party. I’ve always acknowledged that, and I’m very proud of my history. The people who were in the old Communist Party have made a great contribution to this country. I get a little bit sad at that, because I miss my parents.”
It is true that there is nothing covert about the NSW Greens agenda. The “watermelon” tag misses its mark: the dominant NSW Greens faction is red, inside and out.
Anthony Albanese, warhorse of the Labor Left, played the Greens’ internal disputes like a fiddle. When he announced his re-nomination for the inner-Sydney seat of Grayndler in January, he landed a direct hit on his Greens opponent, saying that Jim Casey, a charismatic but low-profile firefighter and unionist, had “spent more time in the International Socialist Organization than he has in the Greens political party, and if he was fair dinkum he’d run as an international socialist and see how many votes he got there”. Casey hit back: “I make no apologies for my socialist ideals. It is a bit sad [Albanese] is running away from this; he’s happy to DJ songs by Billy Bragg for his mates, but when it comes to a political context he’s channelling Joe McCarthy.”
Albanese went on and on about the Liberal–Greens preference deal. Someone dug up an old video from 2014 in which Casey, on a dreary-looking panel with Rhiannon and Bandt, said he would “prefer to see Tony Abbott returned as prime minister, with a labour movement that was growing, with an anti-war movement that was disrupting things in the streets … than [to see] Bill Shorten as prime minister without it”. Viewed in context, it was unremarkable. In May, Casey’s support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel – the issue that had split the Greens before – was dragged out, but fizzled. That same month, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph ran an extraordinary “SAVE OUR ALBO” front page, which Albanese quickly printed onto T-shirts. Now who was selling out? Former leader Christine Milne says Albanese should have been “hanging his head in shame, that Murdoch thinks he is the safer candidate”.
When I met Jim Casey, and saw him in action at Petersham Bowling Club for a live broadcast of SBS2’s The Feed, he was impressive. After screening a showreel that included footage of Casey’s days as a shaved-headed union firebrand, presenter Jeannette Francis needled him: “Do you, Jim Casey, want to overthrow capitalism?” “I don’t want to overthrow anything,” Casey replied. “I think ‘overthrowing’ is one of those words which implies violence, blood in the streets and so forth, and that’s not my bag …”
Francis asked him why he’d said that “the idea of a party like the Greens winning 51% of the vote is inconceivable” and that diluting its position “would be the end of the party”. Casey replied that the idea of the Greens forming government, without a major shift in Australian society, was inconceivable. “Really, at the moment, the ideas we’re putting forward are not majority views.”
When he got off the back foot, Casey started landing his own punches. They started talking about WestConnex, the opaque private tollway project in Sydney’s inner west. Francis mentioned that the project had bipartisan support and work had already started, but Casey flatly rejected the idea that nothing could be done to stop it. “All of those conditions were exactly the same with the East West Link in Melbourne, and they stopped that [applause] … Labor’s been all over the shop on this. Anthony’s saying he’s opposed to it, Bill Shorten throws him under a bus and says he backs it in … There’s a proud history in the inner west of actually stopping projects like this. Annandale would have been wiped out in the ’70s with the freeways they were planning then.”
Casey’s performance was in the finest tradition of communist and unionist Jack Mundey’s Green Ban movement that saved Sydney’s historic Rocks district and Woolloomooloo. The Green Bans are the other strand, along with the Tasmanian environmental movement galvanised by the flooding of Lake Pedder, that make up the Greens DNA. Casey’s campaign on WestConnex was all about policy, not socialist rhetoric. In this room at least, the absent Albanese was skewered.
But in the end, Casey didn’t get close in Grayndler. Was this really the right person for its best hope in the country’s most populous state? As polling day neared, Casey was proud of his campaign but worried that if he were to fail some would blame the hard left agenda. No doubt, some will. For Greens in other states, New South Wales remains the under-performer, the perennial disappointment. In the Senate, the party garnered just 7.1% of votes on first preferences, down by 0.7%. Only conservative Queensland (6.7%, up 0.66%) and South Australia (5.6%, down 1.5%) ranked lower, and they had Hanson and Xenophon to contend with respectively. The NSW Greens did better in the lower house, gaining a statewide swing of 0.88% (still below the national average) to lift its vote to 8.8% (again below average). But they came a distant third in their best prospects of Grayndler, Sydney and Richmond, in the rural far north, where fracking has been a big vote-changer and the National-held state seat of Ballina turned Green in 2015. In terms of swings this year, both Brisbane and Fremantle did better, with gains above 5%. While Rhiannon still refers to the difficulty of challenging heavyweights like Albanese and Plibersek, she accepts there needs to be “a respectful discussion of what’s happened”, both in New South Wales and nationally. “We’ve got to be very frank with ourselves.”
Bob Brown is more pointed. “They need a clean-out in New South Wales. The people who have been for decades running the NSW Greens need to do what I did: retire and make way for new blood and people more in tune with the electorate in 2016. This is no longer 1986.”
Wherever it was before – sometimes Hobart, sometimes Sydney, sometimes Perth – the Greens’ epicentre has now shifted to Melbourne. The Victorian Labor Party has done a lot of research on why that’s so, as it watches former heartland inner-city suburbs gentrify and slip away. Kosmos Samaras, Victorian Labor’s assistant secretary for strategy, has a theory about post-material politics, which he expounds on his own influential blog. Samaras says that if there were no Greens party, the people in those inner-city suburbs in the seat of Melbourne, like Carlton or Fitzroy, would be voting Liberal now. These seats are high-income, full of managers and professionals who have done well out of the shift from old to new economy. Some could never vote Labor, but they can and do vote Green. They are surprisingly affluent, university educated, generally over 35, and vote on issues that do not affect their material circumstances: asylum seekers, climate change, Safe Schools and marriage equality. Admirable, says Samaras, but “completely divorced from the rest of the world”.
What makes Melbourne different, he says, is that its wealth is highly concentrated. Its “new economy” industries are clustered, creating one big pocket of winners, surrounded by an outer suburban rust belt that drops off the radar – and that is where the Greens vote is falling.
Concentrated support means winnable seats, of course. It’s what gives the National Party ten seats in the House of Representatives, with a primary vote of 620,000, while the Greens have twice their vote, at 1.3 million, but only one seat. Bandt’s seat of Melbourne was the first, but Samaras is in no doubt: “They’ll get us in Batman.”
For all that, there was nothing inevitable about Melbourne turning Green. In the 2010 federal election, Liberal preferences helped elect Adam Bandt. The Coalition soon regretted it, reversing its position and preferencing Labor in the state election held three months later. For Bandt and his team, the 2013 federal election was do-or-die.
“We knew we weren’t going to get Liberal support,” says Bandt. “We knew they [Liberal and Labor] were going to get together again. So we said, ‘Right, well, the Greens now have to do what other parties do, and win seats in our own right.’ A couple of my crew went off to the United States and got involved in the Obama campaign [in 2012], and I think it’s fair to say that we transformed, in 2013, not only the way we campaign in Melbourne but the way the Greens campaign across the country.”
It worked. The people-powered, data-driven, Obama-style campaign run in Melbourne delivered Bandt a 7% swing in 2013, almost twice what they’d hoped for. “That happened amidst the Greens vote collapsing across the rest of the country by about a third,” Bandt says. Crucially, as a former industrial relations lawyer at Labor-linked firm Slater and Gordon, Bandt was able to attract big licks of money from trade unions. The Electrical Trades Union donated $100,000 to the Victorian branch in 2010 and another $300,000 in 2013. “A number of unions have said, ‘Well, we’re not going to be beholden just to the ALP,’” says Bandt. It has been “a significant source of support” and is ongoing (although the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, never the biggest supporter, reportedly refused to donate to the current campaign, due to the Greens’ deal on Senate voting reform, which facilitated the double dissolution over the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner).
The Victorian branch established a reputation for effective, well-funded ground campaigns. In the 2014 state election won by the ALP, not only did the Greens’ Ellen Sandell take the Melbourne seat that sat within Bandt’s federal electorate but Sam Hibbins in Prahran became the first Greens MP to take a lower house seat off the Liberals – a major milestone. Hibbins’ win galvanised the Victorian Greens to have a serious crack at Higgins in this federal election. One of the safest Liberal seats in the country, and formerly held by Peter Costello, it takes in trendy Prahran but also mansion-heavy Toorak. There would be no socialist candidates running here. State party people quietly bemoan the perception that the Greens are “left of Labor”. Not necessarily. Appealing to disaffected small-l liberals on the Greens’ right flank is a key part of the strategy.
Greens Victorian state director Larissa Brown, who reportedly handled the preference negotiations with Kroger (but would not be drawn on the subject), gets impatient with this sort of discussion. “I wonder if the left–right divide is still relevant in the demographic that we’re speaking to,” she tells me. “We’re representing a positive future. Not the old economics of digging up coal and burning it, but a smarter new economy.” It’s a classic re-statement of the old Green movement slogan “Neither left nor right, but ahead”. Brown, 35, founded and ran the non-profit Centre for Sustainability Leadership while at university, and went on to gain two masters degrees: one in politics and communication from the London School of Economics and the other in sustainability leadership from the University of Cambridge. She joined the Greens in 2013, and helped set up its Campaign School, which has put 300 of the best volunteers through a one-week, 40-hour intensive training course in best-practice organising skills.
The Greens candidate for Higgins, 28-year-old Jason Ball, is another former state league footballer – in fact, the first Aussie Rules player to come out publicly as gay. A few weeks before the election, in the common room of the brutalist Horace Petty housing estate in South Yarra, he was working hard to win over a group of Russian speakers. A translator took questions, put them to Ball, and translated the answers back to the audience, half of whom were struggling to hear amid the cacophony. It was torturous, and as far as I could tell most of the issues raised had absolutely nothing to do with the election. Ball, dressed immaculately, stood out like royalty. The Greens’ official photographer, who has been shooting the party for years, told me there was something special about Ball. He was one to watch, a future prime minister even. “That was hard,” I said to Ball afterwards. “Not really,” he replied without pause. It was not for nothing: Ball had put the housing estate on the radar. Suddenly Kelly O’Dwyer was taking an interest.
The Greens were always an extremely long shot in Higgins. Not so Batman, which the ABC’s Vote Compass poll indicated was the most progressive electorate in the county. Batman was held by Labor Right powerbroker David Feeney, an absentee landlord who neglected to disclose his $2.3 million negatively geared home, forgot policy in interviews, and was universally acknowledged as a liability.
I met Greens candidate Alex Bhathal at an Italian community function. St Joseph the Worker’s parish hall is in Reservoir North at the Labor end of Batman, well north of the inner-city cafes. Richard Di Natale, son of migrants, was charming the 200-strong elderly audience in their native tongue. The mood was buoyant, the pasta was good, the cheesy two-piece band was hilarious, and the old-timers danced gracefully. Bhathal spoke about hoping to serve, and she called for preservation of the area’s single-storey covenant and public open spaces.
The 51-year-old social worker and refugee advocate is a long-time local resident. Forget the innuendo about the perpetual candidate: standing for election five times over 15 years for no reward takes an enormous commitment. In Bhathal’s case, that comes from a fury at Labor that goes back to its introduction of mandatory detention for asylum seekers in 1992.
“I joined [the Greens] in August 2001,” recalled Bhathal. “I remember the moment. I paid my membership the next day. I was sitting on the couch in my lounge room in Preston, and I was breastfeeding my oldest son … and the footage came on of the 438 men who were lying on the open deck of the MV Tampa, the container ship, and some of them were unconscious, they were in a terrible state, they were literally caught in a life or death situation by the Howard government, which had the full complicity of Kim Beazley and the ALP. So I saw that footage and I was horrified. Immediately there was an interview, between Kerry O’Brien, I think, and Dr Bob Brown, the leader of the Australian Greens, and Bob stood up for the Australia that I believed in, and that I thought I belonged to.”
Bhathal was quickly drafted into preselection, stood three months later, and tripled the vote. Ever since, she’s been on a mission, fuelled partly by the Sikhism that has made her a target for racist attacks. Carrying the hopes of the Greens nationally, and with 6000 volunteers helping out in a mammoth effort, Bhathal gave it everything.
At the party’s head office, Larissa Brown insists the Victorian state council always had a two-election strategy. The stated goal this time around was to retain two senators, hang on to Melbourne, and make key lower house seats marginal. The branch has a firm eye on the next state election, where, if the votes just seen federally are repeated, the seats of Brunswick, Northcote and Richmond will fall the party’s way. “We’re elated,” says Brown. “This is how seats change. They don’t change overnight.”
On the Sunday before the election, thousands of punters turned out for the Reclink Community Cup at Elsternwick Park in Melbourne’s inner south-east. This annual day of live music and semi-serious footy – musos versus community radio types – raises money for disadvantaged Australians. Richard Di Natale ran on in the fourth quarter. He was still recovering from knee surgery but soon showed his class, kicking a behind in the dying minutes. Match commentators Biggsy and Rauri were a little confused at the sight of a senator on the field:
“I wonder if number 44 for the Megahertz is Dr Richard Di Natale?”
“Forty-four. He’s got the ball right now! Dr Dick, a late substitution!”
“Someone get the ball to the doctor right now. That, by the way, is the leader of the federal Greens party … Do we have a federal Greens party?”
“We do now!”
I spoke to people in the crowd about the Greens. The best response came from a slightly tipsy artist, Kat, who had just come from town and had been horrified by clashes between anti-racism protesters and police guarding a far-right-wing rally. When I asked why she voted Green, she almost shouted, “Because they’re not arseholes!” Which said it all, about the Greens’ stance on marriage equality, the fight against racism, Manus and Nauru.
Under the Greens’ party-room rules, all leadership positions will be spilled, and Di Natale’s fate is in the hands of his party colleagues. As I write there is no hint of a challenge, although stranger things have happened, and Di Natale’s own ascension stunned his colleagues, so no one would telegraph their own intentions anyway. Undoubtedly Di Natale had low points in the campaign, including his own mini-Nannygate, when Fairfax Media pounced on a 2012 advertisement that Di Natale’s wife, Lucy Quarterman, had placed for a live-in au pair to work at the family farm and help with the couple’s two young children. The Fairfax story about the low wage offered in the ad was internally inconsistent, but it was picked up by TV and radio, and by Labor. For the Greens’ weary press secretaries, it was situation normal: beaten up by the mainstream media at election time, again.
Labor’s hostility to the Greens presents a fundamental block on its road to government, and this year it was more evident than ever. There is zero ALP willingness to recognise the achievements of their junior partners in the minority Gillard government, though the Greens remain proud of those years. Tanya Plibersek, who strengthened her hold on her Sydney seat, warned that the Greens were dangerous ideologues, with the potential to keep Labor out of power for decades, just like the Democratic Labor Party did after the 1955 split. Former PM Paul Keating, helping launch Albanese’s campaign, mocked the Greens as “opportunistic Trots hiding under a gum tree, trying to pretend they’re the Labor Party”.
Di Natale never got his back up. (Does he ever play hardball?) He observed rather that Labor does not own its inner-city seats and a bit of competition is healthy. He has argued there is nothing to fear from multi-party government, and in his address to the National Press Club in June he pointed to coalition agreements in Germany and New Zealand that have delivered long-term stable government. “A two-party state is not the natural order of things,” he said. If this election is any guide, Australians increasingly agree.
While everyone jumped to write off the Greens in the days after the election, Di Natale cautions against too much doom and gloom. “What we just had is the Greens achieving their second-highest primary vote in the House of Representatives, at a time when Labor achieved their second-lowest primary vote, and there are many, many Labor MPs who are only there because Greens preferences helped elect them.”
Inner Melbourne is one thing, but can the Greens bust through the hipster-proof fence? Christine Milne’s strategy was to take the inner cities, spread into the country, and come back for the suburbs. It’s a work in progress, clearly. Can the Greens gradually become a party of government, without snuffing out the flame that created the party in the first place?
The NSW branch may be in turmoil, but in my short time on the Greens campaign trail, in our two biggest cities, it was in Sydney that I met people I recognised as greenies, the type of uncompromising ferals – a member of the Riff-Raff marching band in the audience at Alexandria or some of Jim Casey’s staffers in Petersham – who have saved what’s left of our native forests, stopped uranium mines and, more lately, taken on fracking. Bob Brown was up for a fight, no-holds-barred, and Milne the same. Could the same be said for the new generation of Greens leaders? We don’t know.
Beneath all the politicking, there is one almighty driver for the Greens. It’s the climate, stupid. The temperature is still rising, the sea is turning acid, the coral is dying. As if on cue, a storm front reaching from Queensland to Tasmania smashed the east coast three weeks before the election. Almost the only thing untouched was the campaign, which, after a pause for the cameras, went on much as before. Which is why, in the end, the Green vote, and the fate of the Greens, matters.
Note: Nick McKim (Tasmania) and Rachel Siewert (Western Australia) have since retained their seats, giving the Greens a total of nine senators. As of 9 August, the swing against the Greens in the Senate is 0.58%.
Paddy Manning is a contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly. He is a writer and journalist who has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and the Australian. He is also the author of three books, including Boganaire: The rise and fall of Nathan Tinkler.
On election night, crouched over their laptops in a tatty old make-up room in the bowels of Melbourne’s Forum Theatre, Greens campaign workers were fielding calls from scrutineers at polling booths in the city’s inner suburbs and trying to make urgent sense of the count.
The Greens’ leader, Senator Richard Di Natale, twigged early. “It’s going to be one of those elections,” he said. “Four seats like this.” He gestured, fingers pinched close.
Switching between the Australian Electoral Commission’s website and their own spreadsheets, the number crunchers settled in for the long haul, plugging in results for booth after booth. But the Greens’ best prospect for winning a new seat, the vulnerable Labor-held Batman, was already adrift. The hitherto ultra-safe Liberal seat of Higgins, another bright contender, was not looking too good either: frontbencher Kelly...