The Politics    Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Sixth time lucky? Meet Alex Bhathal

By Paddy Manning

Sixth time lucky? Meet Alex Bhathal
The Greens’ candidate for Batman is no opportunist

The looming Batman by-election in Melbourne’s inner north, following from the resignation of Labor’s David Feeney over dual citizenship, may seem to be getting more attention than it deserves, but the campaign will have a national impact even if the Greens don’t win. At a Monday press conference to confirm local social worker Alex Bhathal as the Greens candidate, Greens leader Richard Di Natale said the Batman campaign would “shift the dial here in Canberra”. Labor would have to play catch-up on opposition to the Adani mega-coalmine in Queensland, for example, following the Greens as it has done recently on a national anti-corruption commission, bank levy and royal commission, reforms to negative gearing, and so on. “That’s a good thing,” Di Natale said.

If the Greens do win, it will be quite a big deal. At the same press conference, Adam Bandt, who has held the neighbouring seat of Melbourne since 2010, harked back to the days when Julia Gillard was prime minister in a minority government supported by the Greens: “With one member in the House of Representatives, the Greens got a price on pollution, $13 billion for clean and renewable energy, and dental put into Medicare for kids … imagine what we are going to be able to do with two!”

The Greens will not be getting ahead of themselves, however, despite the very encouraging win in last November’s by-election for the state seat of Northcote, when Lidia Thorpe got an 11.6 per cent swing and became the first Indigenous woman in the Victorian parliament.

The Greens were bitterly disappointed to lose Batman in the 2016 federal election, when they threw everything at the seat including a reported half a million dollars in an Obama-style campaign that involved literally thousands of volunteers. Bhathal got a 9.8 per cent swing towards her, topping the primary vote with 36 per cent, but Feeney swept ahead of her on the last count, with a large proportion of Liberal preferences going to Labor. It was her fifth tilt at the seat, where she lives (in Preston). She has increased the vote each time: from 12 per cent on her first go in 2001, to 14 per cent in 2004, to 24 per cent in 2010, to 26 per cent in 2013 – one of the very few seats that still swung to the Greens that year – and on to the present one per cent margin. (In 2007 Bhathal stood in the unwinnable number two spot for the Senate. The Greens vote in Batman went up 3 per cent to 17 per cent.)

Bhathal is no opportunist. During the 2016 campaign, at an Italian community function in Reservoir North at the very un-hipster end of the Batman electorate, Bhathal told me she remembered exactly when she joined the Greens, in August 2001:

“I can remember the moment at which I joined the party and I paid up my membership the next day and I was sitting on the couch in my lounge room in Preston and I was breastfeeding my oldest son, who’s now 15, and the footage came on of the 438 men 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 and death situation because of the Howard government, but the Howard government had the full complicity of Kim Beazley and the ALP … so I saw that footage, and I was just horrified, and then 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, that I thought I belonged to.”

Bhathal is in a long Greens tradition of the accidental female candidate, from Jo Vallentine in Western Australia to Christine Milne in the Senate, from Colleen Hartland in Victoria to Cassy O’Connor in Tasmania.

Also like Vallentine, a Quaker, Bhathal is driven by her faith, Sikhism, which she told me in 2016 is a progressive, humanitarian, enlightenment faith, which fits easily with Greens policies. “It’s a huge part of my life. It actually has directed my politics. I feel like I couldn’t be in any other religion, apart from Sikhism, although as a Sikh, we respect all religions. We believe in a universal supreme being, who is genderless – beyond time, space and form, is what we say in our prayers … so for me as a human rights activist and someone who has a universalist view of the world, it fits very well with my beliefs.”

Already, before the by-election has even been called, there have been wobbles. Last week Crikey reported [$] that a bullying complaint had been lodged against Bhathal, and erroneously linked it to an attempt to deselect her for Batman in favour of local Darebin councillor Trent McCarthy. McCarthy tweeted a denial and the story was corrected, but the party is not commenting on the complaint. Then, Bhathal’s support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel came into question after Victorian Liberal Party president Michael Kroger told ABC Radio Melbourne’s Jon Faine it would be a factor in whether the Liberal Party decided to run a candidate. He would feel bad if the Liberals helped elect Labor, he conceded, but: “I’d feel worse if we didn’t run and our preferences were then not directed against Greens and we elected a Greens member who had a record of anti-Semitism”.

Bhathal told Monday’s Canberra press conference her approach had always been “nuanced … I’ve been terribly concerned about the actions of successive Israeli governments. I look at the great leadership of Rabin as my hope for the state of Israel. I believe that the BDS was very all-encompassing and I disagreed very strongly with the academic and cultural boycott aspects of that campaign.”

Parliamentary seats do not fall easily to the Greens, especially in lower houses. Breakthroughs take multiple attempts. Setbacks are squarely in the Greens party tradition. Bob Brown himself had three unsuccessful attempts – twice for the Greens’ forerunner, the United Tasmania Group, and once as a No Dams candidate in the 1982 state election. He was only elected on a countback in 1983 after the Democrat Norm Sanders resigned to go federal. A decade later, when Brown quit to run for the federal seat of Denison, based in Hobart, he failed, only making it into the Senate in 1996. Likewise, party leader Richard Di Natale tried three times to get into the federal parliament, almost giving the game away. In Bhathal’s case, the victory has crept closer, election-by-election.

Veteran Greens-slayer Anthony Albanese, who has been fighting off the party in Sydney’s trendy inner-west for many years now, says Batman should be winnable, but Labor party sources seem to be briefing media that their chance of holding the seat is even at best. Antony Green yesterday wrote that there was no sign of a let-up in the trend for Labor’s primary vote to decline in inner-Melbourne seats.

On Monday, Adam Bandt told Batman voters they were in the “box seat … in a position to elect a progressive Green woman to the House of Representatives”. He continued: “Take everything Labor says over the next few weeks with a grain of salt. Labor candidates get elected and come to Canberra … [they] vote to cut single parents payments, dig up more coal, sell off our assets and lock up refugees. The Labor candidate will vote to lock up refugees and Alex Bhathal won’t … The Labor candidate could be as nice as pie but it doesn’t matter because when they come to Canberra, Labor candidates do whatever the factions tell them.”

It’s going to be a doozy of a by-election.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

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The AFR’s Aaron Patrick writes that while Labor leader Bill Shorten “channels leftist lions Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in front of the cameras”, in “his heart he is more of a Bill Clinton or Bob Hawke, leaders who knew the only way for ‘left-progressives’ to attain and retain power was to generate wealth, not just redistribute it” [$].

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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.

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