Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Burning questions for the Greens
The lessons of the Batman by-election loss are not what they seem

Image of Richard Di Natale


If we’re all going to have a go at Greens Leader Richard Di Natale [$], could we please raise some worthwhile issues? They do not include Di Natale stating the bleeding obvious about climate change upping bushfire risk – attracting the predictable faux-outrage [$] from the do-nothings in the Coalition – or his call to expel those who sabotaged the party’s campaign in Batman.

After a decade of debate, it is beyond urgent that Australia resolve a policy on climate that will slash our greenhouse gas emissions. Australia’s emissions are among the highest per capita in the developed world, despite our wealth and world-beating renewable energy potential, and are rising after the Coalition abolished a working price on carbon. The so-called National Energy Guarantee, plucked out of the air, has been steadily exposed as inadequate – analysis out yesterday showed it’s worse than doing nothing. There is never, it seems, a good time to point out that this policy drift is inexorably making Australia a more dangerous place, and the longer we leave it, the worse it gets. When there’s no disaster, you’re being alarmist. When there is a disaster, you’re politicising it.

Palatable or otherwise, everything Di Natale said yesterday is true, and commonsense. Why not have an adult conversation about it? As local federal Labor MP Mike Kelly acknowledged on ABC radio’s AM, “if there’s any community that’s up for a discussion on climate change, it’s the Tathra community: the birthplace in our region of the Clean Energy for Eternity movement.” We should have the discussion later, Kelly added, but the nay-sayers want to put it off forever. We have got to the very sad point where we can’t rely on the government to tell the truth on climate: Malcolm Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg have lost credibility on the subject, and the Nationals’ Michael McCormack never had any. Combined, they are asleep at the wheel on climate risk. As then industry minister John Button said to his staff in 1990, after a briefing from dogmatic treasury officials who’d blithely let interest rates climb near 20 per cent, and would soon tip Australia into the early-’90s recession: “We have fallen among fuckwits.”

Batman was a big loss for the Greens. Unlike the Democrats, the Greens have slowly made inroads into the lower houses of parliament where government is formed, both at state and federal level. Former leader Bob Brown often said the Greens were “not there to keep the bastards honest, we’re there to replace the bastards”. That depends on winning seats like Batman. Leader Richard Di Natale has set out some ambitious goals for the Greens: when he took the job in 2015 he said the party could reach a 20 per cent primary vote in a decade [$]; the next year he said eight lower house seats in the federal parliament by 2026; last year he said 25 seats in as many years. But if the Greens can’t win in Batman, arguably their next-most winnable lower house seat, those goals look pie in the sky. Ged Kearney clearly has the potential to generate the same sort of loyal following that Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese have in Sydney and Grayndler respectively, or that Lindsay Tanner had in Melbourne for that matter, and have used to turn progressive electorates into Labor strongholds. Batman won’t come back into prospect for the Greens as long as Kearney’s there, just as Hobart’s Denison hasn’t under Andrew Wilkie. You can’t write the party off over one by-election, but defeat in Batman is a blow to the Greens’ inner-city strategy.

So what went wrong? Labor makes the point, in this piece [$] by the AFR’s Phillip Coorey, that they won it, the Greens didn’t lose it. The Greens say privately they underestimated just how much of a drag David Feeney was, and therefore what a boost Labor would get from a candidate like Kearney. There will be a review. For mine that should consider two substantive issues. First, whether the party’s campaign focused too much on the plight of asylum seekers and “Labor’s Adani” coalmine, to the exclusion of local issues. The knowledge-worker-motivated-by-post-material issues is a poor target voter for the greens – how many of them are there, really? Who identifies with them? It’s over-cooked. Second, and this does go to Di Natale’s leadership: what is the cumulative impact of a string of Greens’ mooted or actual deals with the Liberals, from pension cuts to school funding, or, at a stretch, last week’s questioning of Labor’s proposal to end franking credit refunds, all of which played into the Batman by-election? On Q&A recently, slugging it out with Plibersek, Di Natale was put in an awkward position trying to explain why the party had almost supported government cuts to Gonski funding. Di Natale has good answers on all these issues – watch this space – but it is a serious debate about strategy that should be had on its merits. The centrist drift is the underlying substantive issue in the Facebook post yesterday by a former WA Greens co-convenor, Grahame Bowland. If it somehow amazingly winds up provoking a leadership crisis for Di Natale, even in the absence of a challenger, well, so be it.

What is beyond debate, and where Di Natale is dead right and Bowland dead wrong, is that the people who lodged and leaked a 101-page complaint against Batman candidate Alex Bhathal, timed so as to do maximum damage to the party’s chances in the by-election, should face the consequences. In the words of Chip Le Grand, who broke the original story [$], the complaint did “not contain grievous instances of bullying or harassment” and included some allegations that appeared “frivolous”. The complaint was reviewed by the Endorsements Review Committee, and dismissed. End of story. Fierce pre-selection battles are one thing, but the public couldn’t care less, and once they’re over, they’re over. It is one thing to have a frank or even bruising assessment of the party’s strategy after an election, and sometimes that will go public. It is simply treacherous to run a smear campaign via the media against the party’s chosen candidate in the middle of a crucial by-election. If the party is going to tolerate that kind of behaviour, it can kiss all future electoral success goodbye.

since this morning

Cardinal George Pell may face fresh charges after a sensational development during his committal hearing. The Melbourne Magistrates’ Court heard that a witness who was due to face cross-examination supplied a new statement to police on Monday evening.

The ABC has obtained an internal survey showing that Australian Border Force staff last year delivered a scathing assessment of their senior leaders, which then included Roman Quaedvlieg.

Actor Geoffrey Rush has had a significant win in his defamation case against The Daily Telegraph, with a judge ruling that part of the newspaper’s defence must be struck out.

in case you missed it

In this piece for Inside Story, the Grattan Institute’s Brendan Coates and Danielle Wood have described as “deeply misleading” government claims that most people who would be affected by Labor’s abolition of refunds for unused franking credits are on low taxable incomes.

In this piece for The AFR [$], the Australia Institute’s Richard Denniss writes that Australia’s debate about who is poor has become “obscene” and has conflated poor people and those with good accountants.

The AFR reports [$] on the first day of hearing in a bitter Liberal Party internal dispute. Victorian Liberal president Michael Kroger has told the Federal Court that shares in the $70 million, Charles Goode-led Cormack Foundation were always held on trust for the Liberal Party, despite never being disclosed in the party’s accounts.

by Harry Windsor
‘The Workshop’: teen angst in a post-Charlie Hebdo France
Laurent Cantet’s new film explores the lure of political extremism for the young and bored

by Nick Feik
Killing our media
The impact of Facebook and the tech giants

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?

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