Buon Di Natale

Christine Milne’s surprise resignation from the Greens leadership was a long time in the making. Take this assessment of her career from a senior member of the party, talking to The Age in September 2013: “Living on borrowed time.”

The quote came from the last abortive attempt to oust Milne, which saw six senior staff leave her office amid claims at least one of them had been attempting to install Adam Bandt in her place.

Leaving the party room that confirmed Milne’s leadership that week, Sarah Hanson-Young told waiting media that under Milne the party was “marching to a slow death”.

There was much to like about Milne. Her passion is unquestioned. Likewise, her integrity. As did the party, she came of age on the Franklin River. Her commitment to the environment never wavered.

But the Greens are and have for some time been in need of reinvigoration. Half a million voters have left the party in recent years.

Since Bob Brown’s departure as leader, the party looked to regain its activist heritage. But it has never properly negotiated the horse-trading involved in third force politics. It got nowhere on asylum seekers and went backwards on global warming. The shame of this will be felt for many years to come.

On one reading, Milne has looked at these issues and decided the experiment failed. The party was not going to win from the moral high ground. Activism wasn’t the answer to a falling primary vote. Returning to the past would not repair the present.

Richard Di Natale is a hope. Unlike Brown or Milne, he is a realist. His interests are more social than environmental, his record on issues such as dental care more successful.

“If you want to know about my general philosophy, I’m not an ideologue,” he said after taking the leadership. “I’m not going to say we want small or big government; you’re not going to get that from me. We want decent government that looks after people. Decent healthcare, decent education, affordable housing, public transport; we’re going to give voice to all of those issues and, as leader, they are things that for me mean a hell of a lot.”

The Greens are as dysfunctional as any other party. Their politics is just as internecine, their factions just as retributive. That infighting – the schism between Tasmanian environmentalists and social progressives, largely from New South Wales – has determined some of the party’s struggle for purpose. That won’t change, but at least now is a chance to better manage it.

On the face of this week’s events, Milne’s resignation was as much about change as being able to determine who would replace her – ensuring no one would have time to do the numbers against her man. But Di Natale is a promise of new direction. He is different and, under him, the party needs to be different.

Piety and obstruction are pleasant enough things, particularly for the people practising them, but they waste more than they gain in politics.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2015 as "Buon Di Natale". Subscribe here.