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Christine Milne is risking trouble within Greens ranks as she bids to rebuild the party’s base. By Sophie Morris.

Greens’ hornet’s nest

Australian Greens leader Christine Milne addresses the National Press Club in Canberra in September.
Credit: AAP IMAGE

When Greens leader Christine Milne requested a meeting with Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently to discuss climate policy, it was scheduled for October 22, exactly a year to the day since they last held face-to-face talks.

Once more, she left the prime minister’s office empty-handed, complaining the Coalition never had any real intention of talking to the Greens.

But the government was negotiating with other crossbenchers and this week Milne was forced again to watch as the Coalition secured support for its climate policy and as the Palmer United Party boasted that it had kept alive the prospect of an emissions trading scheme.

All the more galling for her is the fact that former senior Greens staffers Richard Denniss and Ben Oquist are working with the PUP on climate policy. And Denniss, the executive director of The Australia Institute, is publicly criticising the direction the party is taking under her leadership.

Now Milne is risking a fight within her own ranks with a proposal to strengthen the federal party at the expense of state-based parties, which have very different identities and histories.

She will use the Greens’ annual conference in Canberra next weekend to propose a major overhaul of the party’s structures, designed to create a strong national organising council that could override state parties on national issues.

“It’s always been problematic for the Greens to lead a national party that is essentially a state-based party,” she tells The Saturday Paper. “What I hope this will build is more of a national perspective rather than state-based or territory-based perspectives that only come together at elections.”

State resistance

This proposal has been worked up through a year of consultations and is part of an effort to modernise the constitution of the Greens. But it is likely to be resisted by some state groups, notably the NSW Greens, which has long opposed any centralisation of the party and argues that it must remain a grassroots movement.

Greens senator for NSW Lee Rhiannon warns: “Our principle of grassroots democracy is a reminder that when the Greens consider party reform it is important that the changes enhance rather than limit members having a meaningful say. We don’t want to go down the path of the major parties.”

Still, the scheme has supporters. Greens senator for Western Australia Rachel Siewert says it would help the federal parliamentary party to have a stronger national body that it could consult regularly on national matters, such as constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, privatisation of assets or welfare reform.

After losing 500,000 primary votes at the 2013 election, Milne wants to rebuild the party’s base and restore trust and improve communication between party members and the federal parliamentary party, which now includes 10 senators and one MP.

Most recently, there has been frustration among the membership at the party’s decision to oppose the government’s budget move to increase the petrol tax, although this decision has now been officially accepted.

As an olive branch to disgruntled members, the parliamentary Greens party is proposing to invite party office-bearers and staff to participate, though not vote, in some party-room meetings, giving them greater input into decisions.

Milne says there is a proposal to put in place structures for consultation before the Greens enter a coalition or alliance with another party. This would involve an urgent meeting of the national organising body if such arrangements were being considered, as well as regular discussions at party conferences about the concept of coalitions and alliances.

She says that party members accepted the federal Greens decision in 2010 to back the Gillard Labor government but “would have liked to have had a bigger role” when that agreement was being negotiated.

Similarly, she says, party members in Tasmania would have appreciated more discussion about the party’s decision to accept two seats in cabinet with a minority Labor government in 2010.

Policy or building votes?

Reflecting on the role the Greens played in supporting the Gillard government, Milne says it shows the dilemma for the party: when it is in a power-sharing role, it can achieve policy outcomes but invariably loses votes.

The party’s primary vote plummeted in 2013, despite the fact it had achieved its central goal of pricing carbon.

“The downside is you also get lumbered with whatever the fortunes are of the government concerned, so you tend to lose some of the primary vote,” she says. “Frequently, in order to be in a balance-of-power role it is because the government in power is already on the nose.

“When you’re in opposition, you obviously can’t get as many outcomes as you do in an arrangement, but you tend to build votes. The question is how do you do both – both getting outcomes by being in government and not losing primary votes?”

She wants the party to explore how the Greens in Europe have dealt with power-sharing roles and discuss, ahead of elections, what strategies her party may pursue if they are given the opportunity to negotiate a balance-of-power role.

“I think we need a much greater understanding and awareness of how politics actually works: what is achievable, what’s not,” she says. “We also need to involve the party in making those decisions well ahead of elections.”

She says that, before an election, party members should be involved in discussions about possible scenarios, posing the questions: “Is it worth us going into a balance of power? Would we accept ministries? Or would we say: ‘No, this government is on the way out, we’re not prepared to do that, we’ll wait until the next election when we can actually increase our numbers again and have a greater say’?”

As Milne ponders the party’s long-term options, she is copping criticism for how she is directing its current strategy, particularly from Denniss. But there are also complaints from within the party room that she could have been more “nimble” on the petrol tax.

Within the government, there is a view that Milne’s leadership is unstable. This view informed the Coalition’s decision to announce this week that it would circumvent the senate by pursuing its budget increase in the petrol tax via regulation, rather than legislation.

The Coalition’s speculation is that, by the time the parliament must convert this regulation into law within a year, Milne may no longer be Greens leader and the party will wave it through.

Within the parliamentary party, though, there seems to be no appetite for leadership change, although there are the usual murmurs about who may be her eventual successor. Milne says she has pursued an “inclusive” approach as leader and is proud of how she has allowed others in the party room to build their profiles.

Australia Institute and the Greens

The animosity between The Australia Institute and the Greens erupted this week after Denniss accused Milne of missing an opportunity to offer support for the petrol tax rise in exchange for other outcomes, such as saving the renewable energy target.

“Their current strategy of voting against virtually everything the Abbott government announces, including things they actually support, has made them largely irrelevant since the last election,” he wrote in the Fairfax press. “It is hard to think of a more breathtaking act of political obstructionism than the Greens’ refusal to support the reintroduction of petrol excise indexation.”

Milne argues that the party could not support a measure that would hit poor people and raise revenue to fund the construction of major roads, when they are campaigning against those very road projects.

As for Denniss and Oquist, she says: “They have certainly embedded themselves deeply in the PUP, in a party that has repealed the carbon price, that has taken $717 million out of the renewable energy agency.”

She says it has been “devastating” to see climate policy that she was involved in devising, under the former Labor government, demolished by the Coalition and the PUP.

“It’s actually gut-wrenching to see all the work you have put into carefully considered legislation to bring down emissions torn down by a party of people who have no idea how that scheme worked or what’s going on, just because their leader said he was going to abolish carbon pricing and is a coalminer.”

As for Palmer, he’s rubbing salt in the wound. On Thursday, he tweeted: “Surely @senatormilne’s leadership of  @Greens under threat. She’s knocking @PalmerUtdParty for achieving what the Greens couldn’t.”

In Milne’s mind, however, the PUP has achieved naught but destruction.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 1, 2014 as "Greens’ hornet’s nest". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.