The Greens believe they have put a difficult year behind them, and are seeing their ‘Cassandra’ foresight picked up by other parties. By Mike Seccombe.

How the Greens drive policy

Even in Richard Di Natale’s office they refer to the middle months of 2017 as the “winter of discontent”. It was as bleak a season as the federal Greens party has known.

But there is more than a whiff of spring in the air now, and if a few things go right over the next few weeks, maybe glorious summer. So Di Natale hopes.

It looked very unlikely a few months ago. In June, the longstanding tensions between the New South Wales party and its hardline socialist senator Lee Rhiannon came to a head when she white-anted party negotiations over schools funding, leading to her exclusion from the party room.

Then on July 14, Scott Ludlam, one of the party’s two deputy leaders, quit after it was revealed that he held dual Australian and New Zealand citizenship. Four days later, after taking the advice of a QC, the party’s other deputy, Larissa Waters, also quit. Waters had been born to Australian parents in Canada, and returned with them to Australia as a baby. In resigning, she blamed a change to Canadian law, made one week after her birth.

The political establishment piled on. Commentators dipped into their bags of clichés and came out paraphrasing Oscar Wilde: To lose one deputy leader may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

The prime minister was scathing about the Greens’ “incredible sloppiness”.

The opposition leader, Bill Shorten, was no gentler. “Are they ready to be serious political operators, are they up for the job? Do they know what they are doing?” he asked.

Well, what they were doing was owning up to their mistakes and voluntarily doing the right thing, in contrast to the ever-growing contingent of major party members also in breach or suspected of being in breach of section 44 of the Australian constitution.

And Di Natale’s response to the snowballing constitutional crisis – promptly calling for an independent audit of the citizenship of all members and senators – likewise stands in contrast with the indecision and jockeying for advantage of Malcolm Turnbull and Shorten.

Even the Greens’ traditional enemies in the right-wing press now say so. To cite but one of many recent examples, a piece in The Australian last week rather begrudgingly acknowledged the Greens as the only party to have acted “honourably” in the matter.

“This,” it said, “is what it has come to: compared to the Coalition and the opposition, the Greens – yes the Greens – are one of the few adults in the room.”

On Wednesday evening this week, Di Natale was invited onto Andrew Bolt’s show on Sky News, where the host was in furious agreement with his guest that
the two major parties were involved in a “protection racket”.

When the likes of the Murdoch media and Bolt start lauding the Greens – even if only as a pretext for bashing Turnbull – it’s a sign things are shifting.

Di Natale sees both the irony and the opportunity presented by the resignations of Ludlam and Waters. Of course, the loss of two of his most competent performers is unfortunate. But it has also given him and his remaining troops status as honest brokers in politics, a very valuable commodity just now.

“Politics is at such a low ebb and people have so little faith in the system, it helps to show the community that there are people making decisions not just out of self-interest,” he says. “Sometimes when you act with integrity – not always but sometimes – it pays off.”

Very often for the Greens, though, it has not paid off and they have led change without benefiting as a result. The father of the party, Bob Brown, talks of “the Cassandra thing” – a reference to the Greek myth of Cassandra, gifted with foresight but fated not to be listened to.

For instance, early in his time in the Tasmanian parliament, Brown introduced legislation to ban semi-automatic firearms, warning of the prospect of a massacre. It was voted down. After him Christine Milne tried a couple more times without success. Then, seven years down the track, came the Port Arthur massacre and the state and federal parliaments finally acted. John Howard got the credit, but the legislative model was Brown’s.

Brown recalls in 2004 the Liberal-National and Labor parties “were practically elbowing each other out of the way” in their eagerness to legislate against same-sex marriage.

Yet even then, public opinion was turning on the matter and was already nearly evenly split. Since 2008 – by which time we had polls showing majority support for marriage equality – there have been 22 bills put forward, nine sponsored by the Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young. It has taken a decade for most of Labor and some of the Coalition to catch up.

The list of issues on which the Cassandra party has been out in front is long. Environmental matters such as climate change are the obvious ones. But there are more. Who drove the case for a levy on the big banks to compensate for their implicit government guarantee, for a banking royal commission, reform to negative gearing and capital gains tax, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, a national anti-corruption body akin to New South Wales’s Independent Commission Against Corruption, electoral funding reform, medical cannabis?

Not all of these have been implemented, but all fit a pattern: they start in left field with the Greens and become mainstream. One or other of the major parties, usually Labor, catches up some time after the public does.

“Mainstream” is not a word that was often used previously in relation to the Greens, but Di Natale made a point of using it at his very first press conference after becoming party leader in May 2015. He qualified it with the word “progressive”.

At the time, many people, including some in his own party, interpreted the words “progressive mainstream” as meaning there would be an ideological shift under Di Natale’s leadership. In fact, he meant something quite different.

“What I was actually saying was that I think we are where a big part of the Australian community is at. I’ve always maintained that when you drill down on specific issues, people are on the progressive side.”

The problem for the Greens has always been that a lot of those people don’t vote accordingly, come election time. Indeed, it’s a problem for progressive politics in general, and one that has got a lot of attention in the United States, post Trump.

A fascinating analysis of this phenomenon ran in The New York Times last week, under the headline “America Is Not a ‘Center-Right Nation’ ”. It collated the evidence of many surveys by political scientists and pollsters, showing that when they are asked about individual issues, most Americans, even Republicans, hold surprisingly liberal views. They support left-of-centre ideas such as socialised healthcare, fee-free tertiary tuition, paid parental and sick leave, and universal childcare, and oppose tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations. Yet they vote as conservatives.

It’s not that policy is irrelevant to voters. It is more that they form habits of political behaviour over long periods based on a whole range of factors loosely summarised as “identity”. For various reasons, Americans have come, over a long period of time, to hold a political identity at odds with their individual values. In short, America is not a centre-right country; it just votes like one.

Likewise in Australia, Di Natale believes, a “fair chunk of the community” hold progressive views on a range of issues such as same-sex marriage, the environment, “income inequality and other structural inequality”, education, health et cetera. Yet many don’t align their identity with that of his party.

“Our job,” he says, “is not to shift where we are, but to communicate to people that we are with them on issues.”

One example is the giant coalmine proposed by the Indian conglomerate Adani in Queensland. Most Australians don’t want it. A Morgan poll last month showed that among those who had a view – and almost a quarter didn’t – opinion ran against the mine’s development by more than three to one.

Says Bob Brown: “That poll showed that supporters of every political party from [Pauline] Hanson and the Nationals, across to the Greens, has a majority opposed to the mine. But the popular mood is not echoed in the big party rooms.

“It’s a classic example of how a small powerful lobby can work wonders with the big parties. It takes a very restive public to change their minds.”

And right now we are seeing that change happen. The Queensland public is very restive on the Adani project and only now, two weeks out from a state election, has the penny dropped within the Labor government of Annastacia Palaszczuk.

Until last Friday, her government supported a proposal for the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility to loan Adani $1 billion to help build rail infrastructure for the project, on the basis that it would help generate jobs – and harvest votes – in north Queensland.

Then came the announcement that state Labor would no longer support the loan. Palaszczuk offered a convoluted and un-credible rationalisation, based on the claim her political opponents were planning a smear campaign about a conflict of interest involving her partner, Shaun Drabsch, who works for PwC, which is involved with the project.

The near universal view is that the decision was really based on simple electoral calculus: Labor stood to lose more votes than it would hold if it continued to defy public opinion. The Greens, the only party to have consistently opposed Adani, have hopes of picking up several seats in Brisbane.

We’ll soon see how much damage Labor has done to itself, and, more importantly for Di Natale, whether it translates into significant gains for the Greens.

Di Natale sees the Queensland election as one of a couple of “defining moments” in the near future, which will indicate whether the party really has put the winter of discontent behind it.

Another such moment will come even sooner, at next Saturday’s byelection for the inner Melbourne state seat of Northcote. The demographics of the seat favour the Greens, and Daniel Andrews’ Labor government is going all out to hold on. On the policy front, that has entailed a raft of changes, by which Labor has aligned itself with Greens positions.

Let us not be cynical about Andrews’ recent change of mind on euthanasia, for he has advanced a powerful personal case. But let us simply note that the Greens first introduced “death with dignity” legislation eight years ago, and that it is yet another issue where the major parties have long been out of step with measured public opinion.

During the byelection campaign, Victorian Labor has swiped a number of other Greens policies, too. After years of resistance in the face of the advice of health experts, it has committed to the establishment of safe injecting facilities for drug addicts.

Among other announcements, Andrews has promised significant reforms to housing and tenancy rights, long championed by the Greens. There is also a ban on single-use plastic bags.

If politics is about identity as much as policy, we are witnessing an attempted identity theft by Labor in Northcote. But the bookies and the polls have Greens candidate Lidia Thorpe – an articulate Indigenous woman with a strong background as a community worker who runs a sustainable housing and renewable energy business – taking the seat.

There is a third big test coming up for the Greens. Party members began voting yesterday on the preselection of senate candidates for New South Wales. While Di Natale won’t talk about it – party rules forbid commentary during the process – it’s no secret Di Natale wants the incumbent candidate, Lee Rhiannon, to lose.

The NSW branch has long been problematic for the party. It is powerfully influenced by people who are decidedly not of the “progressive mainstream”. There is a strong element of old-school socialists, communists even. Rhiannon herself has come into conflict with the federal leadership – including Brown, Milne and Di Natale – many times over the years. And, after her expulsion from the party room in June, most of the hierarchy wants to be rid of her.

Rhiannon faces three challengers for the federal senate seat, most notably Mehreen Faruqi, currently a member of the state upper house. She has performed strongly in state politics, and some party insiders give her a good chance. Others, however, note Rhiannon’s entrenched hard left support base, and the fact that in the whole history of the Greens no sitting member has ever lost preselection.

It will be a close-run thing, and a defining contest over the future direction of the party.

Interestingly, these three tests of the party – the two elections and the senate preselection – have coincided with a noticeable recent escalation of hostilities with the government in relation to some of the Greens’ core issues.

Most notable has been the stoush with Immigration Minister Peter Dutton over the government’s treatment of detainees on Manus Island. Dutton has consistently accused the party of stirring up trouble among the asylum seekers held there, and last week, as the crisis caused by the government’s closure of the detention centre worsened, he ramped it up, accusing the Greens of “subterfuge” and “breathtaking duplicity”.

In response, the Greens’ immigration spokesman, Nick McKim, gave Dutton an extraordinary spray.

“My response to Peter Dutton is that he is a racist, a proven liar, a fascist and a serial human rights abuser, and I’m prepared to stake my political credibility anytime against the credibility of a monster like Peter Dutton,” he said.

Back from Manus this week, McKim told The Saturday Paper: “I had a head of steam up because I’d just come out of witnessing the horrors that Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton are inflicting on 600 innocent people.

“But I’m happy to justify every word I used in relation to Dutton. And I’ve had a lot of support. A few think I shouldn’t have been so circumspect.”

A few days later, at a Melbourne protest rally, Greens MP Adam Bandt repeated the dose.

“If the definition of terror is to use violence and threaten people’s lives for political purposes, then Peter Dutton is a terrorist,” he said.

When it is put to Di Natale that such language might not go down too well with the electorate, he is unfussed.

“Desperate times require desperate measures,” he says.

“And when you have One Nation and so many others who are able to get traction because they put forward outrageous positions, [it] obviously means you need to strengthen things a little bit sometimes.

“It’s about making sure we are able to cut through in a more crowded media environment.”

The progressive centre need not be meek, it seems. The Cassandras of Australian politics will not be disbelieved.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2017 as "How the Greens drive policy".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.