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Following the Greens’ loss in Batman, the party is coming to terms with the calibrated and carefully timed attacks from within. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Batman: how it went wrong for the Greens

Alex Bhathal is embraced by a Greens supporter after conceding defeat in the Batman byelection.
Credit: AAP IMAGE / ELLEN SMITH

They arrived to the branch in earnest. Academics, activists, alienated Labor voters. The demographics of the Melbourne seat of Batman – in the southern part, at least – might be easily caricatured, but these people sensed change and felt obliged to assist it. After all, the Greens did things differently. And inner Melbourne had become a small beachhead for future parliamentary success. “I was committed to grassroots activism,” one member told me. “But I found the younger generation a different species.”

For the Greens party, inner Melbourne has yielded its most electorally potent base – but in the past 18 months, many members in the Darebin branch have become variously bewildered, disenchanted or disgusted by the unkind expressions of political ambition.

Despite cause for optimism – despite the demographic waves they were expected to ride to parliament – there was malaise, suspicion and sabotage. The resentments had festered for a long time. Last year, the Darebin Greens preselected Lidia Thorpe for the seat of Northcote, preferring her over Darebin councillor Trent McCarthy. As a recent party member, Thorpe was resented by a minority of members who felt she had not yet earned her place. These same members resented the federal candidate, Alex Bhathal, for endorsing her. A Gunnai-Gunditjmara woman and a refreshingly blunt and impassioned campaigner, Thorpe became the first Indigenous woman to be elected to Victoria’s parliament. The swing to the Greens shocked even their own campaigners. Thorpe’s preselection seemed vindicated.

In May last year, Bhathal was preselected by the Darebin branch to contest the seat of Batman for a sixth time. It was a painful process for members. A few objected to Bhathal’s sense of entitlement – a five-time loser should not be endorsed once more. But the branch was overwhelmingly supportive of Bhathal. Her supporters argued that she had dedicated herself to the party, uncomplainingly run in unwinnable years, and in each successive election had eroded Labor’s margin – and in doing so had warmly ingratiated herself with Batman.

Months before Bhathal’s preselection, a campaign committee argued for a delay of the vote so that an alternative candidate could be found. This defied the hopes of Richard Di Natale and Adam Bandt, who both wished that the process occur early and peaceably. “High-profile people, including refugee advocates, were approached to challenge Alex, but no one was found,” a Greens source told The Saturday Paper. “The Batman campaign committee were forced through a number of processes to delay the date. Submissions were put in and a vote was taken, which overwhelmingly supported early preselection.”

The branch hadn’t just endorsed the early preselection, it had also strongly supported the preselection of Bhathal. Media leaks began not long after this – but it would not be until the final week of last weekend’s byelection campaign, nine months later, that they reached a brutal crescendo. Privately, a justification for the leaks was that the complaints against Bhathal – that she had maliciously conspired against others, and was responsible for “suspicious” increases in branch membership – were not adequately investigated. Meanwhile, relations between the preselected candidate and the four Greens who help comprise the local government of Darebin Council were poisonous. Later, during the Batman campaign, their support was conspicuously withheld.

This was the dismal backdrop to the sudden vacancy of the Batman seat in February, when sitting member David Feeney resigned, finding himself unable to disprove his dual citizenship. Held by the ALP for a century, almost without interruption, the seat’s margin had evaporated to a solitary point. But the popular media themes of Green momentum and inevitability were at odds with the scheming and bad faith inside the Darebin branch.

“I wasn’t optimistic early on,” one source tells The Saturday Paper. “Morale was poor. Alex is resilient, but privately I think she was tired. This stuff takes a toll. And Labor were obviously energised.”

The Greens emphasised asylum seekers and the proposed Adani mine, and drew attention to Bill Shorten’s inability to state his party’s position unequivocally. But this was the popular perception of the Greens campaign, the stuff that survived the filtration of doorstops and news bulletins. On the ground, though, the Greens were more likely to emphasise small business, housing affordability, health and education.

While community forums were held between Bhathal and Labor candidate Ged Kearney – and a mutual respect became obvious between the two women – the sabotage was ratcheted up.

It was not a matter of a few petulant or impetuous late-night leaks. It was calibrated and uncompromising bastardry, timed perfectly to peak days before the election.

This is not without precedent in Australian politics, but the mendacity is still extraordinary. The saboteurs’ intent was clear: it was preferable for Labor to win, and for what remained of the Greens to appoint their chosen candidate in the next election.

A large number of Greens members involved in the campaign confess to being viscerally shocked at the destructiveness. One Bhathal staffer appeared to yield to the pressure, telling Fairfax journalist Noel Towell: “You’re fucking finished. I’m going to tear you to fucking pieces.” It helped complement any perceptions the electorate might have been forming about a culture of intimidation in the party that professed to do things differently.

Meanwhile, stickers bearing the word “BULLY” were being stuck to Bhathal placards across the electorate. Campaigners were trying to shield their candidate from increasingly unflattering front pages of newspapers. Bhathal’s children, in a grim irony, were being bullied at school.

In the final week, there was more drama. Bill Shorten announced his intention to remove “franked dividends” – cash rebates paid to shareholders whose tax owed exceeds their dividends. The proposal is a progressive tax reform that will putatively save billions over the long term, but will cost part-pensioners and self-refunded retirees who have relied on their superannuation funds making a return. Shorten said this would be offset by an unspecified increase in the pension. Regardless, it was a bold declaration to make in the final week of the campaign.

The Greens, with an eye to the thousands of elderly voters in Batman, announced qualified opposition 48 hours before polls opened. Di Natale said that the Greens would look to amend any future bill, and warned that Labor’s policy might end up “hurting the very people they want to help”. It was a reversal of the Adani wedge – the Greens found themselves equivocating about an expensive rebate that overwhelmingly favoured the wealthy.

The drama was not over. On election day, a series of media reports suggested a bizarre and brazen hoax was being committed against the voters of Batman. Apparently, a series of robocalls were targeting elderly voters, deceptively suggesting that voting was not mandatory for those aged over 70. The Australian reported: “Mysterious 11th-hour robocall telling voters in the Batman by-election not to bother triggers emergency response from Labor.”

Channel Ten and Fairfax also covered the mystery. It reportedly prompted Labor to send 2400 text messages to elderly voters, telling them to ignore such calls and reminding them there was no such exemption. “Lying to elderly people is as low as it gets,” a Labor spokesperson told the press.

Curious stuff, but the reporting was suspiciously thin. No news piece carried any verification. There was good reason for that: it never happened. The Australian Electoral Commission confirmed that: “The AEC is not aware of any polling day robocalls made to discourage the elderly from voting in the Batman byelection. The AEC is aware that a telephone call received by an individual where they advised inaccurate information was provided.”

Saturday night’s final tally, of course, did not end the drama. Losses invite painful autopsies. Earlier this week, Dr Sarah Russell published an opinion piece in The Age. Russell had briefly been a member of the Darebin Greens but resigned after the Batman byelection. She admits to me that she was “very low on the food chain” but it’s because of this that Russell could speak on the record. Her piece was widely read, and Russell was invited to expand on it on-air this week. “The results of both 2016 and 2017 preselections show Bhathal has the overwhelming support of the branch,” she wrote. “At the recent preselection, more than 230 members voted for her and only 19 members voted to ‘seek other candidate’. This represents less than 10 per cent of our branch.

“Although I support grievance processes, 18 people making a collective grievance is a political attack, not a grievance. This cowardly attack, with the complainants remaining anonymous, brought the Greens into public disrepute and exposed them to ridicule.”

When we spoke, Russell repeated to me: “Alex was one of the most honourable people I’ve ever met ... a great injustice has been done to her.”

But even within the majority of Darebin members who supported Bhathal, there is splintering. Some believe that the federal leader did not do enough to nix the sabotage. “Richard Di Natale and his office, the Victorian Greens and national Greens were aware of the leaks and efforts to sabotage Alex’s campaign from at least [Bhathal’s preselection] and no action was taken despite requests from campaign committee and branch members,” a Greens source said.

In response, a spokesperson from Di Natale’s office told The Saturday Paper: “As the federal party leader, Richard communicates regularly with the state and national party convenors to ensure the good functioning of our party, but as a grassroots, membership-driven party, it is not practical, nor desirable, for the leader to mediate all internal disputes.”

 

Their contempt was not discreet. For months, the Darebin Greens exhaled disharmony like smoke. Rumours abounded. Rancour was clear. Those arrayed against Bhathal expressed their resentments online, in branch meetings, internal documents and, eventually, to reporters – drip by toxic drip. The allegations against Bhathal were serious: she was a bully and a branch-stacker.

I made inquiries. My conclusion was that the claims were banal and vexatious. More, they had been subject to an internal grievance process that found in Bhathal’s favour. When Chip Le Grand published his report on the bullying allegations in The Australian, after earlier reports in Crikey, he observed: “Some of the allegations raised against her appear frivolous. She is accused of standing in front of another Greens representative at a media doorstop so she wouldn’t appear on TV, of passive aggression, of ‘unfriending’ a party member on Facebook and in typical Greens-speak, of projecting, triggering and making the Darebin branch an unsafe space.”

As Le Grand reported, there were more serious allegations. But inquiries made by The Saturday Paper found them to be supported by either spurious evidence or none at all. I had seen this before. On numerous occasions I have gratefully received tips about corruption or mendacity in the Greens, only to inspect the supporting documentation to find an almost obscene triviality.

The real corruption to be found in these voluminous records of micro-aggression is of language. Disagreement becomes abuse. Debate is violence. Ordinary requests are bullying. Frivolity is recklessness. Jocularity is harassment. I have encountered sensitivity so pronounced, so easily disturbed, that it resembles madness. And I detect in this hypersensitivity an imperious individualism, an almost hysterical primacy of one’s feelings – impractical in a political party and disastrous for the communal value of debate.

Having spent time with the genuinely traumatised, it is profoundly incensing to encounter this kind of hallucinatory grievance. “In a meeting in March 2017, a young co-convenor, after some spirited discussion, stood and up said, ‘I won’t be bullied’, and walked out,” Sarah Russell tells me. “We need a contest of ideas in a democracy. We need to speak frankly without being called a bully … It seems to me that most Greens members I’ve met in the past decade are very committed to the [party’s] four pillars. People with great integrity, committed to core values. But I now believe that some people have those pillars as fashion accessories.

“My observation is that these people are relatively recent university graduates, they understand the language of grievance. There was one woman in a branch meeting discussing aged care, which is my area of expertise, and she was muddling state and federal issues – but I thought that if I brought it up, it would be considered bullying. Parties are meant to be vibrant. But these people really don’t like disagreement or criticism. They respond badly to it. Then they use all this language like ‘bullying’.

“We don’t want middle-class politeness. We want frank and fearless exchanges. How many bullying complaints have been made in the past 12 months? I’d like to know. We don’t want snowflakes. It’s exactly how I felt about them. If this is the future of left-wing politics, we’re dead.”

Russell’s involvement with the Greens was limited. But the theme of unworkable sensitivity recurred in conversations I had with other, senior Greens figures. I was pointed to one Facebook post written by Bhathal campaigner Nicole Eckersley this week. “‘Bully’ is the most laughably impossible accusation that could ever be levelled at Alex Bhathal,” Eckersley wrote. “I’ve met baskets of puppies with a more sinister agenda. Alex is *painfully* nice. To the point that, coming in exhausted off the campaign trail, we had to corral her in her office so she wouldn’t spend her free moments checking on everyone else’s welfare.

“Maybe it’s a testament to the Greens, that they’re so nice that someone wandering around after a heated preselection battle saying: ‘And did that make you feel... *bullied*?’ was enough to get a complaint up. Let’s be honest, that level of sensitivity would be eaten alive in the other political parties. Alex stands up for herself and what she believes in – representation and justice – and if robust discussion and fighting your corner makes people feel bullied, frankly, as far as I’m concerned, they should take a long walk off a short pier.”

It would be a simplification to suggest that the anti-Bhathal campaign was merely a case of sensitivity conjuring a phantom villain. The Saturday Paper understands that the original grievances were personal, and partially inspired by thwarted ambition – only later did the naivety of some members recommend their usefulness to the sabotage.

 

The destructive resentments of the Darebin Greens have become very public, as has Richard Di Natale’s desire to expel the saboteurs from the party. Internecine fiascos are media catnip. But elections are won and lost on a range of variables. It’s impossible to say definitively, but Labor’s victory was so substantial that Bhathal may well have lost regardless of sabotage. It is probably fairer to say that Labor won the election, rather than the Greens lost it.

The alienation of former Labor voters was not permanent, as some feared, but required an appropriate candidate to restore their affinity. The Batman result all but confirms the deleterious effect of former member David Feeney on the Labor margin. The “Feeney Drag”, as it is called, may have bled five points – and Labor insiders have acknowledged the obvious: that factional entitlement won’t always yield an appropriate local candidate.

The preselection of Ged Kearney had the effect of awakening large numbers of volunteers who had been hibernating during Feeney’s years. They also had cash. Meanwhile, Greens volunteers were trying to stoically bear the slings and arrows offered by their colleagues.

Labor will be buoyed before November’s Victorian state election. For the Greens, whose national vote has been sliding backwards for years, it was demoralising. They lost a seat they were slated to win, weeks after sliding in the foundational state of Tasmania, after losing ground in South Australia last week, and in the face of exotic grievances in NSW. But while Labor feel they might have a strategy for the inner-city seats in Melbourne, the demographics remain the same – and senior Greens have told me they still find optimism in it. Political fortunes are volatile, and you’d be brave to predict anything.

 

This piece was updated on March 28, 2018, to make clear that early reports of bully had been carried in Crikey.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 24, 2018 as "Inside the Greens: how it went wrong". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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