Alex Bhathal and discord in the Greens
Richard Di Natale would rather be speaking about other things. Like the fact NASA just declared 2018 the fourth-warmest year on record, and that the five hottest years are, well, the five previous ones. He’d rather speak about extreme weather, inequality, the banking royal commission – and he’d rather that the media speak about these things, too.
But he’s not. Instead, the Australian Greens leader is talking about his party’s dysfunction. Again. Specifically, the vigorous cannibalism practised within what was once his party’s largest branch in Australia – Darebin, in Melbourne’s inner north. Last Friday came the sudden, embittered resignation from the party of senior Darebin member Alex Bhathal, a six-time failed candidate for the corresponding federal seat of Batman. It came on the eve of a state council meeting that was voting on Bhathal’s censure for having spoken to a Guardian Australia journalist last year.
“This was a longstanding interpersonal conflict in one branch, in one state, within the country,” Di Natale told ABC Radio this week, attempting to cauterise the mess. “That’s absolute bullshit,” one former member told me. “The party’s largest branch is shedding members. The party is in complete disarray. But this is the [Greens’] typical media strategy – deny any problems exist.”
For her part, Bhathal says that by last week, she had just had enough. A raw, brutal and protracted campaign against her had been revived, and she felt the party’s internal systems were hopeless to adjudicate them quickly and fairly. “My ex-husband said it was destroying me,” Bhathal tells me. “He said that there wouldn’t be a just outcome, and I should go. And I would say: there’s no justice in politics ever.”
“The final straw,” Bhathal says, “was when I challenged six of the seven people sitting on the latest panel of misconduct charges against me. We shouldn’t have these processes where a large number of people inquiring into things have vested interests or have made complaints about me personally. These misconduct claims should be moved to an external body. Six of those people have a perceived bias, and it’s my right to call this. But state council said they don’t have a perceived bias and that they can sit. Well, that was it for me.
“For five years I’ve been dealing with this internally. Emotionally, the hardest thing to deal with is the unfairness. When you’re given narrative accounts of how people feel – they’re not tied to actual accounts. Or they’re based on other people’s stories. There’s not one piece of evidence in the 101 pages. The internal systems are a joke.”
In 2016, Alex Bhathal was the Greens’ candidate for the seat of Batman for the fifth time. She had first contested the seat in 2001, the year she’d joined the party. The incumbent at that time was Martin Ferguson and the odds of winning were infinitesimal.
Then, 15 years later, Bhathal was running against a desperately unpopular member in David Feeney and, courtesy of her serial candidacy, enjoying reasonable name recognition for someone who had never held office. The Greens’ numbers in the seat have improved in each election since 2001. While Bhathal’s most ardent supporters are likely to attribute this solely to her political gifts, the seat’s rapid gentrification also conferred the Greens a favourable concentration of voters.
In the 2016 vote, Bhathal came close – very close. But she lost. Within the Darebin branch, most accepted this as an achievement; harder heads organising the federal campaigns wondered what might have happened with another candidate. But then, in 2018, the hapless Feeney was ensnared in the dual-citizenship saga and resigned. A byelection was called. Once again, Bhathal was preselected, despite her opponents’ requests to delay the process.
Bhathal’s multiple preselections – often won very comfortably – are evidence of her popular support at a local level. But in politics, individual ambition is often zero-sum and Bhathal had thwarted a few dreams. Some saw entitlement; others saw democracy at work. But Bhathal kept running because she kept winning preselection. And she kept winning because she was the most popular candidate with the branch’s membership.
“Their attempts to dissuade people backfired because she was a popular and charismatic candidate,” one Greens member told me. “In 2013, there were three candidates who stood. Alex wasn’t even there – she was in Broome – and she won. She won preselections with huge margins. This is what frustrates me: in other circles it’s presented as cult of personality, or her ability to get people to do her bidding – but it’s an insult to those people’s intelligence … I mean, if the critics are right, that’s a lot of people who were fooled.”
It was ugly, unedifying stuff. Snakes in a shoebox. Allegations of branch stacking were soon raised against Bhathal in branch meetings. But no evidence emerged and Bhathal saw it as another unsavoury assault on her reputation.
The campaign against Bhathal became most public, destructive and nihilistic during the 2018 Batman byelection. Having failed to stall her preselection, a small group of people compiled a 101-page dossier filled with complaints against Bhathal – mostly accusations of bullying – and lodged it internally. Attached to the dossier was a cover letter, and the veiled threat to leak it to the media if it wasn’t acted upon.
Leaked it was. The Batman campaign had been sabotaged from within. Meanwhile, Bhathal hadn’t been formally notified of the complainants or the complaints – a denial of natural justice, she told me.
“It points to the motivation of those people – it’s a relentless campaign against her,” a former Greens adviser says. “The mistake these people make is that the Greens aren’t an NGO. Ambitious people seek preselection and run campaigns to succeed … Alex isn’t an angel, but she hasn’t broken any party rules. She campaigns hard and she needed to do that. Some people don’t respond to Alex’s campaign style – which I see as success-oriented. I never saw her bully anyone. I never saw her speak inappropriately. So, it’s hard not to see the complaints as anything other than sour grapes. Some of the complaints are so trivial, so childish.
“The Greens are at a dangerous precipice, not unlike the Democrats once were. We breached 11 per cent, but haven’t had that for a while now. This is a party that’s at a juncture and so the self-indulgence of [the sabotage] is just amazing.”
Batman was lost, and Bhathal’s marriage splintered. The Darebin branch, once ground zero for an alleged Greens renaissance, was poisoned. People were disgusted by the maliciousness of the sabotage – even those otherwise indifferent to Bhathal. “I was definitely surprised,” one former campaigner told me. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. [But] from what I observed I was shocked that that campaign was prepared to deliver an electoral loss and that was a preferable outcome to Alex Bhathal MP.”
Just a few years earlier the Darebin catchment held the largest Greens branch in the country. Its members were dominating council politics, had shredded Labor’s lead in the federal seat and would soon unseat the Labor incumbent in the state one. Today, the Darebin branch has lost 25 per cent of members in the past year and almost went into administration, the state seat of Northcote was lost after only 12 months, and the Labor incumbency of Ged Kearney seems unassailable.
Then, last week, the Darebin mess was resurrected. Seeking Bhathal’s expulsion from the party, the original complainants sought to revive their grievances. On February 2, Bhathal sent her resignation letter to the state council. It read, in part: “I have lost faith in the internal processes of the Party and I am effectively being forced out by an intense campaign of misinformation and bullying, where I face a never-ending cycle of having to respond to unsubstantiated, unparticularised or trivial complaints, many of which relate to the actions of others and have nothing to do with me. Due to the reopening of complaints, I have finally been granted access to some of the complaints and have found them to be completely unparticularised, rambling narrative accounts. There is not one piece of evidence to substantiate them in the 56-page document I have been granted access to.”
Then she engaged a lawyer to deal with what she called defamatory material. “I have written repeatedly to State Council and to Party officials … requesting that the complaints against me are investigated by an external organisation with experience in conducting workplace bullying investigations. I know that such an investigation would clear my name. It has been relayed to me that such an investigation would be too expensive.”
Last year, during the Greens’ annual conference, a move was made to alter the party’s constitution as it pertained to its complaints processes. The constitutional review panel had consulted on the issue for months and was, in part, informed by the long Bhathal saga. The changes would have limited the anonymity of complaints and registering of them collectively and placed some restrictions on historic complaints. In the Victorian Greens, constitutional change requires 75 per cent membership support. The changes narrowly failed.
Bhathal is injured, exhausted and profoundly aggrieved. She partially attributes her marriage breakdown to the stress of the past few years and now finds herself a heretic of a party she has been so closely involved with for almost 20 years.
“I have regret and feel remorse that she feels let down,” Victorian Greens convenor Willisa Hogarth tells me. “Alex is a tremendous member of the community; it’s sad to see her lose faith in the party. But I think people did the best they could with the information they had at the time … Nothing is perfect. We deal with human beings. But our complaints process hasn’t failed that often. It’s nine volunteers. It can be clunky. It can fail when people don’t engage it in good faith. But you can’t get me to say that nine people who are volunteers are doing a bad job. They’re good people who want the movement to be strong – but they’re volunteers.”
Senior Greens have admitted to me that their complaints process, as one that preferences consensus, can be unruly and poor at discerning vexatiousness. Also, as a voluntary organisation, its governance systems lack the expertise of professional organisations. “The other thing that makes this possible is a set of procedures that is pretty naive,” one former senior member told me. “It expects people to behave well. Greens rely on a naive view that individual behaviours match the policies or values of the party. [It] leaves open the possibility for processes to be weaponised against people. We’ve seen that in New South Wales and probably here.
“It’s not a process that seeks to get to the heart of the issue. It’s not a thorough, forensic approach. It’s bizarre. It speaks of natural justice but gives you no sense of confidence that that will be achieved. The complaints were political because they were accompanied by threats to go to the media. What I saw wasn’t complaint – it was a campaign.”
Or, as one former Greens member put it, “Years of underhanded fuckery directed at her.”
Richard Di Natale might want to talk about other things but plenty within his own party want to talk about governance reform and haemorrhaging membership. And this goes well beyond the boundaries of Darebin.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 9, 2019 as "Greens and strains".
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