The political weekly: Politics escalated from fantasy to farce this week as the Labor opposition tried to find ways to trip up the tyro Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his shiny new ministry.
When Christine Milne unexpectedly announced her resignation as leader of the Australian Greens on Wednesday, many political observers had the same thought – did she jump or was she pushed?
The veteran conservationist politician hasn’t had the easiest of times since succeeding the iconic Bob Brown as leader of the party three years ago.
At the time, then Senator Brown had built the party into a clear alternative for voters at the progressive end of the political spectrum.
As a result, Labor voters defected in droves, giving the Greens its biggest national vote ever at the 2010 federal election.
Following Mr Brown’s departure in 2012, Ms Milne faced the challenge of maintaining that vote at a time when the Greens were variously being blamed for dragooning Prime Minister Julia Gillard into bringing in a carbon tax, risking the lives of boat people by refusing to support the Malaysia solution, or putting protest before principle.
The Green vote had started to drop even before Mr Brown had retired, but a number of poor state and territory election results for the Greens sparked speculation that Ms Milne’s leadership was at risk.
This speculation did not abate in early 2013, despite Ms Milne using a National Press Club address to end the relationship forged between the Greens and Labor, that allowed Ms Gillard to form government.
The Greens leader hoped the very public divorce would reduce the criticism levelled at the party for supporting the Gillard minority government.
The tactic did not work.
While the Greens famously prefer to keep their dirty laundry to themselves, recriminations and other destabilising comments were fed to the media after the party’s vote dropped from 11.8 to 8.6 per cent at the 2013 federal election.
Along with news that six of the party’s “most senior staffers” had left, rumours swirled that the party’s Adam Bandt had been planning to challenge Ms Milne for the leadership.
Another notably ambitious Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, told journalists after Ms Milne was re-elected as leader that her party had “just returned a leader that would see the party marching to a slow death”.
One of the staffers who left at that time was Ms Milne’s former chief of staff Ben Oquist, who cited “fundamental differences of opinion in strategy” for his departure.
During his time as chief of staff to Ms Milne, and before that in the same role with Mr Brown, Mr Oquist was on the board of the Australia Institute, a progressive think tank originally established by Clive Hamilton.
Mr Oquist is now a strategist with the organisation, which is headed by another former Greens staffer, Richard Denniss, who hasn’t held back in his public criticism of Ms Milne or in suggesting the need for generational change in the party’s leadership.
Although not an extension of the Greens, by any measure, Mr Oquist and Mr Denniss have since the federal election articulated the concerns about Ms Milne that Greens MPs will not for fear of being seen to be no better than the destabilisers in the “old” parties.
When the leader decided not to negotiate with the Abbott government on increasing the petrol tax excise, it was Mr Denniss who was reported echoing the words of the Greens MPs who wondered why an anti-pollution party wouldn’t support increasing a tax on petrol.
Mr Denniss went even further, criticising Senator Milne for essentially cutting the Greens out of having any influence and giving the balance of power to Clive Palmer, because her “political strategy is to oppose things that Tony Abbott introduces” even when “Abbott proposes things that Greens support” such as “petrol taxes, increasing taxes on high-income earners, the PPL”.
Of course, the Australia Institute head would know, because Mr Oquist facilitated the Mr Palmer/Al Gore press conference that led to the PUP leader committing to save the renewable energy target.
Behind the scenes, under the cover of the Greens’ fabled solidarity, Mr Bandt is said to have been the main leadership agitator, while Ms Hanson-Young’s frequent attempts at challenging for leadership roles have made her intentions patently clear.
To many observers, it was merely a matter of time before Ms Milne acceded to the combined forces of internal pressure from her colleagues and external pressure from critics like those at the Australia Institute, and declared an end to her time as leader.
However, as word emerged that some Greens MPs, such as Mr Bandt, had not known that Ms Milne was going to resign, and therefore had no time to do the numbers, it became clear that the wily conservationist had got the jump on her detractors.
The election of two Milne supporters, Larissa Waters and Scott Ludlam, as co-deputy leaders, also made it clear that the Melbourne MP’s confidence in becoming the next Greens’ leader was not shared by the majority of his colleagues.
Originally published at The New Daily
I am amongst the people who criticised Greens MP Adam Bandt for this tweet:
— Adam Bandt (@AdamBandt) October 17, 2013
There are plenty of others who think Bandt’s action was entirely appropriate, best exemplified by this popular post from Ed Butler over at AusOpinion.
I posted a lengthy comment on Ed’s post, which is reproduced below, to demonstrate that it’s not only climate sceptics who are criticising Bandt for his intervention.
Unfortunately the discussion over the ‘appropriateness’ of exploiting a bushfire that is currently threatening lives is a conflation of a number of matters: scientific, political and behavioural.
The scientific issue is the most straightforward. Climate change is happening, and it is likely to increase the number and severity of extreme weather events including the high temperatures that exacerbate bushfires. We basically need to decarbonise our economy in the next 30-35 years to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Discussion and implementation of climate action in Australia has become a political football. The issue has been exploited, at different times and by most parties, to score political points against or wedge their political opponents.
This has reduced the issue in the perception of the community to yet another political issue and not one of sufficient import for non-partisan support across the parties, for example in the way that gun control was seen to be ‘mostly’ non-partisan.
Having turned climate action into a political football, its proponents are faced with a community that does not care sufficiently about it and is skeptical about those who seek to generate a sense of urgency around the issue.
The lack of a visible directly physical connection between climate change and voters makes it additionally hard to convince the community that the impacts of climate change are real. It’s no coincidence that community support for climate action was strongest in Australia during the last sustained drought that primary producers say happen in our nation once every 100 years or so.
Once the drought broke, it was bushfires, floods and cyclones that became the next best illustrations of what unchecked climate change can do. This is complicated by the fact that scientists are reluctant to say that one causes the other, only that the frequency and severity of extreme weather events will be increased by climate change. That’s not really the smoking gun needed by the proponents of climate action to move the issue from being a political to a non-partisan issue.
Which brings us to Adam Bandt – a politician – using a currently blazing bushfire that was threatening lives and homes, to score a political point against Tony Abbott, another politician who has travelled a very long way on the political exploitation of climate action.
It would appear Bandt’s intention was to transform community concern about the fire into opprobrium for Abbott over his scrapping of the carbon price. Unfortunately for Bandt, by reducing the issue – yet again – to a political level he will do nothing to sway those who are politically aligned to Abbott.
Bandt will be successful in maintaining the rage amongst those who politically agree with him, but not one mind will be changed amongst those who do not.
Until climate action becomes a non-partisan issue, it’s unlikely we’ll see real action occur.
And people will continue to be offended by actions like Bandt’s, which seek to politicise the issue at the worst possible moment – for the potential victims as well as for the prospects of consensus.
While Labor is using its shiny new leadership process to distract members from election loss disappointment and take the heat out of ensuing acts of retribution, the Greens appear to be floundering in response to a poor election performance that was a surprise to no-one but themselves.
It was becoming clear as far back as the end of 2011 that the Green vote had peaked at the 2010 election. The Greens’ hagiographies claim this result as the point when they emerged as the third force in Australian politics.
In truth the minor party was as much a lightning rod for those protesting against the invidious choice offered between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott as it was seen a legitimate alternative to the major parties. The almost doubling of deliberate informal votes during that election compared with 2007 (from 1.48 to 2.70 per cent), and the ultimate minority government outcome confirm that many voters were looking for someone, anyone, other the Labor and the Coalition to vote for in 2010.
So in believing their own PR, perhaps it’s not so suprising the Greens didn’t foresee their poor result at this election.
An inflated sense of importance may have also contributed to the some of the Greens’ decisions that drove voters away, such as their refusal to pass Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and Gillard’s ‘Malaysian Solution’ for asylum seekers.
Wanting to sit at the big table while maintaining policy purity was another. As the Democrats learned when they bartered with John Howard to ultimately pass the GST, the Greens also learned it’s hard to claim you’re keeping the bastards honest when you’re also doing deals with them. The Greens’ constant laying of claim to forcing Gillard’s hand on the carbon tax/price, but being unable to deliver a carbon penalty that would actually drive achange in behaviour is the most notable attempt by the minor party to justify their decision to join the bastards.
Christine Milne’s later announcement that she’d told the Gillard Government ‘you’re dropped’ did little to assuage the concerns of those supporters who thought the Greens had got too close to their shared-power partners.
Another factor likely to have contributed is that, like the two major parties, the Greens have to accommodate disparate supporter groups and juggle the risk of upsetting one group to satisfy another. Labor has the Left and the Right, the Liberals have moderates and conservatives, and the Greens have the far Left, progressives and environmentalists.
Yet to compound this challenge even further, Milne announced when she succeeded Bob Brown as leader that the party would be reaching out to rural voters as well. It would be fair to describe the reception given by long-term farmers to the Greens – the party opposed to live animal exports, conventional farming methods and land clearing – as mixed. The Greens vote went down in the vast majority of rural seats, although they increased in those which included alternative lifestyle communities, regions threatened by coal-seam gas projects and those seats from which Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott retired. A nine per cent increase in Green primary votes to 18 per cent in Fairfax was the standout exception.
Milne has rightly declared she’ll review the Greens’ 2013 election performance. Her vow before the election to return the party to one of protest and holding the government to account will be tested with only one Greens member in the new House of Representatives that has no chance of influencing the outcome in that chamber, and a short-lived balance of power before the new Senate commences on 1 July 2014.
The review will necessarily scrutinise whether it was worth funnelling limited resources into retaining Bandt’ssymbolically important but practically useless green leather seat. Just as importantly it should seek to understand how the Greens failed to deliver on the expectations of potential supporters. Ultimately, like Labor, the prospect for a strong future lies in the Greens determining what they stand for and who they represent.
This post originally appeared at SBS Comment & Analysis.