Was Christine Milne pushed or did she jump?

Was Christine Milne pushed or did she jump?

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

The vexed issue called ‘leadership’

Of all the qualities our political leaders strive to embody, the nebulous characteristic called “leadership” is ironically the hardest to achieve.

Both Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his opposition counterpart Bill Shorten have discovered there’s considerably more to the leadership task than striding forward shouting “follow me!”

Leadership requires striking what is usually a precarious balance between reflecting what voters want, and convincing them to accept what the nation needs. The consequences of getting the balance wrong usually amounts to electoral defeat.

Voters are hard taskmasters when it comes to leadership. The quality can inspire respect, sometimes admiration and even less frequently, awe.

But it is a title and a role that only we can bestow; we generally only see figureheads as leaders if, in our estimation, they reflect our own values, thoughts and motivations.

We want our leaders to be an extension of us; to lead, but in reality, to follow. We favour those who ascribe to the apocryphal motto attributed to both the fictional British PM Jim Hacker and the 19th century French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin: “I am their leader. I must follow them.”

It’s no coincidence, then, that Abbott’s reflection of our shock, grief and grim determination following the attack on MH17 initially resulted in his leadership credentials being considered in a more positive light.

Abbott has since managed to dim that glow by overreaching on the tragedy. His attempt to appropriate the retrieval of the dead as another “national security” issue, by dubbing it Operation Bring Them Home and announcing the deployment of armed police and defence personnel to the site, quickly leached much of the goodwill that previously unsupportive voters may have had for the PM.

Such is the risk of straying from the song sheet that is the collective consciousness.

There are of course other inherent dangers for leaders who follow the pack. It’s one thing to channel the nation’s collective ebullience, as Bob Hawke did on the morning Australia II won the America’s Cup, or our deep regret, as Kevin Rudd did when he apologised on our behalf to the Stolen Generations.

It’s yet another to move like a weathervane as the winds of public opinion shift from one direction to another. Voters prefer their leaders to be reliable and dependable, and usually lose respect for those who prove to be otherwise.

The greatest risk, however, is in succumbing to voters’ baser instincts such as the xenophobia, if not outright racism, embodied in the current majority view that condones the harsh treatment of asylum seekers in the name of “national security”.

Likewise the voters’ hip-pocket rejection of climate action, which has shaped both the Coalition and Labor’s abandonment of the carbon “tax”.

In these cases, a different type of leadership has traditionally been used; one that involves stepping forward from the pack and setting an example to be followed.

There is a good reason this type of leadership is less favoured; our contemporary political history is littered with the remains of those who failed to lead Australians to accept unpopular political positions.

Former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard’s inability to successfully prosecute the case for a carbon price is perhaps the most recently notable example. Treasurer Joe Hockey’s attempt to unite voters against “the age of entitlement” is another.

And Bill Shorten’s push to democratise the Labor Party, which is meeting considerable resistance from the union and factional influences within the party membership that he’s seeking to reduce, may yet prove to be another example.

A different approach to political leadership is needed if Australia is to tackle diabolical issues such as asylum seekers and climate change, as well as less pressing but nevertheless important matters like the federal budget.

It’s not enough for a leader merely to espouse what the Australian people want, or conversely to expect that voters will trust and follow them just because of the office they hold.

A necessary precursor must first be established – political leaders must earn the respect of the Australian electorate. Only those leaders who have secured that respect, and who can effectively make the case for change, will successfully bring the community along with them.

Without political leadership built on respect, we’ll continue to be distracted by populist politicians and resentful of those who try to force worthy but unpalatable solutions upon us. And the tough issues will either be buffeted by the winds of populism or simply consigned to the too hard basket.

‘Weakling’ Labor pulls its punches

It’s six months into the Abbott Government’s first term and there is a growing sense the Labor Opposition just hasn’t been able to lay a blow on the other side.

Apart from struggling to adjust to the uncomfortable but necessarily edifying transition from government to opposition, Labor has seemed singularly unable to capitalise on the panoply of stumbles, gaffes, backflips and dubious decisions that Abbott and his team have manifested in such a short time.

Granted, the ALP is laying claim to the shiny scalp of the sidelined Assistant Treasurer. But in reality, The Australian newspaper’s call for Arthur Sinodinos to stand aside likely had more impact on the Senator’s decision to do so than any of the edicts hurled at him in Parliament.

Without the intervention of Uncle Rupert’s paper, there’s a good chance Abbott would have attempted to ride out the controversy, just as he did when the Assistant Minister for Health, Fiona Nash, was accused of breaching the ministerial code. Abbott held tight, secure in the knowledge that Labor had enough dirt on its hands to be cautious when pointing out the Coalition’s misdemeanours.

The Nash episode was a clear-cut case of whether she did or did not breach the code or mislead the Senate. The Sinodinos matter was, however, anything but straightforward for Labor, with the Opposition having to tread a very fine line when accusing the junior minister of being naïve, foolish or dodgy while chair of Australian Water Holdings.

By implication, Labor risked lapsing into the claim that Sinodinos should have known better than to be even indirectly associated with Eddie Obeid, a mover and shaker in the NSW Labor Party who was later found to be corrupt by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

In short, saying that Sinodinos was dodgy for associating with a corrupt Labor politician is a bit like smacking oneself in the face.

Corruption in its own ranks is a significant limitation on the Labor Opposition’s capacity to credibly hold the Abbott Government to account on this issue, but it’s only one factor taking the edge off their attack.

Rorts in the union movement is another. The Government has a strategy to hobble the unions, cut off the flow of union funds to Labor, and reform wages and conditions, which spans across this parliamentary term and the next. Part of that strategy is to tarnish the reputation of unions and make Labor guilty by association.

Voters who pay attention to such issues would recall that PM Gillard vouched for the integrity of former Health Services Union head and Labor MP, Craig Thomson, who was subsequently found guilty of using his work credit card to pay for sexual services and make cash withdrawals.

One of the unstated aims of the Royal Commission into union corruption recently launched by the Abbott Government will be to ensure a broader range of voters associate Labor with unlawful activity within unions – regardless of whether that activity is sanctioned by the union in question.

This places Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, a former head of one the unions under investigation, in the invidious position of being seen to protect dodgy union activity whenever he defends the labour movement from what is patently a political witch-hunt. As a result, he keeps such protestations to a minimum and will be constrained in the assistance he can provide.

Similarly, Shorten limits his exhortations on the plight of asylum seekers, placed on Manus Island by way of an agreement struck by the re-ascended Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd to out-bid Abbott on “toughness” and win the anti-asylum seeker vote.

Even now the “toughness as a deterrent” tactic has devolved into terror, Labor’s role in bringing about the sorry situation has left them impotent and unable to fight for a more humane approach.

The ALP’s propensity to pull its punches may make sense within those politically sensitive contexts. But it makes Labor look like a weakling, particularly now that Australian voters have become accustomed to an opposition bristling with fight and negativity.

This is a particular problem for Shorten who has consciously rejected Abbott’s Mr No style and adopted an opposition leader model closer to that of Labor’s Kim Beazley (which itself was modeled on the Liberal, John Howard).

This model involves giving due recognition to sensible government decisions and eschews opposition for opposition’s sake. Inconveniently for Shorten, this moderate stance sits uncomfortably with his union leader past and could unintentionally suggest to voters that he’s not genuine. If that perception takes hold, it could create a whole new world of hurt for the opposition leader.

Labor can’t lay a punch on the Coalition because it is hopelessly implicated in some of the Government’s greatest sins and has shown no inclination to renounce that involvement.

This weakness is one of Abbott’s greatest strengths, and it may well be the key to his Government’s enduring political dominance in the foreseeable future.