A DOCTOR, PIG FARMER AND A FORMER FOOTBALLER WALK INTO PARLIAMENT HOUSE – INTRODUCING THE CURIOUS NEW LEADER OF THE GREENS.
Greens leader, Richard Di Natale, slices through stereotypes and salami.
It’s the evening of Federal Parliament’s frst sitting for 2016 and Richard Di Natale is in his offce performing his salami trick – offering up thin slices of sausage he made from his own pet pigs. Christened Salt and Pepper by his two sons, the pigs once lived, happily, on Di Natale’s farm in Victoria’s Otway Ranges. Now the Senator is serving them up alongside Coopers Pale Ales. Butchering pet animals isn’t what you’d expect from the leader of the Greens, a party formed to protect the environment – but changing expectations is exactly what the 46-year-old wants to do. The ascendancy of Malcolm Turnbull to Prime Minister has triggered a dash towards the centre in Australian federal politics, and Di Natale has no intention of being stuck out on the far-left fringe. On the day he became leader, in May 2015, he immediately antagonised the Labor Party by claiming the Greens are in fact “the natural home of progressive mainstream Australian voters”. Then he antagonised many within his own party by cutting a deal with the Coalition – a taboo and something his predecessor Christine Milne had refused to do – thereby allowing pension cuts to pass through the Senate. And then, at the beginning of this year, Di Natale took aim at one of his party’s most dearly-held beliefs – opposition to genetically-modifed (GM) foods. A medical doctor before entering Parliament, Di Natale told journalists that he didn’t think GM crops posed a signifcant risk to human health. Political commentator Mungo Maccallum, writing in ever-worthy publication The Monthly, noted Di Natale later stepped back from the issue, knowing to push such would create an open break between leader and party faithful. “But he is too honest to be comfortably silent,” wrote Maccallum, “and so, too honest for his party, and perhaps, for the current political system.” A Melbourne boy who showed talent with an AFL football, Di Natale is the frst ‘mainlander’ to lead a political party forged in the environmental activism of Tasmania. Appearing more concerned with refugees than old growth trees, his deal- making suggests he’s the most pragmatic leader the Greens have had. To many, his elevation to leadership when Milne retired was swift and surprising, pushing aside deputy leader Adam Bandt who was widely tipped to be the heir apparent. It prompted NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, from the party’s hard left, to publicly complain on the night of the change that the process hadn’t been transparent. Here, on the resumption of Parliament in an election year – and on the hunt to double his party’s primary vote – Di Natale’s slicing through the stereotypes of the Greens as a bunch of radical mung bean eaters much like the sharp knife he’s using to carve through the salami. GQ chews a piece (it’s good) takes a swig of Coopers, and we begin.
GQ: When did Salt and Pepper shuffle off this mortal coil? Richard Di Natale:
Around the middle of last year. I’ve never had pigs before, but we got a couple of piglets, raised them on the property and basically made salami pancetta and capocollo. I’m Italian. To make the salami you add salt and spices, you can use synthetic skins or intestine – these ones have intestine – and then you hang them up for about six weeks. You have to keep wiping them – they start to look a bit gross and get a flm on them, but then they get a white mould – the healthy sort of mould that’s protective. And then you’re ready to go.
GQ: Do you butcher the animals? RDN:
We get someone in who does a home kill.
GQ: We heard you dispatched your own Muscovy ducks for Christmas dinner. How was that? RDN:
My view is if you’re going to eat an animal… [Chokes] Sorry, I have pepper caught...
GQ: ... that’s Pepper coming back to haunt you. RDN:
That’s right, extracting revenge. If you can guarantee it’s had a good life, that’s a good
thing. It’s honest, you know, what’s involved. But you don’t take any pleasure in it. GQ: So you’re at peace about eating animals when you know how they live and die? RDN: Yes, I was a vegetarian for quite a few years because I’m concerned about the impact of animals on the environment and animal welfare standards. Then I moved to the country – I’m originally a city boy, brought up in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. I moved to the country and was vegetarian, then someone in the country would have a kill and they’d have a couple of chooks or someone would raise an animal and you’d go to their house for a barbecue. And I felt better about eating meat that way. GQ: What was the first piece of meat you ate? RDN: A beef steak. GQ: How’d it go down? RDN: I wasn’t the kind of vegetarian where if someone would serve you something I wouldn’t eat it. So it wasn’t a huge shock. But it was tasty. GQ: You’re the first Greens leader to not be arrested while protesting for the environment. If you weren’t chaining yourself to trees at university, what were you doing? RDN: No, I wasn’t political at university, I was concentrating on getting through medicine. I played a lot of sport. I was playing VFA footy [now the Victorian Football League] at the time. In the frst couple of years I was off skiving, playing golf or table tennis or something that wasn’t related to my studies. GQ: What you’re really saying is you were down the pub – fair? RDN:that. I Somewas interestedpeople havein politicssaid as an observer but I didn’t see it as a career path. It was sort of separate to everything I was doing. I wasn’t interested in student politics – people in student politics seemed more focused on the ‘game’ of politics. I was more interested in football. GQ: How long did you spend in the VFA and why’d you stop? RDN: I played for fve years, for Oakleigh and Coburg. I gave it up in my intern year as a doctor – it was a big year and I didn’t have time to play. GQ: Do you still kick a Sherrin? RDN: My knee’s cactus – I tore my meniscus, had surgery, got an infection and needed a knee replacement. So I’m actually… GQ: Shot? RDN: I’m shot. GQ: So how do you keep yourself looking so fit? RDN: I’m always active – I work on the farm. And being in parliament is such an unhealthy job, so I swim, I get on an exercise bike in the morning at the parliament gym. Whenever I can, I surf too. Sport and exercise has always been part of my life. GQ: Your parents were from Italy and toiled in Australia to build a better life. What’s the strongest memory you have of what they faced as migrants? RDN: I remember Dad coming home and just collapsing on the couch, chucking on SBS news and not moving. He was working bloody hard – he left the house early and got home late. Also, I don’t think we ever went to a restaurant growing up. Even now, going to an Italian restaurant, is a tough gig for me when I think of how good Mum’s cooking is. GQ: What a good Italian boy. Your parents must have been proud of you, studying medicine and becoming a doctor. What did they say when you told them you were going into politics? RDN: Dad said, in his Italian accent: ‘When you hang around with pigs you get covered in shit.’ GQ: Nice, and do you think he had a point? RDN: So far I’m still relatively clean. Politics is interesting because on one hand you have people thinking it’s a horrible profession and everyone is in it for themselves. But they also recognise people are in it for the right reasons. So people have contradictory views about it. My parents are proud of it now. When I started to run as a candidate they threw their support behind me, waking up at fve in the morning and claiming pole position at the polling booth. The thing they hated, what hurt them most, was that I kept losing – I lost three close elections before I got elected to the Senate. They were upset each time I lost, but I’m pretty resilient. GQ: And now you’re running the Greens. The day you became leader you said your party was ‘the natural home for people who’ve got progressive mainstream values’. How’s that gone down with Labor? RDN: They hate it. But I believe it. When you look at all these issues – climate change, refugees, treating people seeking asylum with an ounce of dignity, marriage equality – our positions are smack bang in the centre of progressive, mainstream politics. The interpretation put on that has been that the Greens are mainstreaming their policies and dragging their policies into a different place. But what I meant by that statement is that our policies on these things are in the progressive mainstream centre, and the challenge for us is to ensure people understand that. It’s about breaking down a few stereotypes and making sure people understand that’s where we sit. GQ: You’ve said the Greens have to prepare for the day when they take ministries in a Labor government… RDN: ... in a government. GQ: So it could be a Coalition government? RDN: Look at Tasmania. At one point the Tasmanian Greens formed government with the Liberal Party. My comment was that at some point in the future we will be a party of government. I joined the party when it polled two or three per cent. Over the course of the last 15 years our vote has grown to 10-12 per cent. In my view it’s much more likely that the opportunity to form government rests with Labor, but you should never rule out any possibility [of an alliance with the Liberal Party], though it’s unlikely. ‘Never say never’ is the quote I’d use about everything in politics. GQ: Can you see a day the Greens form government with the Liberals? RDN: It’s a question for the party but I think it’s never going to happen. I don’t see a time when we can form a coalition with the Liberal Party, particularly this Liberal Party, because our views are so far apart. GQ: Still, never say never? RDN: That’s exactly right. I made a commitment when I started this job of not playing the game about being defnite. I think [Malcolm] Turnbull called it the rule in, rule out game. It’s the principle of making an ironclad commitment about something at this point in time. GQ: To build the Greens’ primary vote to 20 per cent you’ll have to tackle some of the party’s central beliefs. Is the party’s stance against GM foods one of them? RDN: It’s about changing the conversation. With a position like GM foods, you’re boxed into a pro-science camp or an anti-science camp. It’s actually more nuanced than that. As I said at the time, in medicine genetics has application in vaccine development. In agriculture, GM foods are hugely problematic, particularly
in driving an increase in the use of herbicides and issues around intellectual property. It’s hugely problematic. Too often people want to put the issue into an anti-science or proscience camp. When it comes to genetically-modifed organisms, it’s important to have a more nuanced conversation and our position is a more sensible one. GQ: Is it a matter of nuance or are you backtracking? After you made those comments the party issued a press release contradicting your stance. RDN: There was a press release elaborating on my position. GQ: Are there other Greens policies that you don’t entirely agree with? RDN: There’s not one policy that I don’t back. The thing about being in my position is I feel liberated in this job, I get to speak freely about all these things, I don’t feel held back like Labor and Liberal MPS. I know MPS in those parties who support a vote on gay marriage but can’t publicly say that. I have a freedom to talk about issues I care about because they’re in line with the party’s policies. GQ: But being a leader means changing things? RDN: It does. GQ: In doing so you also have to keep the party’s base behind you. What do members think of cutting deals with the Coalition government? RDN: I recognise that for some in our party, it’s diffcult to support a position that the Liberal Party puts forward. Even though I disagree with the Liberals on almost everything, on occasions there’s an issue where we can get an outcome in the national interest. So you have to put the policy before the politics... It’s true that there are some people who say we should never do anything with the Liberal Party, but it’s my view, and the view of my party room, and I don’t make any of these decisions without the support of the party room, that you have to put the policy frst and then the politics looks after itself. GQ: How well do you get along with Malcolm Turnbull? RDN: I’ve only met him a couple of times so far. GQ: Do you like him? RDN: I don’t know him well enough to have an opinion on him as an individual. GQ: On some issues you’d be closer to Turnbull than the Labor party, right? RDN: Well clearly he supports marriage equality. He supports a republic. He notionally supports action on climate change. And I agree with him on all that – from that perspective there are opinions we share. But in politics it’s important to focus on issues, not personalities. GQ: The Greens’ leadership change was so quick and bloodless that many suggested Milne gave you advance warning she’d step down – allowing you to corral the votes against deputy leader Adam Bandt. True? RDN: When we changed from [former leader] Bob Brown to Christine Milne, the same thing happened – it was quick. There are 11 people in the party room, it’s a pretty straightforward process. GQ: Did you get advance warning from Christine Milne that she planned to step down as leader? RDN: I think we all knew it was a possibility. When Christine made the decision, it was a shock. But in the end it was an uncontested ballot and everyone had a vote. GQ: Are you up to date with House of Cards? RDN: I enjoy it because it’s a really good production, but it doesn’t reflect life in this place [Parliament House]. If you want to see a more accurate depiction of what life in politics is like, watch [ABC series] The Hollowmen. I was close to an issue that was going on inside one of the major parties and I remember watching The Hollowmen and not knowing whether it was a comedy or a documentary. GQ: You were the first Greens leader to go on Channel Ten’s The Bolt Report. How did that come about? RDN: He’d been asking me for a year and we’d refused. Then I decided part of the reason people like Andrew Bolt have any legitimacy is because politicians take them seriously and treat them with far too much deference and respect. GQ: And fear? RDN: And fear. GQ: You seemed to get the upper hand debating on whether Australia should accept more Syrian refugees. That must have been satisfying? RDN: No, not really. We walked out and thought it was an interview like any other. But the feedback on it was positive. A lot of people thought, ‘Thank God someone’s willing to stand up to a bully like that.’ I went in there with the perspective that I’m not going to kowtow before him. And people liked that. I was a bit disappointed we didn’t get to talk about climate change. GQ: Still, on refugees the Greens seem to sit on the fringe of public opinion – opposed to both boat turn-backs and offshore detention. Deaths at sea have largely ceased. Do you remain confident in your party’s position? RDN: I don’t agree that we’re on the fringe. There’s a big proportion of the Australian community very upset with our treatment of people seeking asylum in Australia. And that’s the point of leadership – you take a position because you believe it’s the right one; you argue the case as persuasively as you can to bring the community with you. And the Greens are the only people leading the community on this and I do think things are changing. Look, it’s a straightforward proposition: is it ever justifed to lock a young kid up in a jail, because that’s what detention centres are, where they’re sexually abused? Where they’re self-harming and are permanently damaged? GQ: No, but if it means people aren’t drowning at sea... RDN: ... I don’t accept it’s binary like that. And I don’t think it’s ever OK to lock up a young kid and damage them for life. GQ: On gay marriage, do you think we should save the money of holding a plebiscite and instead let parliament vote on the issue? RDN: Yes, we should call the vote tomorrow and get it done. GQ: Should we legalise marijuana for recreational use? RDN: I don’t think criminal penalties work. GQ: What do you think Tony Abbott is up to? RDN: I think he’s creating mischief and he’s plotting his revenge. And I think he’s fuelled by all the wrong motives. GQ: Do you have a sense of how it will play out? RDN: Badly. What he’s doing is actively undermining his own party. He should take up a nice hobby, maybe golf or fshing, and consider retirement. GQ: If the Greens move from a party on the edge into a party of power, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty. Are the Greens ready for that? RDN: What do you mean by getting ‘hands dirty’? GQ: Deal-making – in the interest of a larger achievement. RDN: No, we won’t give up things we believe in. On the question about would you support something that is a small step forward, if you can get that done, and not hold out for something that’s perfect, that’s a different question.
GQ: Bob Brown often talked about ‘replacing the bastards’, but you’re talking about joining them in government. It feels like a pretty dramatic shift in party strategy. RDN: The question of forming a coalition with another party is vexed and people have different views. My own view is that we don’t want to end up like the Nationals Party in a formal, permanent coalition with the Liberal Party – it means giving up on so many issues. That’s a different question to whether at some point in time you might enter into powersharing agreements. That will be a decision for the party to collectively make. GQ: Would you do a preference deal with the Coalition to get the Greens ahead of Labor in innercity seats? RDN: I’m not involved in doing our preference deals. To my knowledge we haven’t preferenced the Coalition before. I really can’t see it happening at this election, not with this government. But it’s not my decision. GQ: What makes a gentleman? RDN: Integrity is at the heart of being a gentleman. Authenticity. It’s got nothing to do with how you dress or what image you present to the world. It’s about respect, and being respectful to others, whether that’s someone of the opposite gender, a different cultural background, someone older or younger than you, or a different professional background. Respect is right at the heart of it. GQ: How respectful are party colleagues when it comes to your salami making? RDN: They’re OK. Some are vegetarian, some aren’t. They respect that if people are going to eat meat, it’s good to do what I do – raise animals ethically and give them a good life and have a fairly light footprint on the environment. And I’m proud of my cultural heritage, sometimes I come to Canberra with a bag of Mum’s lasagna.
“WHILE I DISAGREE WITH THE LIBERALS ON ALMOST EVERYTHING, ON OCCASIONS THERE’S AN ISSUE WHERE WE CAN GET AN OUTCOME IN THE NATIONAL INTEREST.”
Grey cotton polo shirt, $446, by Orley; dark blue cotton jeans, $465, by Balenciaga at Matches Fashion; black acetate glasses, $280, by Marc Jacobs.