The Greens should be cel­e­brat­ing their 25 th birth­day

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - BY PADDY MAN­NING

We sat down in the usual cir­cle – a pro­ce­dural throw­back to the hip­pie days of peace, love and un­der­stand­ing. Nor­mally used for box­ing, the gym at the Alice Springs Youth & Com­mu­nity Cen­tre would to­day be the venue in which a few dozen Greens thrashed out a con­sen­sus on the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment’s con­tentious Gon­ski 2.0 school fund­ing pack­age. So far the party’s May na­tional con­fer­ence had been hum­drum, but if there were go­ing to be fire­works this would be the ses­sion. The Greens’ ed­u­ca­tion spokesper­son, Sen­a­tor Sarah Han­son-Young, had flown up spe­cially to brief the mem­bers. The con­venor laid out the ground rules; this would be a clean fight. The party’s leader, Richard Di Natale, was there with a sprin­kling of fel­low sen­a­tors, in­clud­ing feisty Lee Rhi­an­non from New South Wales.

Hav­ing come so far, and with a ring­side seat, I was hop­ing for some­thing more than earnest pol­icy-waf­fle. Pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion is an ar­ti­cle of faith for the Greens: the party’s mem­ber­ship is flush with higher de­grees, and a good chunk of the mem­bers are schoolteach­ers or univer­sity lec­tur­ers. The gov­ern­ment’s own fig­ures showed a $22 bil­lion cut on La­bor’s orig­i­nal Gon­ski school fund­ing. Why would the Greens com­pro­mise on pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion? Why help a dys­func­tional, di­vided Turn­bull gov­ern­ment?

Han­son-Young be­gan. It was a judge­ment call, but she was not in­ter­ested in just say­ing “no” from the out­set. As dis­cus­sion got un­der­way there were grave con­cerns – not just from NSW but also from Tas­ma­nia, from Queens­land, places where the party’s com­mit­ment to the “full Gon­ski” had proved a vote clincher in the 2016 fed­eral elec­tion. Rhi­an­non kept quiet, but af­ter a while her part­ner, Ge­off Ash, spoke roundly against the pack­age, which he dis­missed as a con job. A long-time con­venor of the party in NSW, Ash is a back­room player, one of the tough­est, who earned his stripes kick­ing so­cial­ists out of the Greens in the very early days. To­day he was re­strained but force­ful: the party would be go­ing out on a limb to sup­port it; the sup­port base, in the unions, was against it; the is­sue was hurt­ing the Greens.

There was no ac­ri­mony, noth­ing low or per­sonal. Some­one raised the fa­bled emis­sions trad­ing scheme prece­dent in 2009, when the Greens voted down Kevin Rudd’s car­bon price: would the party once again ap­pear ob­struc­tion­ist, mak­ing the per­fect the enemy of the good?

With a brave face, Di Natale summed up: he was hear­ing a lot of agree­ment in the room. “No one has said we should’ve shut the gate,” he said.

“I didn’t say it,” Ash shot back, “but I think it.”

Di Natale de­flected – sorry, his mind-read­ing pow­ers were not that great. But he had a re­sult: con­sen­sus, or at least a brood­ing ac­qui­es­cence, to keep push­ing for im­prove­ments to the Gon­ski pack­age.

For now, the is­sue seemed de­fused.

Barely two months later, Gon­ski 2.0 blew up, spec­tac­u­larly, right in the Greens’ face: the talks wedged the party, and the gov­ern­ment got its pack­age through any­way. There is now trench war­fare be­tween Di Natale and Rhi­an­non, and the rift be­tween the Aus­tralian Greens and its big­gest fi­nan­cial sup­porter, the party in NSW, is widen­ing apace. And at the cul­mi­na­tion of a gut­ter month in Green pol­i­tics, a black swan event: in July a mys­te­ri­ous lawyer dis­cov­ered that co-deputy leader Scott Lud­lam, born in New Zealand, had dual ci­ti­zen­ship and was never el­i­gi­ble to be a sen­a­tor. Lud­lam, who se­cured a high-wa­ter mark 14% of the statewide vote in the 2014 West­ern Aus­tralian by-elec­tion, was the Greens’ best com­mu­ni­ca­tor when on song, and one of the few Greens politi­cians who could stitch the left and the right of the party to­gether. When Di Natale’s other codeputy leader, Queens­land sen­a­tor Larissa Wa­ters, re­signed four days later for the same rea­son – an even more tech­ni­cal tech­ni­cal­ity – the Greens’ run of bad news went from ter­ri­ble to sur­real. You could not make it up.

Will the Greens fi­nally split? Will Di Natale sur­vive? The end of this month marks the party’s 25th an­niver­sary. No cel­e­bra­tion is planned. It is hard to tell whether the party is crash­ing, or go­ing to crash through.

The for­ma­tion of the Aus­tralian Greens, trum­peted as a his­toric break­through to ri­val the cre­ation of the La­bor Party a cen­tury ear­lier, was an­nounced in Syd­ney on 30 Au­gust 1992. Not one TV crew turned up to the press con­fer­ence, the party’s founder and for­mer long­time leader Bob Brown of­ten re­calls, be­cause the Har­bour Tun­nel was open­ing that day.

The Greens’ roots went back 20 years ear­lier, to a more spir­ited, rad­i­cal time. The fore­bears were a di­verse bunch: left, right and in be­tween. Peo­ple like con­ser­va­tion­ist Milo Dun­phy, who stood for the Aus­tralia Party in 1971, the first gree­nie to run for par­lia­ment; Richard Jones, whom Dun­phy helped found the United Tas­ma­nia Group in 1972, and who came from Queens­land’s Coun­try Party; and Jack Mundey, the com­mu­nist builder’s labourer who started the “green bans”, giv­ing this new po­lit­i­cal move­ment its name. The Tas­ma­nian Wilder­ness So­ci­ety was formed from the rem­nants of the cam­paign against the flood­ing of Lake Ped­der and led by twice-un­suc­cess­ful United Tas­ma­nia Group can­di­date Bob Brown. It block­aded the Franklin River in 1982, set­ting up Aus­tralia’s great­est con­ser­va­tion vic­tory. The fol­low­ing year Brown vaulted straight from Ris­don Prison, where he had been locked up for 19 days fol­low­ing a protest, into the Tas­ma­nian par­lia­ment to sit as an in­de­pen­dent. Brown would stay in that par­lia­ment for a decade, grad­u­ally joined by more col­leagues – stand­ing at first as in­de­pen­dents, then as Green in­de­pen­dents, then as the Tas­ma­nian Greens. A stick-thin, openly gay med­i­cal doc­tor who ra­di­ated con­vic­tion, Brown was some­thing brand new in Aus­tralian pol­i­tics.

Brown’s early po­lit­i­cal lean­ings were con­ser­va­tive. The son of a po­lice­man, from a quiet coun­try town in NSW, Brown grew up ad­mir­ing Men­zies. He nearly joined the Lib­eral Party, turn­ing up at head of­fice to find it shut, and never go­ing back. As a young med­i­cal stu­dent in 1966, Brown was out­raged when anti-Viet­nam pro­test­ers dis­rupted the mo­tor­cade of US pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son. He didn’t get caught up in the ex­cite­ment of the “It’s Time” elec­tion of the Whit­lam La­bor gov­ern­ment in 1972; he voted in­for­mally, scrib­bling “Save Lake Ped­der” on his bal­lot pa­per. Con­ser­va­tive or oth­er­wise, Brown was hard­wired to fight dams – his mother’s home­town of Adaminaby was flooded in 1957 as part of the Snowy Moun­tains Scheme. Brown thought it an act of cal­lous gov­ern­ment, be­fit­ting com­mu­nist China.

The Greens’ run of bad news went from ter­ri­ble to sur­real.

The Franklin cam­paign, a key to Bob Hawke’s elec­tion in 1983, put the en­vi­ron­ment squarely and per­ma­nently on the na­tional agenda. While Tas­ma­nia was the cru­cible of the new eco­cen­tric pol­i­tics in this coun­try, helped by pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion in its lower house, the im­pe­tus was big­ger than one state or is­sue. The rise of Thatcher and Rea­gan had stirred the left, and when Die Grü­nen stormed Ger­many’s Bun­destag in 1983 in the name of the fa­mous “four pil­lars” – eco­log­i­cal sus­tain­abil­ity, grass­roots democ­racy, so­cial jus­tice, and peace and non-vi­o­lence – it be­came a torch­bearer for Greens world­wide.

In 1984, the Syd­ney Greens was founded by so­cial­ists Tony Har­ris and Hall Green­land, who had been kicked out of a La­bor Party they saw was drift­ing to the right un­der Hawke and Keat­ing. They adopted the four pil­lars and se­cured the first reg­is­tra­tion of the Greens party name. There fol­lowed years of argy-bargy over who could call them­selves Green. Mean­while, West­ern Aus­tralian farm­ers’ daugh­ter Jo Val­len­tine won a sur­prise Se­nate seat for the Nu­clear Dis­ar­ma­ment Party in the 1984 elec­tion, and sud­denly found her­self the world’s first anti-nu­clear par­lia­men­tar­ian. She soon quit the NDP (which had been in­fil­trated by so­cial­ists), turned in­de­pen­dent and, in 1990, be­came the first Greens mem­ber of the fed­eral par­lia­ment, re­tak­ing her Se­nate seat for the then stand­alone WA party.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists and fem­i­nists, union­ists and so­cial­ists, peace and anti-nuke cam­paign­ers: it was a heady, volatile mix. Bob Brown and Drew Hut­ton, the for­mer anar­chist and aca­demic who founded the Queens­land Greens, tried to pull these dis­parate strands to­gether and form a na­tional Greens party at a “Get­ting To­gether” con­fer­ence at Syd­ney Univer­sity in 1986. Hut­ton, who con­tracted a mi­graine, re­calls it as one of the most painful meet­ings of his life. “[In NSW] they wanted a green party in ev­ery shared house­hold in the coun­try, rather than an Aus­tralian Greens.” Brown said last year that the same peo­ple who blocked for­ma­tion of a na­tional party at that con­fer­ence were still in con­trol of the party in NSW. Were it not for their de­lay­ing and ob­struc­tion over the en­su­ing 30 years, Brown said, the Greens “would now have 20 sen­a­tors and half a dozen peo­ple in the lower house”.

The de­ci­sive break­through came when Tas­ma­nia and Queens­land agreed that NSW could be ex­empted from the clause in the draft Aus­tralian Greens con­sti­tu­tion al­low­ing par­lia­men­tar­i­ans a con­science vote. In the spirit of grass­roots democ­racy (one of the four pil­lars), the NSW party be­lieved its par­lia­men­tar­i­ans must be bound to vote as di­rected by the mem­bers. With­out that com­pro­mise, the con­fed­er­a­tion of state par­ties may never have ex­isted. As it hap­pens, how­ever, it was a ster­ile de­bate: the con­science vote has rarely been ex­er­cised.

An­other flash­point emerged: should the anti-au­thor­i­tar­ian Greens have a leader? Brown was quickly ac­cepted, by me­dia and pun­ters alike, as de facto leader of the Greens, and as the num­ber of par­lia­men­tar­i­ans grew, the ques­tion be­came less aca­demic and more prac­ti­cal. But it would take many in the party, par­tic­u­larly in NSW, years to ac­knowl­edge any leader at all – at a state level, even with eight MPs, they still don’t. Per­haps as a con­se­quence, the state party has never pulled to­gether. For­est protester, peace ac­tivist and some­time BUGA-UP spray-painter Ian Co­hen won the Greens’ first state seat, in the up­per house, in 1995. Lee Rhi­an­non, from a fam­ily of staunch com­mu­nists who stayed loyal to the Soviet Union to the bit­ter end, joined the Greens in 1990 and was elected at the 1999 state elec­tion.

A dis­ci­plined cam­paigner, Rhi­an­non quickly clashed with the more free­wheel­ing Co­hen, a vet­eran of the Franklin who aligned with Brown. Their feud is the stuff of party le­gend: Co­hen, who had backed Rhi­an­non for pre­s­e­lec­tion, re­calls his first mo­ment of doubt came even be­fore she was elected, dur­ing a North Coast road trip to in­tro­duce his new in­tended par­lia­men­tary col­league to movers and shak­ers in the con­ser­va­tion move­ment. On their way home, Co­hen asked ca­su­ally whether Rhi­an­non – who had been jot­ting down names and num­bers – might send him the con­tact lists. “She looked at me and said, ‘No, they’re mine,’” he re­calls. “I thought to my­self, What the hell have I got my­self in­volved with here?” The chill set in and things went down­hill from there: a few years later Rhi­an­non launched a fierce but un­suc­cess­ful cam­paign on “lim­ited ten­ure”, de­signed to stop Co­hen run­ning for a sec­ond, eight-year par­lia­men­tary term. He stood again any­way, and won.

Rhi­an­non and her sup­port­ers also clashed re­peat­edly with Brown: over his mooted will­ing­ness to deal with John Howard on the pri­vati­sa­tion of Tel­stra in 1997, over his hopes for right-hand man Ben Oquist to be pre­s­e­lected as Greens sen­a­tor for NSW in 2003, and over the move­ment to boy­cott, di­vest from and sanc­tion Is­rael in 2010.

But Bob got re­sults. Un­der his lead­er­ship the party grew steadily for its first 20 years, win­ning in­creased rep­re­sen­ta­tion, state by state, coun­cil by coun­cil. Brown’s com­pas­sion­ate re­sponse to the Tampa cri­sis – an im­me­di­ate, un­equiv­o­cal dec­la­ra­tion that Aus­tralia should wel­come the trapped asy­lum seek­ers – dou­bled the Greens vote na­tion­ally. Now, with one MP and nine sen­a­tors in Can­berra and an­other 26 par­lia­men­tar­i­ans around the coun­try, as well as a hun­dred-plus lo­cal coun­cil­lors, the Greens have out­lasted the Democrats, and the DLP, to be­come the most suc­cess­ful mi­nor party in the coun­try’s his­tory. Still, the Greens have had a solid, rather than barn­storm­ing, first quar­ter-cen­tury. La­bor went from a stand­ing start to gov­ern­ment, state and fed­er­ally, be­tween 1891 and 1910.

By the time Brown an­nounced his re­tire­ment in 2012, the tide was turn­ing against the party. The lead­er­ship went straight to Chris­tine Milne, who had fol­lowed Bob through­out her po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, from Tas­ma­nian par­lia­ment and state lead­er­ship into the fed­eral Se­nate. The ex­pe­ri­ence of shar­ing power with the riven Gil­lard gov­ern­ment had taken a toll on the Greens. By the 2013 elec­tion, as Milne told me last year, the tide was com­ing in for Tony Ab­bott: “My strat­egy was to hold all our seats and try and win one more. So it was put the an­chor down, and try and win one more, and lose none.”

When Milne re­signed two years later, Di Natale took over the lead­er­ship in a suc­ces­sion that still jars. It was un­con­tested. A stitch-up. All sorted in un­der two hours. Jour­nal­ists scratched their heads, but most were con­tent to re­port a smooth tran­si­tion and move on. What the party missed was the op­por­tu­nity for a con­test of ideas about its di­rec­tion.

Per­haps the pent-up dif­fer­ences have made the present iden­tity cri­sis messier. The party room was not re­ally given a choice of leader, and Di Natale ar­guably has less au­thor­ity as a re­sult. Why is Di Natale leader? It is not be­cause no one else wanted the job. Adam Bandt was the deputy, but had crossed Milne and her of­fice, and was not in the Se­nate. Lud­lam was the most pop­u­lar, but not the most hun­gry. Han­sonYoung was am­bi­tious, but could not carry her col­leagues.

Low-pro­file Di Natale seemed the sen­si­ble com­pro­mise can­di­date. But his as­cen­sion, af­ter just four years in par­lia­ment, was risky and marked more than just gen­er­a­tional change. A doc­tor like Brown, Di Natale had a back­ground in health, not en­vi­ron­men­tal protest. He was not a “green gree­nie”. He had never been ar­rested. The for­mer Vic­to­rian league foot­baller, from a work­ing-class Ital­ian fam­ily in Mel­bourne’s north­ern sub­urbs, was writ­ten up as La­bor’s worst night­mare. In his first speeches and in­ter­views as leader, Di Natale set out a roadmap: he would be prag­matic, not ide­o­log­i­cal; he thought the party could win more than 20% of vot­ers in a decade, and should aim to be a party of gov­ern­ment, first by chas­ing the bal­ance of power. He used the M-word that has stuck with him: “We are the nat­u­ral home of pro­gres­sive, main­stream Aus­tralian vot­ers.” For some Greens mem­bers, main­stream seems anath­ema. Yet those same mem­bers want to con­nect with the work­ing class.

Richard Di Natale’s for­ma­tive po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence was as far from the bour­geois-yup­pie-hip­ster Greens heart­land of in­ner-city Mel­bourne as you could pos­si­bly get. It was in Ten­nant Creek, a re­mote North­ern Ter­ri­tory town, where he lived for a year and a half, work­ing as a doc­tor fresh out of med­i­cal school, at the Anyinginyi Health Abo­rig­i­nal Cor­po­ra­tion. Here Di Natale played footy for the Ten­nant Creek Ea­gles, and in his maiden speech as sen­a­tor Di Natale gave a shout-out to the “young, bare­foot Abo­rig­i­nal men [who] would daz­zle the crowd with their sub­lime skills on the dusty oval”.

They re­mem­ber it well. In May, be­fore the na­tional con­fer­ence, he re­turned to Ten­nant for the first time in 17 years. As we got off the flight from Alice Springs, a big home­made sign – “Wel­come Back Dr Richard” – flapped against the metal fence around the shed-size “ter­mi­nal”. A small party was there to greet the Greens leader: el­der Ross Jaka­marra Wil­liams, the Anyinginyi chair who set up the Ea­gles; Barb Shaw, Anyinginyi gen­eral man­ager and mayor of the vast Barkly re­gion (pop­u­la­tion 8000, in an area much big­ger than Vic­to­ria); and Dar­ryl “Tiger” Fitz, Ea­gles cap­tain when Di Natale was on the team. “Such good peo­ple,” Di Natale mut­ters as we – the leader, two aides, a cam­era­man, my­self – walk up to shake hands.

Over the next two days we do a string of meet-and­greets, record­ing grabs and tak­ing notes as we check out the fa­cil­i­ties: a med­i­cal clinic, the pub­lic health unit, a dropin cen­tre, the women’s refuge. Di Natale is in­tro­duced as a Vic­to­rian sen­a­tor – there’s no talk of the Greens – and makes clear he’s there to lis­ten, but would do what he could when he got back to Can­berra. “We don’t write the cheques,” he says more than once.

The trip is short, but it’s heavy. In the Anyinginyi board­room, Barb Shaw tells it to us straight. The Ter­ri­tory gov­ern­ment has aban­doned Ten­nant, where the pop­u­la­tion has shrunk from 20,000 to 3000 since the Peko gold­mine closed 30 years ago. The town is now 60% Indige­nous – mainly Waru­mungu peo­ple, also Warlpiri, Bid­jara and Ar­rernte – and that pro­por­tion is ris­ing. Gain­ful em­ploy­ment barely ex­ists. “They treat us like a ghost town,” says Ward. As an un­named se­nior Ter­ri­tory of­fi­cial told her, “Why would you sink money into Ten­nant Creek?” The Barkly re­gion has the high­est rates of chronic disease in the na­tion. Yet the Depart­ment of Health is with­draw­ing ser­vices from the lo­cal hos­pi­tal. There is no longer any­where to give birth, for ex­am­ple. Women have to do the 12-hour round trip to Alice.

The Ter­ri­tory is cost-shift­ing, leav­ing Abo­rig­i­nal health to the Com­mon­wealth, and adding to the bur­den by re­fer­ring non-Indige­nous res­i­dents, who make up roughly a quar­ter of all vis­its, to Anyinginyi, with no ex­tra fund­ing.

The num­ber one prob­lem in Ten­nant is hous­ing: we hear that no new homes have been built since 1985. Abo­rig­i­nal homes have an av­er­age of 15 res­i­dents. Over­crowd­ing leads to fight­ing, drink­ing and disease. Po­lice cars sit per­ma­nently out­side each of three bot­tle shops. Card­board camps ring the town, with hun­dreds of peo­ple sleep­ing rough, and at night the shout­ing and fight­ing carry far and wide. The car­a­van park, packed with grey no­mads, has a high fence and se­cu­rity gate. Spray-painted nearby is a swastika, and the mes­sage “fuck you black cunts”.

But Di Natale has fond mem­o­ries of his time in Ten­nant, and in one pre­sen­ta­tion slide we get a glimpse of the young doc­tor as he was: board shorts, loud shirt, stretched out on a bed in the clinic. Not an up-and-comer, not go­ing places. We drive past the house he shared with his wife, Lucy Quar­ter­man. Tin roof, bland, pos­si­bly a nice gar­den once – a sub­ur­ban block in the mid­dle of a desert. Early on our last morn­ing in Ten­nant we go to the lo­cal dam, where a div­ing plat­form sits empty, wait­ing for sum­mer, and hawks cir­cle close above. It has its beauty, this place: flat, hot, quiet, and burst­ing with flow­ers at this time of year.

Ten­nant is reel­ing from the North­ern Ter­ri­tory In­ter­ven­tion, yet peo­ple are try­ing to make a fist of it, black and white, go­ing to the same school, same shops, same pubs to­gether. Shaw her­self is grimly pos­i­tive even af­ter nine years as a coun­cil­lor: “It’s not all doom and gloom.” And when we get down to the town’s one play­ing field, which is sur­pris­ingly green, ev­ery­thing lights up. Kids, teenagers ev­ery­where. A train­ing run with the Ea­gles squad? High­light of Di Natale’s day, no ques­tion. The knees aren’t what they were, but the sen­a­tor nurses him­self through a few drills. The team mem­bers don’t say much, but they don’t mind pass­ing to him.

That night, at a farewell bar­bie, plas­tic ta­bles and tea lights dot­ted around the town pool in the desert, there is a happy vibe. No grog, just con­ver­sa­tion. I in­ter­view Barb Shaw, who re­mem­bers Di Natale as “a won­der­ful doc­tor”. “He wasn’t a make-be­lieve per­son. He was ab­so­lutely gen­uine and what re­ally showed, how you could tell, was how he ac­tu­ally mixed with the Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity. He en­gaged with them. He lived in this town, and he was part of this town.” It made all the dif­fer­ence that Di Natale was not there as a locum but lived there (un­til Lucy got a job with Ox­fam that sent the cou­ple pack­ing to Mel­bourne). It’s how he got to play with the Ea­gles, Shaw says, which had al­ways been an all-Abo­rig­i­nal club. “Be­cause of his en­gage­ment with the Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity, and the re­la­tion­ships that he forged, he be­came one of the footy play­ers with the team … the only white­fella. Peo­ple loved that.”

Back in 1999–2000, the plight of Ten­nant Creek drove Di Natale into pol­i­tics. The health ser­vice was fight­ing hard for funds, and with the Coun­try Lib­eral Party in power in the Ter­ri­tory for more than 25 years the sys­tem felt struc­turally, if not ac­tu­ally, cor­rupt. “It was about peo­ple be­ing awarded con­tracts that weren’t the sub­ject of an open and trans­par­ent ten­der,” Di Natale says. “For ex­am­ple, peo­ple be­ing awarded jobs be­cause of their re­la­tion­ships.” He had a few friends in the La­bor Party, in­clud­ing the lo­cal mem­ber in Ten­nant, Mag­gie Hickey, who was also Op­po­si­tion leader in the Ter­ri­tory par­lia­ment. Di Natale at­tended a few branch meet­ings but never joined up. “I went along be­cause it was the only op­tion … there were no Greens in town. [It] wasn’t par­tic­u­larly in­spir­ing, and wasn’t ever done with a view of join­ing the La­bor Party. It was re­ally just, ‘Shit, I’ve got to get ac­tive and in­volved in pol­i­tics, be­cause this is the ve­hi­cle through which to do all this stuff I couldn’t do as a doc­tor.’” When he moved back to Mel­bourne, one of the first things he did was call the Greens. He set up the Wills branch (now More­land), and soon stood as a can­di­date.

Shaw her­self was once heav­ily in­volved with La­bor, and re­mains a sup­porter, but she is re­tir­ing from the coun­cil, and tends to stay out of party pol­i­tics nowa­days. Her niece (also Barb Shaw) has stood twice for the Greens in the Ter­ri­tory, and the mayor thinks a ma­jor shift is un­der­way, as the Greens pick up where La­bor left off. “I’ve al­ways found the Greens to be a ‘peo­ple’s party’,” says Shaw. It’s a po­tent for­mu­la­tion, an an­swer to all those years of crit­i­cism that the Greens cared more about trees than peo­ple. It was never

What more could you want from a pro­gres­sive, main­stream party?

true, of course, but it’s an ar­gu­ment that sim­ply can’t be hurled at Di Natale. When I put the “peo­ple’s party” thing to him, it hits home: “If there was one slo­gan, if there was one thing that peo­ple could take away from us, about who we are – that, for me, is the high­est com­pli­ment.”

I didn’t have to wait long for a con­crete ex­am­ple. As we boarded the plane back to Alice, my mother-in-law, Mau­reen, shot me a text: “You can tell Richard Di Natale your ruste­don labour vot­ing Ma in law is chang­ing to the Greens.” Mau­reen, 70, lives in a hous­ing com­mis­sion flat in south Syd­ney, and is a sharp ob­server of pol­i­tics. When I texted back – “why, Mauzie?” – the an­swer came clear as a bell: “Well firstly I’m sick of the self-serv­ing par­a­sites in both Labour and Libs but what re­ally tipped me over was his re­sponse to the pro­posed drug test­ing of wel­fare re­cip­i­ents.”

From day one the Greens had slammed the pro­posal, as a “new low” and a rights vi­o­la­tion, and Mau­reen re­ferred specif­i­cally to an opin­ion piece Di Natale had writ­ten in the Guardian a week ear­lier, a mov­ing ac­count of a for­mer pa­tient who’d beaten heroin ad­dic­tion, kept her kids, found work and turned her life around. Di Natale thought that if she’d been kicked off wel­fare in that del­i­cate process, as the fed­eral gov­ern­ment was now propos­ing, she’d prob­a­bly be dead by now. Mau­reen’s text went on: “It was the gen­uine hu­man­ity he demon­strated. I was well im­pressed.”

I handed Di Natale the phone, and as the pro­pel­lers whirred up and our lit­tle plane tax­ied down the run­way he sent her a text: “Hi Mau­reen. It’s Richard here. Paddy showed me your text so I hope you don’t mind me re­spond­ing. I ap­pre­ci­ate the sup­port. You won’t re­gret it … Good to know there are lots of de­cent peo­ple out there.”

The Greens are of­ten por­trayed, es­pe­cially in the Aus­tralian, as some­how at odds with Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralia. They have been ac­cused of sti­fling Indige­nous de­vel­op­ment as­pi­ra­tions by sup­port­ing leg­is­la­tion to pro­tect wild rivers in Far North Queens­land, or of un­der­min­ing tra­di­tional own­ers in the Galilee Basin and hi­jack­ing na­tive ti­tle ne­go­ti­a­tions to cam­paign against the Adani mine. Di Natale con­founds such por­tray­als. He also sees it as an un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive view. “I’ve never had that ex­pe­ri­ence, ever,” Di Natale says. “The whole Queens­land Noel Pear­son ‘wil­dos v black­fella’ stuff, I don’t think that rep­re­sents a ten­sion at all.”

Quite the con­trary, in fact. At a Na­tional Congress of Aus­tralia’s First Peo­ple break­fast ear­lier this year, timed to co­in­cide with the re­lease of the 2017 Clos­ing the Gap re­port, the prime min­is­ter, the Op­po­si­tion leader and the Greens leader all spoke. When the Greens’ long-stand­ing spokesper­son for Abo­rig­i­nal and Torres Strait Is­lander is­sues, Sen­a­tor Rachel Siew­ert, was men­tioned, the Mu­ral Hall of Par­lia­ment House, full of Indige­nous rep­re­sen­ta­tives, broke out in a stand­ing ova­tion. “It was a real source of pride to me,” Di Natale says, “to know that the work we’re do­ing has been recog­nised by the Indige­nous com­mu­nity right across Aus­tralia.”

If the Greens do their best work when they are tak­ing po­si­tions out­side the Lib­eral–La­bor con­sen­sus, Siew­ert says the party has a strong track record of do­ing ex­actly that on Abo­rig­i­nal is­sues. Bob Brown cham­pi­oned non-snif­fa­ble Opal fuel; in 2013 Siew­ert fi­nally got a pri­vate mem­ber’s bill, man­dat­ing low aro­matic fu­els, through the Se­nate – a ma­jor leg­isla­tive achieve­ment. Siew­ert says the Greens were the only party to con­sis­tently op­pose the NT In­ter­ven­tion, which failed to de­liver on any of its ob­jec­tives, and have main­tained op­po­si­tion to the cash­less wel­fare card, a form of in­come man­age­ment tar­geted at Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties. The Greens are not shy about talk­ing of sovereignty – the is­sue every­one else ducks – and Siew­ert is right be­hind the re­cent Uluru State­ment. “We ab­so­lutely sup­port it,” she says. What more could you want from a pro­gres­sive, main­stream party?

De­scend­ing into Alice, on the Fri­day be­fore the na­tional con­fer­ence, we passed over the sto­ried white radar domes on red dirt, in­stantly recog­nis­able. Shortly af­ter we landed, texts went around, from Scott Lud­lam, call­ing a “SNAP RALLY” at Pine Gap to protest “il­le­gal drone

strikes, mass surveil­lance and nu­clear weapons tar­get­ing”. Spon­ta­neous. Risky? Fun! The con­fer­ence wasn’t just a talk­fest. With Pine Gap only half an hour’s drive away, dozens of us turned up at the des­ig­nated car park. There was an anx­ious wait – would there be enough cars for our daggy lit­tle flash mob? – be­fore the con­voy set off.

Con­tin­u­ing past the “No pho­tog­ra­phy from this point on!” sign (also “TURN AROUND NOW”) we rolled up to an old drive-through se­cu­rity gate, a long fence stretch­ing out ei­ther side. No domes in sight. In fact, noth­ing to see. Then Lud­lam, in heavy over­coat and T-shirt, flanked by Lee Rhi­an­non and fel­low sen­a­tor Janet Rice, started to speak. Se­ri­ous, mat­ter-of­fact, no mi­cro­phone, he rose to the oc­ca­sion, and lifted it.

As fed­eral po­lice stood close by, watch­ing and lis­ten­ing, Lud­lam did not fence-sit or pol­lie-speak. This was a mur­der­ous mil­i­tary base, a key part of the Five Eyes net­work, he said. Sovereignty was never ceded by the tra­di­tional own­ers, and it was never know­ingly handed over by the rest of us ei­ther. When op­er­a­tions be­gan in 1970, lo­cals were told it was a weather sta­tion. The place was lit­er­ally “built on a lie”, Lud­lam con­tin­ued. It was a gi­gan­tic elec­tronic vac­uum cleaner, in­dis­crim­i­nately suck­ing down tele­phone calls and data, and bounc­ing it all back to the US mil­i­tary via the CIA, the NSA and the rest. Pine Gap di­rectly im­pli­cates Aus­tralia in the mil­i­tari­sa­tion of civil­ian com­mu­ni­ca­tions, the bur­geon­ing il­le­gal US drone as­sas­si­na­tion pro­gram, and tar­get­ing of genocidal nu­clear weapons, warned Lud­lam. “One day we might wake up and won­der why every­body’s turned white and is glued to the tele­vi­sion, and find that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has launched a nu­clear strike some­where in the south­ern or east­ern hemi­sphere. This place was in­volved. I didn’t vote for that.”

In the flesh, Lud­lam was electrifying, a proper ac­tivist, with a crys­talline pur­pose. Look­ing back on it, now he has gone, only un­der­lines the loss to the party. He handed over to Rhi­an­non, who had been there way back in 1983, at the orig­i­nal Pine Gap women’s camp, and whose own call echoed down the years: “This base must close.” Speeches over, we grouped to­gether for a few pho­tos, but then the stir­ring com­mon cause of the past ten min­utes was shat­tered – “NSW photo!” some­one called out. Could any­one not in the NSW Greens please get out of the shot? It was em­bar­rass­ing: un­friendly, petty non­sense. The scene broke up and every­one headed back to Alice for drinks.

The Greens’ fight over Gon­ski is no longer about Gon­ski, or the hoary de­bate about the mer­its of a con­science vote ver­sus grass­roots democ­racy, or even about where the party sits on the left–right spec­trum. It goes deeper, and it’s per­sonal. No one in­side the par­lia­men­tary party will come out and say as much, but the lead­er­ship of the Aus­tralian Greens be­lieve there are el­e­ments of an un­healthy cul­ture in the party in NSW, a branch they see as riven with fac­tion­al­ism, be­set by messy pre­s­e­lec­tions and le­gal dis­putes, un­der-per­form­ing, and run by a small ca­bal more in­ter­ested in main­tain­ing fief­doms, and throw­ing rocks from the side­lines, than they are in get­ting things done.

All this is squarely in line with blunt crit­i­cisms made by for­mer lead­ers Bob Brown and Chris­tine Milne, who are both back­ing Di Natale to the hilt. But if the party room was in­tend­ing to root out the un­healthy cul­ture, or see off Rhi­an­non, they ap­pear to have scored an epic own goal in the past few weeks. The party’s im­age has been sul­lied, there is no clear path­way to re­solve the con­sti­tu­tional dif­fer­ences be­tween the Aus­tralian and NSW Greens, Rhi­an­non’s pre­s­e­lec­tion chances have been boosted, and Di Natale’s lead­er­ship is be­ing openly de­bated. How did it go so wrong?

In the fi­nal week of the Gon­ski ne­go­ti­a­tions, there was a tele­phone hook-up be­tween the party room and the na­tional coun­cil to de­cide the party’s po­si­tion ahead of an ex­pected vote in the Se­nate the next day. At that meet­ing, on the night of Tues­day, 20 June, one of the na­tional coun­cil­lors for NSW, El­iza Scarpellino, also a mem­ber of the fed­eral par­lia­men­tary li­ai­son com­mit­tee that in­ter­acts be­tween MPs and the mem­ber­ship, an­nounced that Rhi­an­non was bound to vote against the fi­nal pack­age – ef­fec­tively, she would cross the floor. This was a bombshell, and shocked Rhi­an­non’s col­leagues, in­clud­ing Di Natale and Han­son-Young, who had been ne­go­ti­at­ing in good faith with ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter Si­mon Birm­ing­ham on the ba­sis that they could de­liver nine votes in the Se­nate. Now they were down to eight – still a cru­cial bloc, but from the gov­ern­ment’s per­spec­tive it only made the al­ter­na­tive of ne­go­ti­at­ing with other cross­benchers more ap­peal­ing.

“She doesn’t even be­lieve the party should have a leader.”

Next morn­ing, Di Natale went on Fran Kelly’s RN Break­fast pro­gram; a deal with the gov­ern­ment sounded close. But by then, Rhi­an­non tells the Monthly, the party room was frus­trated. “This is an im­por­tant point: by Wed­nes­day, it’s not just me who was con­cerned about it. Sev­eral other par­ty­room mem­bers had se­ri­ous con­cerns for dif­fer­ent rea­sons … some­times pol­icy, but they’re also think­ing, Do we re­ally want to an­noy all these peo­ple over pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion?” With mem­bers like Bandt, Rice and Tas­ma­nian sen­a­tor Nick McKim all voic­ing grave con­cerns, Rhi­an­non be­lieves if the pack­age had been put to a vote, need­ing two-thirds sup­port as the party rules the­o­ret­i­cally re­quire, Di Natale and Han­sonYoung “didn’t have the num­bers”.

Pri­vately, some in the Greens party room agree with this ac­count, others re­ject it, but there is no ques­tion that many of them had se­ri­ous doubts. Ac­cord­ing to one, only Han­sonYoung her­self was fully sup­port­ing the pack­age by the end. It was lineball for every­one, but the party room works by con­sen­sus, not vot­ing, so the num­bers were ir­rel­e­vant and were never tested.

Just be­fore 10 am that Wed­nes­day morn­ing, the Guardian re­ported that the NSW Greens had di­rected Rhi­an­non to vote against the pack­age. It was not enough to kill off talks with the gov­ern­ment – Di Natale and Han­son-Young were still at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble – but when in­de­pen­dent sen­a­tor Jacqui Lam­bie backed the re­form, Birm­ing­ham had the cross­bench votes he needed and the Greens were side­lined. Han­son-Young had been in­stru­men­tal in se­cur­ing an ex­tra $5 bil­lion in fund­ing, an in­de­pen­dent school re­sourc­ing body, and more be­sides, but the Greens could not claim credit: they ended up vot­ing against the leg­is­la­tion on the ba­sis of rel­a­tively mi­nor reser­va­tions. The whole thing was ei­ther an op­por­tu­nity missed or a bul­let dodged, depend­ing on your per­spec­tive.

At the next day’s par­ty­room meet­ing, Han­son-Young con­fronted Rhi­an­non. She had found out via Twit­ter about an A5 leaflet, au­tho­rised by Rhi­an­non and dis­trib­uted in a hand­ful of NSW elec­torates, which called for sup­port of the full Gon­ski pack­age the pre­vi­ous La­bor gov­ern­ment had agreed on with the states. Hun­dreds were printed.

Sim­i­lar leaflets go out al­most daily. If it was a hang­ing of­fence, it was an un­usual one, but for the party room it was the last straw. As Rhi­an­non tells it, Han­son-Young was “clearly fu­ri­ous … she and Richard said what I had done had un­der­mined ne­go­ti­a­tions. I found it lu­di­crous.” Not all her party col­leagues spoke against her, says Rhi­an­non, but quite a few did. “More than I’d ex­pect.” She says Di Natale was es­pe­cially grave. “It re­minded me of be­ing back at school. We were told my ac­tions had to be re­ported to the na­tional coun­cil [and] ‘there will be con­se­quences’.”

Con­se­quences there were: on the Fri­day the nine other Greens in the party room signed a let­ter to the na­tional coun­cil, com­plain­ing about the leaflet and Rhi­an­non’s fail­ure to tell Han­son-Young or any other fed­eral col­leagues about it while ne­go­ti­a­tions with the gov­ern­ment were un­der­way. The leaflet, of course, had not dam­aged those ne­go­ti­a­tions – no­body was even aware of it un­til it was all over – and the party room’s let­ter didn’t ask the na­tional coun­cil to do any­thing in par­tic­u­lar. It made no men­tion of Rhi­an­non cross­ing the floor. So what was the point?

No­body knows who leaked the let­ter, but it had orig­i­nally been sent to an unusu­ally wide group – not just the of­fice bear­ers but also ev­ery na­tional coun­cil­lor – so there’s plenty of cover for who­ever did it. “I can­not re­mem­ber sen­si­tive ma­te­rial be­ing dis­trib­uted in that way,” says Rhi­an­non. “The usual process [was] not fol­lowed and then in record time the let­ter is leaked to the SMH and the jour­nal­ist has found a se­nior Greens source and [an­other] Greens source to com­ment. Yes, it was up­set­ting.”

The leak was not smart. Even Greens who sup­ported the com­plaint against Rhi­an­non were aghast at the way it got out. Says one: “There are a num­ber of us who in hind­sight wouldn’t have signed the let­ter, given that it wasn’t kept con­fi­den­tial.”

From that point on, the dis­pute played out all over the me­dia. The na­tional coun­cil bat­ted it straight back to the party room, which, af­ter a marathon five-hour meet­ing in Mel­bourne the fol­low­ing Wed­nes­day, passed two res­o­lu­tions: one, unan­i­mous, call­ing for an end to the prac­tice of NSW par­lia­men­tar­i­ans be­ing bound to vote against the party room if the state branch di­rects them to do so; and an­other, to sus­pend Rhi­an­non from the party room while “con­tentious” is­sues were be­ing dis­cussed. Sig­nif­i­cantly, Bandt ab­stained from the sec­ond one. The NSW branch fired up, call­ing the res­o­lu­tions un­con­sti­tu­tional, and an# I Stand With Lee Rh ian non cam­paign took off, with ed­u­ca­tion union­ists even par­rot­ing the chant for UK Labour leader Jeremy Cor­byn, singing “Ooooh, Lee-ee Rhia-nnon” to the tune of The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Na­tion Army’. Judg­ing from the stream of Face­book posts, it was not just Rhi­an­non loy­al­ists who were dis­mayed at the party room’s po­si­tion. Few could un­der­stand the game plan.

Rhi­an­non turned the ta­bles, go­ing on the ABC’s In­sid­ers to ex­press her “dis­ap­point­ment” in Di Natale’s lead­er­ship. Di Natale de­clined to re­tal­i­ate, but tells the Monthly that “Sen­a­tor Rhi­an­non was dis­ap­pointed in Bob Brown’s lead­er­ship, she was dis­ap­pointed in Chris­tine Milne’s lead­er­ship, so it’s no sur­prise she’s dis­ap­pointed in mine, es­pe­cially as she doesn’t even be­lieve the party should have a leader.”

So far, at­tempts to shut down the dis­pute have failed. The na­tional coun­cil’s com­pro­mise so­lu­tion was to en­able the party room to set up a sub­com­mit­tee when­ever the Greens held the bal­ance of power. This sub­com­mit­tee would ex­clude MPs who were bound by their mem­bers (ie. NSW)

or wished to ex­er­cise a con­science vote in the event of con­tentious leg­is­la­tion. Rhi­an­non, then over­seas, was al­lowed back in the party room and replied with a provoca­tive Face­book post wel­com­ing her leader’s back­down and re­ject­ing the sub­stance of the na­tional coun­cil’s pro­posed so­lu­tion. “I do not think there is any need for this new ‘sub­com­mit­tee’ and I think it sets a bad prece­dent, but I am pleased it does not have the power to make de­ci­sions.”

The na­tional coun­cil pro­posal was not even dis­cussed at last month’s state del­e­gates coun­cil meet­ing in Syd­ney, al­though sen­a­tors Rice and Siew­ert turned up to ex­plain the fed­eral party’s po­si­tion. Rhi­an­non made one con­ces­sion, ad­mit­ting she should have told her col­leagues she was bound: “What I am happy to apol­o­gise for – I think I could have said it ear­lier my­self.” There fol­lowed spir­ited de­bate about what be­ing “bound” means. Far from ad­her­ing to grass­roots democ­racy, leaked emails ahead of the de­ci­sion to bind Rhi­an­non show that, in­ten­tion­ally or oth­er­wise, NSW’s par­lia­men­tary li­ai­son com­mit­tee it­self may have flouted the proper process un­der the con­sti­tu­tion.

It could have been dif­fer­ent, Rhi­an­non says. “Richard could have called me into his room and said, ‘Je­sus, Lee, you made it pretty rough this week,’ and talked it through.” The un­doubted an­i­mus could have been saved for a good old­fash­ioned pre­s­e­lec­tion brawl for the NSW Se­nate ticket in the next fed­eral elec­tion. The Monthly un­der­stands that Rhi­an­non, trailed by Four Cor­ners, will face a cred­i­ble pre­s­e­lec­tion chal­lenger. Pak­istan-born NSW up­per house MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi is a civil and en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer with cross­fac­tional ap­peal and a strong leg­isla­tive track record, and she could add to the di­ver­sity of the all-white fed­eral party room – al­ready an ac­knowl­edged prob­lem. Rules pro­hibit­ing pre­s­e­lec­tion en­dorse­ments are al­ready con­tested, but if the likes of Bob Brown and Chris­tine Milne swing in be­hind Faruqi, and against Rhi­an­non, Faruqi could find her­self with heavy­weight sup­port. She would not com­ment for the Monthly. The left of the party lost two state pre­s­e­lec­tion bat­tles last year, but Rhi­an­non con­firms she will fight for an­other six-year term, say­ing, “It’s all on track.” She says there is no ri­valry with Faruqi. “I’ve al­ways en­cour­aged other peo­ple to run.”

No­body is for­giv­ing or for­get­ting. Off the record, some of Rhi­an­non’s fed­eral par­ty­room col­leagues re­main scathing. One of them ac­cuses her of “bla­tantly us­ing this is­sue [Gon­ski] to cam­paign for pre­s­e­lec­tion”. Rhi­an­non has kept at it since the sus­pen­sion, post­ing on Face­book and speak­ing out in spite of an ex­press edict from the na­tional coun­cil that the pub­lic­ity must stop. “Lee has con­tin­u­ally pushed this in pub­lic, through me­dia and so­cial me­dia, de­spite know­ing our party would like that kind of be­hav­iour to stop,” the same col­league says. “I’m sick of it.” Even on the left of the party in NSW, un­til things blew up, there was a view that for some­one who ar­gued so vo­cif­er­ously for lim­ited ten­ure Rhi­an­non has had a long in­nings – 11 years in state par­lia­ment, six in the Se­nate – and maybe it was time to pass on the ba­ton. That sen­ti­ment may now have evap­o­rated.

It might all be worth it, if the present cri­sis would set­tle the dif­fer­ences be­tween NSW and the rest of the party, once and for all. Af­ter the Wa­ters res­ig­na­tion, a be­lea­guered Di Natale – mi­nus his lead­er­ship team, a reshuf­fle upon him – an­nounced a “root and branch” re­view of the party’s gov­er­nance and pro­cesses. Can he suc­ceed where Brown and Milne failed? It has fallen to Di Natale to deal with a back­log of un­fin­ished party busi­ness as long as your arm. The make-goods and pa­per-overs that worked in the past are no longer work­ing. Brown wants the party to have a na­tional ref­er­en­dum, and per­haps it is time.

Re­luc­tantly or oth­er­wise, Brown is on the warpath. He wants Rhi­an­non to stand down from the Greens and run on her own plat­form, on some­thing like the anti-cap­i­tal­ist man­i­festo the Greens’ Left Re­newal break­away group­ing posted to such uproar last year. “[Rhi­an­non should] put her­self to the peo­ple gen­uinely and hon­estly, as some­thing dif­fer­ent to the Greens, which she is,” Brown says. “But she’s un­likely to do that be­cause [of] the need to limpet on the Greens as a means of elec­toral suc­cess … Every­body knows that if Left Re­newal, Lee, Hall Green­land – who’s tried it – were to put them­selves to the pub­lic as a sep­a­rate en­tity they would lose. They would never win a seat.”

It’s the per­pet­ual show­down, like 1992 again. Around the world, many Green par­ties are go­ing nowhere, or go­ing back­wards. In Aus­tralia the party has suf­fered a thou­sand deaths by pre­dic­tion, but one thing is clear: this is not where the Greens hoped they would be in 2017.

No­body is for­giv­ing or for­get­ting. Off the record, some of Rhi­an­non’s fed­eral par­ty­room col­leagues re­main scathing.

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