The sudden departure of Christine Milne as Greens leader — apparently kept so secret that even many of her staff didn’t know she was plotting a transition with Richard Di Natale, Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters — is a logical outcome of the party’s impasse since its electoral high point in 2010.
Perhaps most significant is that Di Natale, who is not well known outside his home state of Victoria, has hit the ground differentiating himself from Milne on the basis of being “not an ideologue” and drawing on the technocratic strand in Greens politics with his talk of “evidence” based policies and “outcomes”. He has also dropped the Greens’ focus on finding points of difference with Labor on climate and refugees into a broader mix of social policies around health, welfare and education, under what he calls an appeal to “progressive mainstream values”.
This doesn’t necessarily represent a shift to the Right or the Left in terms of the possible social impact of Greens policies. Nor does it automatically point to compromises with a weak and insecure Abbott government. But it does suggest he is trying to address how the Greens have been caught up in the wider crisis of Australian politics, even if that may not be how he would understand the dilemma. The fact that Di Natale is a bit of an unknown* will also help demonstrate that the party has decisively moved on.
To understand why the progressive technocrat road might be the most logical next step for the party, and perhaps one of its few remaining options for renewal, a review of recent Greens history is needed.
From political outsiders to insiders
Milne inherited a poisoned chalice from party founder Bob Brown when he stepped down in mid-2012. After the 2010 election, he took the party down a path of constructive collaboration with Labor by signing off on a deal with Julia Gillard to help prop up her minority government. Whereas Brown had previously riffed off the Democrats’ old slogan of “keep the bastards honest” by saying he wanted the Greens to “replace the bastards”, suddenly he was getting his party to mute criticism of its senior alliance partner, even admitting he’d bitten his tongue over Gillard’s asylum seeker policy.
Prior to this, the Greens had tended to pursue a tactic of sharp differentiation from the ALP on issues that had helped to fragment Labor’s social base — refugees, the War on Terror, corporate power, etc. In this way they constructed a patchwork constituency based on three main groups: diehard “environmental” voters, the Left flank of Labor’s base, and a more general anti-political establishment vote. The latter surged most obviously in 2010, when disillusionment with Kevin Rudd’s reversal on climate and Julia Gillard’s subsequent regression to an exhausted Labourism — alongside distrust of an Abbott-led Opposition — led many voters to throw their lot in with the Greens. For the Greens to score 12.76 percent (a 5.44 percent swing including, astoundingly, my conservative-voting mum) in the Senate in Queensland, a traditionally weak state for them, suggested that they had successfully tapped into the prevailing distaste for the old parties.
The pact with Gillard, alongside deals in the ACT and Tasmania, halted what had seemed like an unstoppable trajectory of Greens growth. They also proved more damaging than the party’s previous governmental alliances in Tasmania. The problem was not just that the Greens had to make compromises and take the heat for unpopular policies. This time they had attached themselves to an ALP whose historic project seemed to be in free fall. They were also now signed up to one side of the partisan political game they had previously risen above, reduced to complaining about evil mining magnates and Murdoch papers, exaggerating Abbott’s destructive powers, excusing or voting for Swan and Gillard’s deficit reduction strategy, actively pushing for military intervention in Libya, and of course being the most enthusiastic marketers of the unpopular carbon tax.
There were bright spots: the party continued to oppose the NT Intervention and its spin-offs, asylum seeker policy generally stayed intact (even if increasingly posed in shrill, moralistic terms) and Scott Ludlam kept niggling Labor over the creeping security state. But when Bob Brown gave Labor a free kick on the revised (and ineffectual) mining tax, even loyal deputy Milne’s office started to background against him. Soon after this Brown exited, leaving behind him a party whose poll performance was in a long decline, and which was locked in a suffocating embrace with a putrefying ALP.
The minor party had put itself at the centre of the short-lived “new paradigm” fantasy in 2010 and thereby joined the political establishment at the very moment that establishment was revealing itself to be in terminal decay. After this it was almost inevitable that voters would end up treating the Greens much as they had been treating the majors.
The conundrum for Milne was that she wanted to defend the limited gains of the ALP-Greens relationship while finding a way to create distance from the political disaster it had become. So she found a pretext to break with the alliance (while improbably claiming that it was Gillard doing the deal-breaking) but then kept loyally to its conditions. And she even ineptly took Gillard’s side against Rudd, thereby positioning herself against the Labor leader more likely to prevent an Abbott landslide.
After the election, with the Greens reduced to 8.65 percent in the Senate (a swing against of 4.46 percent) and the same in the lower house (a swing against of 3.11 percent), Milne worked hard to hold a traumatised party together. Her style in the party room was less authoritarian and erratic than Brown’s, and she was probably a little less impatient to centralise control of the party with its parliamentary grouping — possibly in part because the expansion of party room and staffers had already tipped the balance away from any real “grassroots” control.
The fragmented nature of the Greens party room — more like a group of like-minded Independents who meet and vote together than a cohesive, disciplined bloc — meant that without Brown’s authority Milne needed to get people to work more harmoniously in order to survive. Part of that was ensuring that the architects of the problematic ALP alliance strategy, including Brown’s long-time chief of staff Ben Oquist, were marginalised. This caused tensions, including what appeared to be manoeuvres to push Adam Bandt into the leadership (I’ve heard conflicting accounts as to how much Bandt himself was involved).
Milne managed to stabilise the party and it clawed its way back in the polls in the midst of the Abbott government’s disastrous first 18 months, including a very strong result for Scott Ludlam in the WA Senate re-run. However, state election results in South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and NSW gave the party only small improvements in overall vote, even if in the last two that translated into more lower house seats via a strategy of concentrating resources.
Milne’s leadership was under constant threat not just because of others’ ambitions, but also because of the central contradiction in what she was trying to do: defend the past while moving on from it. She compensated by assuaging old wounds (the dissident NSW branch seemed to tolerate her) and by becoming increasingly ideological in her Leftism, a process that has culminated in her diatribe against “neoliberalism” at the National Press Club yesterday.
Now, for a blog like ours that has long taken the Greens to task for accepting key aspects of “neoliberal” ideology, it’s odd indeed to see Milne deploy the term for partisan effect. In just eight years Milne has gone from advocating creating carbon markets to address climate change to arguing that the carbon price was part of a consistent history of Greens opposition to neoliberalism! But there is logic to the Leftism, as the Greens have come to be the last apostles of the Whitlam settlement, right down to joining in Malcolm Fraser’s rewriting of his own noxious record into a tale of unbroken commitment to human rights to fit him into the post-Whitlam progressive narrative.
All this may have played well to the Greens’ remaining base, as well as to a subsection of disillusioned left-wing Labor supporters, but it could not be a strategy to break the party out of its electoral ghetto. In particular, Milne ended up being the hard left-wing ideologue opposing Abbott’s right-wing posturing, a tussle that leaves most voters cold. And despite being to the Left of Brown, she was also much more a political insider in her style than her former boss, who was always partial to a bit of anti-political disruption.
No other way out
But what of Adam Bandt and Scott Ludlam? Bandt is tainted by his association with the Gillard strategy, and his pushiness for the top job seems to have upset key players. Milne’s sudden move was in part to prevent an expected challenge from him. Ludlam, on the other hand, might be seen as too risky by a party only just starting to heal after significant setbacks. Similarly, Lee Rhiannon’s suggestion that the party membership should be allowed to vote for the leader is viewed internally as a potential source of internal division rather than a useful way to create the illusion of having a broader social base. It clashes with the growing detachment of the Greens’ political elite from the party’s members and supporters.
The Greens’ trajectory in the context of popular discontent with politics has narrowed the party’s options for regeneration. A move towards a non-ideological technocratic style mirrors similar renovations carried out in particular by sections of the EU political class and Canada’s most significant Left party, the NDP. The NDP’s success in Canada — taking advantage of the Liberals’ decline in recent years — suggests that if the ALP is unable to resolve its long-term problems there could be an electoral space for a technocratic alternative, even if only temporarily. This has the advantage of avoiding the discredited “old politics” while relying on appeals to “evidence” and managerial techniques for authority — something that should come naturally to a former public health doctor like Di Natale. Importantly, it has far less disruptive potential than “anti-political” politicking.
If he tries to carry through a technocratic turn properly, Di Natale may face resistance from “grassroots” party activists who have spent long years defining themselves ideologically. Such a battle might help Di Natale establish himself in the electorate as prioritising voters over sectional political interests. On the other hand, the current pain of electoral stagnation may simply convince enough party activists that joining him is worth the sacrifices involved. Despite the dull, steady-as-she-goes appearance of the Di Natale ascension, the lack of workable alternatives may turn his leadership into a make-or-break experiment for the Greens.
*I got to know him when I was a Greens activist during his attempts — largely stymied at the time — to modernise the party organisation and give it strategic direction.