Greens’ leadership shifts from Tasmania to the greenest state

Power shift: Richard Di Natale’s elevation as the new Greens’ leader, replacing Tasmanian Christine Milne, marks the rise of the Victorian Greens. Mick Tsikas/AAP

The balance of power in Australian green politics has now shifted, with the choice of Victorian Senator Richard Di Natale as the Greens’ new parliamentary leader. And for a party renowned for its suspicion of the idea of leadership, the way that change was handled is a political lesson other parties would do well to heed.

Di Natale is from arguably the greenest state in Australian politics: Victoria. Victorians now has more Green parliamentarians than Tasmania – home to previous leaders Bob Brown and the now retiring Christine Milne – or that other important green wellspring state, Western Australia, birthplace of both the Nuclear Disarmament Party and the West Australian Greens.

In the past, the Greens were dominated by conservationists from Tasmania, who were politicised by the battle over that state’s wilderness. But increasingly it’s appealing more to urban-based social progressives – particularly those from the inner suburbs of Melbourne. (Though Di Natale has moved on from there; these days he has a farm in Victoria’s south-west.)

Among the inner Melbourne Greens, crucial causes include refugee rights, rights for same-sex couples, the need to battle the problem of climate change – and getting right under the skin of the Socialist Left faction of the Victorian ALP.

The Brunswick Greens’ state election night party in November 2014. Takver/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Those who missed out

The Di Natale ascendancy has been accompanied by the party’s decision to have two deputy leaders, his Senate colleagues Larissa Waters from Queensland and Scott Ludlam from Western Australia.

Seasoned Greens-watchers will immediately note the absence from this leadership team of South Australian Sarah Hanson-Young, one of the higher profile members of the Greens Senate team by virtue of her refugee advocacy.

Also missing from the mix is the party’s sole lower house member, Adam Bandt, who rose to national prominence in the 2010-2013 minority Labor government years. However, his profile has fallen since the 2013 election, by virtue of the Liberal-National coalition’s subsequent dominance of the lower house.

Amid speculation about whether he had been “shafted” in losing the deputy leadership, Bandt posted his congratulations on social media, saying he was happy to focus on the imminent arrival of his new baby. But realistically, Bandt was never likely to become leader when the rest of his party colleagues sit in the other chamber of parliament.

Hanson-Young may yet have unrequited ambition, having made an unsuccessful bid for the deputy leadership in 2010 – and in political parties, thwarted ambition can always be a potential source of destabilisation.

But having said that, the leadership transition from Milne to Di Natale happened quickly, and he was unopposed. Given the comparatively small number of parliamentarians, the decision was probably made by collegial consensus, in which Hanson-Young would have been involved.

A lesson for other parties

On reflection, the speed and dexterity of the change sits in complete contrast to more ham-fisted arrangements in other parties in recent years.

The now-defunct Australian Democrats had a protracted membership-based electoral process. The Labor Party now also has a membership ballot. The Palmer United Party has a leader, but most of the party don’t want to be led by him. And even the Liberal Party has suffered protracted leadership troubles, with commentators watching the 2015 budget and its aftermath for any signs of a leadership putsch against Tony Abbott.

Amidst all of this, the Greens have acted with breath-taking speed and unanimity amongst the parliamentary wing. It may well be that a strong sense of collegiality is one of the consequences of being a small parliamentary party that is constantly being attacked by all sides of politics and most of the media as well.

For all the pillorying of them as either dangerous ideologues and/or naïve idealists by their critics, the parliamentary Greens have demonstrated significant political acumen with this latest move.

In a sense, Di Natale was the obvious choice as leader in that his state has become a very strong electoral base for the party. Di Natale is the most experienced of the Victorian Senators, and his re-election is probably assured.

The Greens’ new leadership team: Scott Ludlam, leader Richard Di Natale and Larissa Waters. Mick Tsikas

The party needs a deputy leader, and Scott Ludlam, who has been in the Senate for longer than Di Natale, has had a high profile in the recent meta-data debate. The fact that he comes from a state that has been integral to the evolution of green party politics in Australia also helped make him an obvious choice.

By appointing Waters as a second deputy, the canny Greens circumvent the otherwise obvious criticism of its leadership being dominated by blokes. Being able to maximise the sympathy and support of the party’s core constituency will be the primary task of the new leadership team.

That core constituency is young, well-educated and clustered in the inner suburbs of most of the Australian capital cities. So it makes sense that the party leader should now come from the Garden State, whose capital city has become the greenest of all.