It has become more than evident that current Federal Greens parliamentary leader Richard Di Natale is failing to make an impression on progressive voters, many of whom see him as out of touch and as a propagator to disunity within the Greens. It isn't just soft Labor-Greens voters, people who once were warm to the Greens; people who are within the Greens are also scratching their heads over some of Di Natale's decisions, as are people further to the Left who would otherwise sympathise with the Greens.
I am thoroughly on the record as being a supporter of Di Natale becoming the Greens federal parliamentary leader. I did not see the now infamous "the Greens are the party of mainstream progressive voters" quote, one of his first statements upon assuming the leadership, as a statement that would cause so much disunity. Instead, I incorrectly saw it as a unifying statement: that he would seek to maintain the current base of support as well as expand that base to reach out and bring over new support - people who live in regional areas (the party was already making inroads into some rural areas) as well as working class people more broadly. Critics however were ultimately correct in broadly interpreting that initial statement as anything but unifying, but instead as a chase towards the centre, as a means of driving out the more leftist elements of the party and to pitch to small l liberals.
When Di Natale first became leader of the Greens, he was based in my home town of Geelong. Those who know Geelong know that it is very much a solidly working class city. Here was the opportunity for Di Natale to use his position and new found influence to actually reach out to a new layer of voters prosecute a case for why working class people should vote for the Greens. Instead, despite having the option of at least maintaining a presence in Geelong, he chose to close up shop and base himself in Melbourne in an office that is arguably more difficult for constituents to find and access off the street than his original. In hindsight, despite how little it may seem, this decision was probably his first big mistake he made as leader of the Greens.
The deals with the Coalition government leading up to the 2016 Federal Election and Di Natale failing dismally to explain why they did what they did also didn't help his cause. The Senate voting reform was a positive, but it was seen by people (Labor Party excluded) as the Greens pulling up the ladder behind them and the Greens failed to counter that rhetoric. Multinational tax disclosure reform was also a positive; though the Greens, in supporting this legislation, failed to effectively counter the claims that big companies would get off tax free. The pension changes should have never been voted for by the Greens. Aside from helping the government break a pre-election commitment; The Greens voting for it effectively led them to defending Liberal policy and which absolutely flies in the face of party's hypocritical support for measures such as a universal basic income, increasing social welfare and other such policies where their stated positions are actually better than Labor's positions. Finally, just last year, Di Natale was prepared to capitulate on school funding in the face of criticism and the relevant unions telling them not to do so. Indeed, they ultimately didn't support this legislation but it led to Lee Rhiannon being sanctioned by the Federal Party room and a lot of disgruntled and outraged grassroots members. It can be argued that so-called 'Gonski 2.' would have never seen the light of day had the Greens opposition to it been more firm from the start, instead of them being, at best, wishy-washy.
Then there was the personal presentation and the cultivation of a cult of personality allegedly orchestrated by his then-chief of staff Cate Faehrmann and his other most senior advisors in early 2016; the 'black wiggle' phase so-called because of his photoshoot in GQ magazine where he was wearing a black turtleneck that has since become a meme in and of itself. Combined with the flirting with the Liberal Party, this media image was arguably orchestrated to shore up support for small l liberal voters living in blue ribbon inner-city electorates.
Say what you will about Bob Brown and his immediate successor Christine Milne; despite their staunch support for Di Natale now, at least during the periods of their leaderships - the Greens were walking a consistent pathway. You knew that once they put their position forward, they stood firm. In 2014, for example, the Greens point blank opposed that year's federal budget which applied pressure on the Senate crossbench as well as the Opposition to also oppose and vote down large parts of it. As soon as the Greens indicate they may be open to supporting parts of a toxic budget, as they did in response to the 2017 budget, others on the cross bench also get a sniff of the potential to do deals - thus weakening the progressive position.
Furthermore, because the Greens under Brown and Milne were walking a consistent and principled path; tensions and divisions didn't bubble to the surface to the point of becoming open warfare for the media's excitement. Though proponents of Di Natale's leadership contend that Greens policy hasn't changed - it is clear that the messaging has changed, significantly, towards a more centrist direction. Di Natale's promotion of policy such as sugar taxes, which aren't Greens policy, flies in the face of the claims that the Greens under his leadership are not going down a centrist trajectory.
Di Natale's leadership of the Greens has all but emboldened the opportunistic elements of the party - the types who insist that the Greens should present themselves as respectable and 'ready to govern' and become the major party of the centre-left. These elements now have the smell of blood, are going after the more radical leftist elements of the party and pushing them out, by any means necessary, including by subverting the party's grassroots structure, the consolidation of power at the top of the party and through legal action. The Greens, in undergoing this process, have become a party that is less open to criticism and to internal debate - with members existing merely to toe the line for the sake of 'party unity'.
It is very clear that the 'Di Natale experiment' has not benefited the Greens in any way. The pandering to blue-ribbon electorates has not swung people from the Liberals to the Greens and it has effectively alienated disillusioned Labor left voters, a large source of support for the Greens, who have turned off completely from the Greens, as well as Greens supporters as well. It is now clear as day that Di Natale must now resign as the Greens parliamentary leader for the good of the party, but who to replace him with? I'd personally support Adam Bandt for the position due to him having a background in the union movement and advocating for positions from a working class perspective. I'd also support Rachel Siewert on the basis of her staunch advocacy for the most disadvantaged in our society.
Ideally, I would like to see the Greens open up their parliamentary leadership selection to the party membership and to allow leadership contenders to effectively and actively prosecute their case, their focus, their priorities and where it is they are coming from as well as open up parts of their conferences and delegates meetings to the wider public and media for the sake of transparency. Changing the current course that the Greens are currently heading in starts right at the top, with Di Natale resigning as leader.
About the author:
Matt Hrkac is a writer and activist based in Geelong who regularly contributes to Green Left Weekly. He has particular interests in politics, elections and the trade union movement and has had extensive involvement in a number of local campaigns. He is a former member of the Greens.