Just Another Earnest Green From South Australia?


Why don’t people like the Greens? This week New Matilda suggested it was because the party hasn’t been presented honestly and maturely to the public, and Senator Penny Wright, a 50-year-old former lawyer who will be joining fellow South Australian Sarah Hanson-Young in the Senate, agrees wholeheartedly:

"If people actually vote based on what they’ve been told about our policies by someone who has a bias and no interest in presenting the truth, they think they’ve exercised a good vote, but they have voted on an erroneous ground. That’s not democracy, it’s a sad state of affairs, because people aren’t exercising their vote meaningfully."

Despite having spent only a week in her new job, Wright should know. The Adelaide Advertiser’s magazine Adelaide Now profiled her in late June, and pulled off the amazing feat of publishing 3000 words without any real consideration of the Greens’ policy platform or her plans for parliament.

Instead interviewer Andrew Fenton says a reader could open "any newspaper" and "read commentators who see the Greens as inner-city elitists", before musing pointedly on how Wright once made her own soap and has four "carbon friendly pushbikes on the verandah".

In reality, Wright is a fresh new voice in the upper house, with a long professional history dealing with marginalised elements in the community and the enviable position of being able to realise policy proposals. She also has a long history with the Greens, having co-founded the South Australia branch with her husband Mark Parnell, a state MP. Wright postponed her own political career to raise three children.

If there’s anything not to like about her, it’s that she’s terribly earnest, and uses phrases like "the web of life" unironically as only Greens can. Not bad character flaws to be taking into an environmental debate she describes as "nasty and unedifying".

Wright’s main portfolio, and the issue on which we’re likely to see her soon, is mental health. She worked for eight years at the South Australian Guardianship Board, the body responsible for making legal determinations in mental health cases — who should be admitted or released, treatment orders and the like. It was here, Wright tells New Matilda, that she "gained a real insight into how mental illness devastates people’s lives."

In addition to the health and legal aspects of her work, Wright drew out another common theme working at the Guardianship Board: "One of the most poignant aspects was just the loneliness. People feel very isolated. I became very concerned with how as a community we can value people."

Her career choices, working on tribunals and in the community, meant she avoided professional isolation. "I chose not to work in the corporate legal factories. They’re based on a flawed premise of valuing lawyers’ work — the time costing model — that is coming into disrepute," Wright said.

Encountering the isolating and sometimes pathological nature of modern society in her career formed Wright’s belief that human relationships and a good work-life balance are essential for good mental and physical health. She sees modern workplaces and industrial conditions as contributing factors: like the "increasing casualisation of work, where people don’t have as much autonomy over their working conditions. That leads to a sense of powerlessness and frustration that can lead to depression."

Recent injections of funding into the mental health sector get a thumbs up from Wright, but she subscribes to Patrick McGorry’s view that "we’re at Base Camp about to climb Everest". She will be pushing the Greens’ policy of supporting both clinical and non-clinical measures: step-up/step-down programs, early intervention, housing and employment support. She’s endorsing these policies to avoid people "being dumped back into the community, which can lead to relapses into acute illnesses".

Wright is also a strident supporter of the ABC, and despite it being outside her portfolio, she wants to see more funding and support for the public broadcaster, which she thinks is an important cultural institution. "The ABC has been that voice where we can hear our own stories from our own people," she told New Matilda. On bias, she encourages people to "look at the history. It’s often the particular government in power complaining about bias at the ABC".

Another issue outside her own portfolio Wright holds dear to her heart is the fate of the Murray-Darling basin. The Greens have appointed Hanson-Young spokesperson on the issue, but Wright has in the past debated at the Hawke Centre on the issue of privatisation and water security, and has her own opinions on the Basin.

In that particular debate she stressed that public-private partnerships ended up taking control from the community because they were duty-bound to maximise profits to shareholders, referencing the Select Committee into massive profits around the Lonsdale desalination plant chaired by SA Greens MLC Tammy Franks.

On the impending report by the Basin Authority, Wright stresses that solutions must be based on good, peer-reviewed science, a "non-negotiable requirement".

The reason is obvious. "It’s highly politicised," Wright said. "When you have people with localised interests… you can’t guarantee you’ll get the best outcome — especially for future generations who aren’t here to make the claim themselves. It’s a nonsense to suggest that it’s somehow a battle between human beings and the environment, and that some of us take the side of the environment and others take the side of human beings."

Murray-Darling communities currently planning class actions to secure their economic livelihoods might disagree. A single, unifying authority and increased environmental flows remain unattractive to irrigators.

The quality of debate, and of scientific debate in particular, is what unifies Wright’s interests. She has concerns about the scientific literacy of many MPs, and about "deliberate twisting of the truth". On the climate debate, Wright believes "people are mistaking evidence for opinion as if it’s something we can choose to listen to or not".

To raise the standard of debate it’s time to question business as usual, and that’s what the Greens, by putting Senator Scott Ludlam up for Senate president, have already started doing. "I wouldn’t agree with the characterisation of [Bob Brown] as stirring the pot." Wright argues. "What we have at the moment is a long-standing, very cosy relationship between the major parties who are used to sharing power, Tweedledum or Tweedledee … There may be new and different ways to do things in the future."

"We’re also some of the best behaved participants," Wright adds earnestly.

For a new Senator, unencumbered by past political baggage, with an ambitious agenda for mental health and public life and the ability to realise it, this will be an exciting time to be in the Senate.


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