To accompany the first Greens member in the House of Representatives, fellow Victorian Richard Di Natale broke through in last year’s election to become the first Greens Senator for the state.
Having waved the flag for the Greens and tried his hand at all levels of parliament, Di Natale was elected to the Senate having missed out in both 2007 and 2004.
Commentators might have opined that the ALP would once have been a more predictable fit for someone like Di Natale — "born to migrant parents in Melbourne’s working class northern suburbs", but the man himself is adamant that the Greens partyroom is home. That’s an index both to the broadening constituency of the Greens — and to the transformation of the ALP’s traditional base.
In 2007 Di Natale defended his decision to join the minor party: "I felt if I had have joined the Labor Party I would have to compromise my principles far too much. You just have to look at what’s happening with Peter Garrett at the moment. He’s somebody who’s wrestling with that very dilemma … we’re seeing a man whose heart says one thing, and his party says another, and he’s looking increasingly diminished each day."
Di Natale is a doctor and describes securing Greens health portfolio as a big coup personally. It means he will be the party’s point man on one of the most important issues in domestic politics for the next six years. Yet in a move that mirrors the allocation of government ministerial positions, Di Natale won’t be the Green spokesperson for mental health. That role has been taken by another incoming senator, the South Australian Penny Wright. "Health is a huge area with many challenges… Mental health deserves to be more than just a footnote to the overall health debate," Di Natale told NM.
With a background in public health and as a medical practitioner, Di Natale paints his move into politics as a genuine one which will put him in a position to advocate at the national level. He wants to see the health system restructured away from important acute care to become more preventative in focus. He told Peter Meares on ABC Radio’s The National Interest that health and politics are a natural fit, arguing that the one should inform the other.
Along with health, Di Natale has been given the portfolios of gambling, sport, multiculturalism, dental health — and balance it all out with being the party’s spokesperson on East Timor and West Papua.
As the Gillard Government seeks to negotiate and placate MP Andrew Wilkie on gambling and poker machine pre-commitment strategies, there will be some important crossovers between Di Natale’s portfolios, not least as the negative health side affects of addictive problem gambling become are drawn into the national spotlight. "Sports betting has the potential to damage our beloved football codes, and sporting clubs often rely too heavily on revenue from pokies which are damaging our communities," he said.
So too with gambling advertising at and around sporting matches, something that is already on the agenda and in the eye of Federal Minister for Sport Mark Arbib. Although it’s listed last on the Greens’ list of health policy priorities, Di Natale will likely emphasise the health risks posed by climate change, just as he has previously called for a federal climate change health taskforce. "I’m very keen to raise awareness about the impacts of climate change on health and to help better prepare the country for a future where these impacts will be significant," he told New Matilda.
Di Natale has certainly done his time with the Victorian Greens and while there’s no doubt about his breadth of experience within the party, the range of issues covered by his portfolio of portfolios mean that he’ll be one of the busiest new senators in Canberra.
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