With the forced resignations of Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters, the federal Greens are reeling, writes Ben Eltham. Can they survive?
“It’s been a shocking few weeks, there’s no sugar coating it Leigh,” Di Natale admitted on the ABC’s 7.30 on Tuesday night.
Sugar coating it? There seems little chance of anyone doing that. The past few weeks are the worst in the modern history of the Australian Greens.
We’ve all heard the Oscar Wilde reference, but to lose two deputy leaders is indeed carelessness. The rapid-fire loss of the party’s two best performing senators has badly wounded the environmental party. Together, Ludlam and Waters represented the Greens’ parliamentary future.
Larissa Waters was far and away the party’s best media performer. She is a whip-smart policy brain who has proven to be an effective campaigner on issues like women in the workplace, the Carmichael coal mine and the health of the Great Barrier Reef. As a young politician from a crucial growth state where the Greens have traditionally struggled, Waters had all the hallmarks of a future leader. Her loss is a grave blow for the party indeed.
Scott Ludlam’s departure is even worse for the Greens. If Waters was feisty and tough, in Ludlam the party had nurtured that rarest of political commodities: a cult hero. The Western Australian’s pioneering policy activism on issues like online privacy and broadband policy were lionised amongst cyber activists and the Greens base. Ludlam was not a particularly scintillating media presence, but he was one of the Senate’s very best Estimates questioners, and combined a razor sharp intellect with a sound grasp of Parliamentary tactics.
The departure of Ludlam and Waters is all the more serious given the struggles of Richard Di Natale as leader. Di Natale has had a bad month – a bad year, really – and the situation is only going from bad to worse. After getting comprehensively out-manouvered by the government on the schools funding reforms, Di Natale’s prevarication on schools policy exposed serious internal conflict in the Greens party room between outspoken New South Wales Senator Lee Rhiannon and her colleagues.
While few voters will care about the way the New South Wales branch of the Greens ‘binds’ federal representatives on policy issues, the perception of a party split will be noticed. Rhiannon was formally censured by her federal party room colleagues. But the New South Wales party apparatus, controlled by Rhiannon allies such as Hal Greenland, stood by her. In the end, Di Natale had to partially back down.
The messy Rhiannon compromise had barely been crafted when the news broke that Ludlam and then Waters were resigning.
The double blow has led many to ask genuine questions about the competence of the party’s candidate vetting. Section 44 of the constitution is not exactly unknown. It has claimed political scalps before, particularly on the issue of dual citizenship. Both Ludlam and Waters have paid a heavy price for an avoidable political error.
Di Natale will be spending a lot of time explaining how the party got it so wrong. He has announced an immediate review of the party’s vetting procedures. This is cold comfort to the Western Australian and Queensland voters who placed their trust in Ludlam and Waters.
In the short term, there are some interesting permutations to the Ludlam-Waters resignations. The Western Australian candidate likely to replace Ludlam is 22-year-old Jordon Steele-John, while the replacement for Waters is none other than former Australian Democrats leader Andrew Bartlett.
For different reasons both Steele-John and Bartlett are genuine potential talent for the Greens in the Senate. Bartlett is of course a proven political operative, despite his well-publicised troubles with alcohol in his time as a Democrat Senator. Steele-John will introduce a welcome youth presence to the federal Parliament, and could also bring a strong focus to disability issues at a time that the National Disability Insurance Scheme is starting to emerge as a major issue of public policy.
But this will hardly make up for the loss of two deputy leaders.
Politics is often thought to be about ideology and conviction, and indeed in many aspects it is. But it is also about competence and mastery of the technical details. More than a million Australians voted for the Greens last year. Citizens that have placed their faith in the Greens to debate and amend critical legislation in the Senate will rightly question whether they can trust the party to get basic details right.
Whenever a minor party stumbles, questions are immediately raised as to whether this is the beginning of the end. The comparisons to the Australian Democrats are all the more poignant given that the likely replacement for Waters is Bartlett, who saw the implosion of the Democrats from a front row seat.
Is this a harbinger of another implosion – the beginning of the end of the modern Greens? The answer is almost certainly no. Structural factors protect the party. The Greens remain the most left-leaning party on the political spectrum. Their progressive base is passionate and loyal. If the Australian Labor Party were to move leftwards, it may well win back many of those voters. But the ALP wants to win government, and to do so, it needs to stay close enough to the centre ground to win marginal seats in the outer suburbs.
In the long-term, the real danger for the Greens is probably not political incompetence. As long as its voters retain faith in the party as a vehicle that advances their leftist views, particularly on talismanic issues like inequality, the environment and human rights, the Greens will retain their support base.
A much bigger danger is ideological compromise – of abandoning the very positions that won the party its current voter base. It was compromise that destroyed the Democrats: the compromise with John Howard to legislate the Goods and Services Tax. And yet Di Natale seems determined to cut similar deals with the current government.
Richard Di Natale said a curious thing on 7.30 the other night. He talked about “making sure we’re a party that can be a party of government, because that’s what our members and supporters want”.
But is it?